Illegal emigrants travelling by sea, especially those Vietnamese who left their country after the takeover of South Vietnam in 1975 by North Vietnam. In 1979, almost 69,000 boat people landed in Hong Kong in a single year. By 1988, it was decided to treat all boat people as illegal immigrants unless they could prove they qualified for refugee status. In all, some 160,000 Vietnamese fled to Hong Kong, many being attacked at sea by Thai pirates, and in 1989 50,000 remained there in cramped, squalid refugee camps. The UK government began forced repatriation in 1989, leaving only 18,000 in Hong Kong by 1996. Before taking over Hong Kong in 1997, the Chinese authorities made it clear that they wanted all the Vietnamese cleared out of the territory, although by the end of the year 3,364 refugees were still living there. In January 1998, the Hong Kong Executive Council ended the policy of granting asylum to the boat people. By 1998 some 110,000 boat people had returned to Vietnam, around 87% of them under a United Nations voluntary repatriation programme. Hong Kong closed its last camp for boat people in May 2000, after a decision made in February of that year to grant the remaining Vietnamese refugees residency.
About 500,000 Southeast Asians became refugees between 1975 and 1982 with an estimated 10–15% mortality rate. Only 10% of those who have arrived in Hong Kong after the policy of ‘screening’ (questioning about reasons for leaving Vietnam) began in 1988 were given refugee status; the others were classified as ‘economic migrants’. In 1990 the total number of boat people in Southeast Asia was about 90,000, an increase of 30,000 from 1988. The term ‘boat people’ has also been used for Cuban and Haitian refugees who reach Florida, USA, by boat. More than 2,400 entered the USA from Cuba in 1991; there was a further influx from Cuba in 1994. Numbers from Haiti fell after the reinstatement of democratic government on the island in September 1994.
In Australia, the term was also used more narrowly to refer to those refugees who came by boat directly to Australia, the first of whom reached Darwin April 1976.