Joyce Man writes for South China Morning Post on 5 March 2013
Three African men have taken their challenge against Hong Kong’s system for vetting refugee claims to the highest court, arguing that the government must assess the applications itself rather than passing the responsibility on to the UNHCR. Lawyers for the men, who have not been identified by name, are making their case at the Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday, after previous rulings against them by lower courts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles refugee claims in Hong Kong, currently handles all refugee claims as Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and is therefore not subject to obligations under it.
But the men are arguing that Hong Kong has obligations under international law, including that it must abide by the principle of non-refoulement – that is, it must not send a person back to a place where they may be persecuted. Their lawyer, Michael Fordham QC, said in court that non-refoulement was a fundamental part of customary international law, from which no government is exempt, and that Hong Kong therefore has a duty to abide by it. The government has a duty to “make an informed and fair decision”, Fordham said and must conduct an inquiry into refugee claims to assess them. The appeal, which began on Tuesday, is scheduled to last three days.
The men – one in his 20s and two in their 30s – remain in Hong Kong. All three earlier had their applications for refugee status rejected by the UNHCR, as well as their appeals. One man comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and two from the Republic of Congo. The man from the Democratic Republic of Congo is an ethnic Tutsi who says he had been trained as an army intelligence officer. He claims he could not leave his unit, which had committed human rights abuses, without endangering his life and his family. He said he was arrested in 1998 and tortured, before fleeing to Rwanda, then Uganda, Korea and finally Hong Kong in 2004. One of the claimants from the Republic of Congo claims he had to flee the country after being pursued by a gang. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2004, after travelling to Ethiopia and Thailand. The last appellant claims he was forced to flee after distributing literature for and supporting an opposition political party in his country. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2003. The hearing continues.