May 6th of 2015 is likely to be a day many refugees detained by the Director of Immigration at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) will not easily forget. The Refugee Union had taken instructions from over 30 detainees to arrange a legal visit by a pro bono legal team to advise them on their asylum claims, the legality of the asylum claim procedures, conditions and legality of detention and to secure their release. Since a group visit by a pro bono legal team had not occurred for some time, the refugees were hopeful whilst not knowing what to expect.
The legal team comprised Barristers Mr. Mark Sutherland and Mr. Robert Tibbo, both non-executive directors of Vision First, who scheduled valuable time to provide free legal advice to the detainees, some of whom have indeed been unlawfully detained. Counsel were instructed by solicitors Mr. Tam Kam Tong and Mr. Chris Lucas respectively, who were supported by interpreters – everyone acting on a pro bono basis.
The Director of Immigration had been notified of the legal visit to a number of refugees for the purposes of assessing “current detention at CIC and to advise on possible claims under Article 2 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance.” The legal visit was also to focus on the procedure for judicial review. Led by Superintendent W.S. Kwong, Immigration officers and staff were helpful throughout the particularly busy day.
Sutherland remarked, “There are several refugees who have been locked up since they arrived despite having lodged claims for asylum. In some cases, their interviews haven’t even started. This is clearly a prima facie case of unlawful detention and immediate release has been requested.” Tibbo added, “One youth from South Asian was so traumatized by his treatment by the Director of Immigration at CIC that he gave up and withdraw his non-refoulement protection claim. They are being warehoused in a similar way to Australian off-shore detention camps.”
A sense of encouragement grew among refugees from morning till afternoon. The initial uncertainty about the magnitude of events lifted as the first clients returned to the common rooms to share their experiences. Tibbo observed, “It was like a fire was spreading inside CIC. The refugees knew their lawyers were there and they might be released soon. Clients were coming in to the meeting rooms and everyone was fired up and happy – there was a resurgence of hope that could been seen in their eyes and faces.”
After lunch, while inside CIC, Sutherland came across quite per chance two visitors who turned out to be the Justices of the Peace (JPs) assigned to inspect CIC. JPs are the only independent professionals granted unrestricted access to the centre, where they may speak to detainees without appointment and request copies of detention files. The two gentlemen were clearly alarmed by the grave concerns expressed by Counsel which had arisen out of the legal visit. The JPs kindly held two meetings with the legal team on the same day. They requested a full report of the findings. Interestingly, Vision First was in the process of preparing to make contact with the JP’s Office to seek assistance in relation to detention concerns. Sutherland has since conveyed the matter in writing to the JPs in question.
By 5 p.m., the legal team requested the Director of Immigration to immediately release 6 (six) refugees who have been arbitrarily and unlawfully detained by the Director of Immigration. Their release is expected imminently. It is noteworthy that several refugees on the original list had already been released from detention prior to the legal visit.
It is believed that the legal team’s effort will have an impact on the way certain matters are carried out behind the secretive walls of Immigration detention. It now appears clear that refugees are being unlawfully detained in CIC whist they have outstanding non-refoulement claims.
In reality more than occasional pro bono efforts are needed to ensure high standards of fairness in Immigration detention and to hold the Director of Immigration, Mr. K.K. Chan to account. There should be a panel of lawyers assigned either by The Director of Legal Aid and/or The Duty Lawyer Service to meet this crucial need. These lawyers should be on hand at CIC to offer on the spot legal advice to detainees, regarding their detention and with the authority to launch habeas corpus proceedings, if necessary.
The present lacuna in the provision of free legal advice regarding detention plays into the hands of the Director of Immigration and militates towards longer periods of unchecked, unlawful detention.