It was hard to answer the question of a visitor to Vision First who sought to understand the caustic environment navigated by refugees with a slim chance of securing protection in an indifferent city. Ironically, Hong Kong has long had a history of welcoming refugees (1.5 million between the 1930s and 1970s), but its sympathy and support of persecuted foreigners dwindled regrettably as residents became richer.
The government mantra is well rehearsed, “Non-refoulement claims lodged under the USM are not asylum claims. The Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol have never applied to Hong Kong. The Government maintains a firm policy of not granting asylum to or determining the refugee status of anyone. Our policy objective is to screen … and to remove rejected claimants from Hong Kong as soon as possible. Lodging a claim does not change the fact that non-refoulement claimants are illegal immigrants or overstayers.”
The results of such a policy appear skewed towards removal. Between 2009 and 2014, Immigration screened 5581 claims and substantiated just 25. It is noteworthy that in 6 years Immigration failed to grant protection to a single asylum seeker among 2166 Pakistani, 1760 Indians and 1237 Bangladeshi. Hong Kong has never protected a claimant from these countries. By contrast, in 2013 Australian protection grants produced very different results: Pakistani 80.4%, Indians 6.3% and Bangladeshi 42.7% at first instance (p. 20). Astonishing it is that Pakistani scored 94.9% including appeals (p. 30). How does it compare to Hong Kong’s achievements?
Despite profuse assurances to the contrary, it appears that Hong Kong Government has abdicated its obligation to protect refugees and has instead prioritized rejection and removal. An elaborate performance by 480 lawyers ‘who have received specialised training’ has done little to improve the effective zero percent acceptance rate. To the contrary, the authorities are focused on cost-cutting to reduce the $644 million spent on claimants, including legal aid up 86% last year.
Stringent immigration control and deterrent welfare were ingeniously deployed to deter asylum seekers from remaining in Hong Kong, but their number doubled in 2014 to 9618, reflecting worrying global trends. Immigration is presumably feeling the pressure and this year plans to determine 2000 claims, which might fail to reduce the total ‘with new claims coming in at more than 300 per month since early 2014.’
In an obfuscated environment of rejection and expediency, is it possible that some refugees might be removed or deported to their country of origin at a risk of life and limb? It is hard to make factual assessments, as the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) remains off-limits to rights advocates and detainees may only be visited by appointed lawyers. Refugees denied release on recognizance are unlikely to enjoy adequate legal advice, or second opinions on their claims.
In this potential black hole, can Immigration be trusted to adhere scrupulously to high standards of fairness, respect fundamental refugee rights and assess claims in a non-adversarial manner as required by law? Acting on a pro bono basis, barristers Robert Tibbo and Mark Sutherland, non-executive directors of Vision First, visited CIC on 6 May 2015 to take instructions from 24 detainees who sought the assistance of the Refugee Union against imminent removal orders. It was reported that 5 had already ‘left from Hong Kong International airport’ with no further details.