The Whitehead refugee detention centre in Wu Kai Sha, Ma On Shan was set up in response to the influx of Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War. The facility had an estimated capacity of 28,000.
In April 1994, 1,200 Correctional Services Department officers and police fired over 500 canisters of tear gas at Vietnamese asylum seekers as the authorities tried to move them from Whitehead refugee detention centre to High Island Detention Centre.
The controversial transfer of 1,500 refugees resulted in over a hundred complaints of assault by the authorities.
An inquiry into the incident was ordered by governor Chris Patten and a report concluded that excessive force had indeed been used, the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission said.
However, a similar incident occurred again in 1995, when around 1,500 canisters of tear gas were deployed to move the Vietnamese asylum seekers.
A year later, hundreds of refugees facing forced repatriation staged a riot at the camp. Hundreds of rounds of tear gas were fired by the police and about 200 escaped.
According to a Human Rights Watch 1997 report, “Whitehead and High Island Detention Centers, two of the largest camps to accommodate boat people in Hong Kong, exemplified the prison-like regime employed by the Hong Kong government in its management of the Vietnamese.”
“The problems found in these camps raise serious questions about this type of management and the Hong Kong government’s administration of the closed camp policy.”
With more and more refugees being forced to return to Vietnam, Whitehead was finally closed in 1997.