To be or not to be a refugee: The international politics of the Hong Kong refugee crisis, 1949-55

TitleTo be or not to be a refugee: The international politics of the Hong Kong refugee crisis, 1949-55
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsPeterson, G
JournalJOURNAL OF IMPERIAL AND COMMONWEALTH HISTORY
Volume36
Pagination171-195
ISBN Number0308-6534
KeywordsHistory
Abstract

While a great deal is known about the international politics of refugee policy in Europe since the appointment of the first international commissioner for refugees by the League of Nations in 1921, relatively little attention has so far been paid to similar questions involving the plight of refugees in Asia. This article examines one of the first attempts by the newly established UNHCR to extend its mandate beyond the European context for which it was originally conceived. During the early 1950s the British colony of Hong Kong briefly became the focus of intense UN and international attention over the issue of how to treat the hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees who fled Chintz’s communist revolution for the colony. The influx of refugees, many of whom were destitute, threatened to overwhelm Hong Kong’s infrastructure and prompted urgent calls for their resettlement abroad. The ensuing UNHCR investigation into the legal status of the Hong Kong ’refugees’ offers an instructive example of the politicisation of the UNHCR in the context of the unfolding Cold War in Asia and reveals the deep divisions that emerged within the Anglo-American alliance over how to deal with Hong Kong’s refugee population. The paper argues that the UNHCR Survey Mission in Hong Kong was doomed to fail given the mutual suspicions and incompatible agendas of the various players involved.