For William*, a refugee recently recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the journey to Canada has been rather unusual. What began as an escape from political persecution in his native Uganda had unfolded into six unexpected years of desperate inactivity in the streets of Hong Kong.
Deprived of legal status and protection, he briefly sought refuge on the upper-floors of Hong Kong’s infamous Chungking Mansions, living off what little he was given in government assistance. Prior to being granted refugee status, it had appeared as though he had virtually exhausted all his options. Several weeks dragged into months, and then years, of exhaustive rounds of screening procedures, only to be repeatedly rejected at the hands of Hong Kong’s foot-dragging bureaucracy. No matter how credible the evidence was, or how convincing his personal testimonies were, it seemed to have little effect on the application process. Barred from pursuing any form of work, he was left to depend upon government handouts and local charity – and, on the worst of occasions, he was even reduced to begging as he held onto the slim hope of one day reuniting with his family abroad.
Hong Kong has around 7,000 recognized asylum seekers, with the majority of applicants fleeing religious, ethnic, or political torture in Africa or South Asia. The unique combination of high acceptance rates of asylum seekers and lenient visa-entry policies has led to a large contingent of asylum seekers at Hong Kong’s borders. Upon gaining entry to Hong Kong, asylum seekers turn to either the UNHCR or Hong Kong government to make individual refugee-status or torture claims. While they wait for their claims to be evaluated (a process that can take an average of four or five years) asylum seekers become eligible for temporary government assistance, which consists of an accommodation subsidy of HKD $1,200 (CAD$168) per month, a bag of groceries every ten days, and occasional financial subsidies for transportation fees to attend government appointments.
The underlying hope for asylum seekers arriving in Hong Kong is that it will be a passage to a better life. For the lucky few who do manage to gain refugee status, many choose to relocate to Canada, Europe, or the United States, where they hope to reunite with their loved ones. Others have resorted to an even faster method – marrying a local in Hong Kong – as a way of bypassing the queue to becoming a recognized citizen. But, for those who are unsuccessful refugee or torture claimants, there is little chance of finding refuge elsewhere once their cases are rejected by the UNHCR or the Hong Kong government.
Despite being a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) since 1992, Hong Kong has one of the lowest refugee recognition rates in the developed world. Of the 3,110 torture claims that the Hong Kong Immigration Department has received since December 2009, only five out of 3,110 have been approved. This is well under the annual international average of 13.8% reported by the United Nations, and the recognition rates of 20-38% in other liberal democracies.
Another fundamental problem with Hong Kong’s refugee policies is that the local government has never signed onto the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Although China has ratified the Refugee Convention, the treaty has never been extended to Hong Kong. Without a recognized refugee treaty, Hong Kong essentially lacks a sufficient asylum policy. The Hong Kong Immigration Department is under no legal obligation to process or admit asylum seekers requesting refugee status, and instead refers all refugee claimants to theUNHCR for evaluation. There are 1,243 claimants currently under the UNHCR system, and another 4,230 under the government-administered torture screening procedures.
Part of the difficulty in the life of an asylum seeker is finding a way to prove the legitimacy behind a refugee or torture claim. Most developed countries have legislation in place to provide asylum seekers with an idea of how long such screening procedures may take. The situation in Hong Kong, however, is the exact opposite. Many economic migrants attempt to manipulate the system by prolonging their stay, and do so by appealing their applications and finding illegal temporary work that is difficult to identify and prosecute before eventually returning home. As for those that cling to the hope of being approved by the UNHCR, asylum seekers may choose to refrain from engaging in illegal work in a desperate bid to avoid jeopardizing their chances of being formally recognized as a refugee. The end result is a refugee policy that has aided those with fraudulent claims who work illegally, while punishing those who present legitimate claims and abide by local laws.
At first glance, the official policies seem reasonable: in theory, the laws are meant to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees are only offered work that cannot be done by a Hong Kong resident. Government officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that, if Hong Kong were to ever sign onto the Refugee Convention, it would become overwhelmed by thousands of illegal migrants posing as asylum seekers who are looking to take advantage of local prosperity and lenient entry-visa policies. Yet, by this same token, Hong Kong is desperate to avoid having a situation reminiscent of the ethnic violence that emerged from the Vietnamese asylum seeker crisis of the 1980s. The other alternative, currently embraced by the local government, is a legal system that offers the bare minimum to those most desperately in need.
Asylum seekers are confronted with the unenviable choice of either living off government subsidies, or working illegally at the risk of being prosecuted with severe penalties. Without the right to work, asylum seekers are caught up in a cycle of economic dependence, and forced to rely upon the meager resources offered by the UNHCR and Social Welfare Department. In more extreme cases, asylum seekers have even resorted to committing suicide in order to avoid being imprisoned or deported to a country where they could be susceptible to torture.
As Hong Kong attempts to grapple with this moral dilemma, it finds itself without a comprehensive strategy in addressing its asylum seeker crisis. The current approach, albeit appearing to be sympathetic, has failed in its commitment to adopting fairer screening procedures. Many of the anxieties about attracting illegal migrants would be resolved if asylum seekers and refugees were equipped with proper legal protections and the right to work in Hong Kong. But, as the months and years pass by, Hong Kong’s asylum seekers continue to wait in limbo.
An April demonstration by asylum seekers and their supporters added to the pressure on the Hong Kong government to produce a workable policy for screening refugees.