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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Ethnocide: A Cultural Narrative of Refugee Detention in Hong Kong
Joe Thomas

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000
268pp. Biblio. Hb.: 42.50; ISBN 1-84014-829-2



This is an ethnographic inquiry into the socio-cultural dynamics of the Vietnamese asylum centres in Hong Kong during the period 1988 - 1995. The text traces the history of the Vietnamese refugees through various phases and on different levels.

The thesis focuses foremost on the socio-cultural conditions experienced by some 50 - 60 thousand Vietnamese men, women, and children under prolonged administrative detention in Hong Kong. Conditions of segregation from both their home and host culture, the consequence of prolonged detention, are explained within the conceptual framework of 'total institution' and 'ethnocide'. For the purpose of the study, ethnocide is defined as a process of the Vietnamese asylum community in detention losing all its internal cohesion, community structures, networks and direction. This external condition of extreme segregation and separation imposed on the Vietnamese community resulted in the loss of their cultural identity.

A secondary focus falls on the related geo-political dynamics from the start of the Vietnamese refugee crises until 1998. During this period international opinion and policy towards Vietnamese asylum seekers shifted from an initial honeymoon phase towards chilled tolerance and finally divorce in 1998. This shift translated into the introduction of strict screening procedures for example, which added to the human misery experienced in the detention centres. Furthermore, the political and economic embargo on Vietnam during this period directly contributed to the refugee flow from the country. These dynamics added to the total institution and loss of cultural identity experienced by Vietnamese asylum seekers in detention.

As a community worker in the detention centres, the author presents a unique perspective of the life of a Vietnamese asylum seeker in Hong Kong. Conflict in the centres - between different individuals, different ethnic and social groups, and between detainees and police - is the result of ethnocide perpetuated by camp management and the international community. The author finds that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees failed to protect the best interests of the Vietnamese asylum seekers and questions this organisation's post-Cold War role.

Under international law the detention of asylum seekers should normally be avoided and, if found necessary, should be resorted to only on grounds prescribed by law and only for specific and limited purposes. Although the book refers to violations of international law, it is a point that needs more development.

Detention is a highly controversial asylum issue at present. Much has been written on detention of Vietnamese asylum seekers. However, most of this work focuses on the psycho-social problems faced by refugees resettled in the USA or Canada. This book fills a vacuum by bringing home the point that there is a need to develop a more appropriate framework for analysing socio-cultural issues germane to detaining asylum seekers and, by analysing Vietnamese asylum seekers in Hong Kong vis--vis ethnocide, takes a step in the right direction. Any research on detention of asylum seekers should accommodate this source.


F. S. Jenkins
Senior Researcher, Human Rights Committee, Cape Town, South Africa




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