Jennifer Ngo writes for the South China Morning Post on 3 November 2013
A unified screening system for asylum seekers that is due to be up and running by the end of this year remains a mystery, with NGOs saying that the government’s continued silence was “extremely disconcerting”. Proposed by the government and approved by a Legislative Council panel in July, the new unified screening mechanism (USM) would monitor torture claimants as well as those seeking asylum on the grounds of persecution or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – “in one go”.
A government spokesman confirmed in a statement that it had set a deadline for the USM of the end of this year. “But since [July], we haven’t heard anything,” said Victoria Wisniewski Otero from the Refugee Advice Centre, at a seminar on the topic yesterday. “It’s worrying for the asylum seeker community here in Hong Kong and it’s creating a lot of anxiety.”
As Hong Kong is not subject to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government currently screens torture claims only, meaning the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) has had to take on the task of screening those seeking asylum who are not necessarily doing so on the grounds of having been tortured.
However, the city has been a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture since 1992, and it cannot expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being tortured. Two Court of Final Appeal decisions that said the government could not rely on the UNHCR to screen asylum seekers prompted the government to push out the unified process.
Otero said the government had made an open invitation for suggestions from stakeholders in July, but none had heard back since submitting their opinions. “There is a lot of uncertainty on how the USM will run. There are no details about how the system will be set up,” she said. Ambrose Chiu Chun-ki, the assistant resettlement officer at the UNHCR, said the agency had been having negotiations with the government since July.