A year before the Unified Screening Mechanism was launched in March 2014, Vision First campaigned vigorously against Immigration Department’s apparently biased conduct and ostensible refusal to entertain CIDTP claims during the torture claim screening process. It is alarming that presently the problem is being repeated in relation to “Right to Life Claims.”
The rule of law in Hong Kong requires that every asylum claim be assessed with “anxious scrutiny and high standards of fairness” before Immigration exercises its statutory power of removal or deportation (CFA Prabakar case, Jun 2004) . This gives rise to an obligation to recognize the right not to be subject to torture, CIDTP and persecution for persons having no right to enter Hong Kong, including refugees detained in Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) – some who have never been released on recognizance.
Backed by reports from claimants detained for prolonged periods, Vision First is concerned by the secretive nature of detention at CIC. The availability of publicly funded lawyers and interpreters at interviews in CIC is not a guarantee of high standards of fairness when refugees are denied second opinions and there is no legal board to offer advice to those in need.
A Middle Eastern refugee was detained over 8 months and resisted several attempts at removal. He reports, “Immigration refused to believe me. They forced me to the airport but I resisted. I knew my rights and demanded to be released to prove my case. Others who didn’t speak English were not as lucky as me.”
A refugee from India had his case rejected as he languished for 10 months in CIC. He recalls, “My lawyer told me to drop my claim and leave Hong Kong. He refused to help me with the appeal. I thought he was serving the interests of Immigration.”
In April 2015, Vision First met with the Hong Kong Bar Association to raise concerns about the respect of fundamental refugee rights in CIC detention. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Immigration is arbitrarily denying applications for “Right to Life” protection in the centre. There is a widely held belief that the zero percent acceptance rate reflects a strategy to deny protection despite the potential risk of life and limb for those expelled from Hong Kong.
Detainees would be alarmed to know that between 2009 and 2014 Immigration rejected 99.54% of 5581 claims determined. It is doubtful that any one of the 25 substantiated claimants was recognized inside CIC and released with protected status. Immigration should report how many claimants from which countries are detained at the airport, screened in detention and removed without being released on recognizance. What assurances can be made that they were treated fairly?
Hong Kong urgently requires a legal board to independently advise claimants in Immigration detention and prisons, monitor the implementation of asylum practices and ensure that the Unified Screening Mechanism pays more than lip service to high standards of fairness. Until that day comes it is suspected that the screening system lacks credibility, not refugees.
A month has passed since Vision First wrote an open letter to Immigration raising a series of questions in connection with Right to Life claims. Disappointingly no substantive reply was received from the Director of Immigration. In early April the Refugee Union established a 24-hour helpline for CIC detainees who can only make two local phone calls a month. The union has been contacted by dozens of refugees who appealed for independent legal assistance with asylum claims and lamented the treatment they received away from the public eye.