In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese refugees were trickling into Hong Kong on all kinds of ships and boats to escape the war-torn country. At one point, it was estimated that 150 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Hong Kong every day from 1978 to 1981.
The response from the British government was not a welcoming one; a number of ships were purchased during that time and the number of sea and air patrols was increased. Refugees who arrived in Hong Kong were typically sent to refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In 1979, the crisis hit a peak with the arrival of the Skyluck, a freighter registered in Panama that carried thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese refugees from Vietnam.
The Skyluck was organised by a local Vietnamese boss to allow Chinese immigrants to leave Vietnam as relations between the two countries deteriorated and came closer to war. Most refugees paid for their passage with their life savings in various forms of gold. Some signed over property rights to the government. Some with little or nothing to pay simply stowed away. Eventually the initial roster of 900 had swelled to more than 3200.
Around 600 passengers disembarked at the island of Palawan in the Philippines before the freighter set course for Hong Kong.
The Skyluck arrived on February 7, 1979 and was surrounded by police once it anchored in the middle of Victoria Harbour. Parts of the engine were removed by officers who boarded the freighter to prevent it from leaving.
The captain claimed that the freighter was from Singapore and he had simply rescued the refugees on board when he came across several fishing boats close to sinking. The freighter was towed to the south of Lamma Island where it was anchored several hundred yards off-shore.
Refugees were not allowed to leave the freighter and were confined to the ship, with the government claiming it was unable to find them accommodation on land.
Although the government provided basic necessities such as food and water for the refugees, the conditions on the Skyluck were poor and refugees made repeated attempts to escape. A month after the stalemate began, 100 refugees jumped overboard and tried to swim towards the shore. The 50 who made it to Lamma Island were arrested, with the rest picked up by launches and returned to the freighter.
A group of men who were in custody on shore unrolled a banner that read “Please Help Us.”
The stalemate came to an end on June 29, 1979, when refugees cut the anchor chain and the Skyluck drifted onto the rocks at Lamma Island, causing it to sink. Police rounded up the refugees and they were taken into custody, eventually ending up in overcrowded refugee camps.
After four and a half months, most refugees eventually migrated to other countries such as the United States, Australia, and the UK after lengthy waits.