Resisting government labelling and engaging the community: The ‘March For Protection’ in Hong Kong

May 16th, 2013 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

Francesco Vecchio and Cosmo Beatson write for the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, an independent, student run publication that moves to engage with various aspects of forced migration through academic scholarship. The original article is available in the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, Volume 3, Number 1 and a simple PDF version is here.

This article intends to analyse an event that revealed new avenues for Hong Kong’s civil society to counter the government’s attempt to negate asylum seekers’ individual agency and the government’s opposition towards a comprehensive asylum policy. This article outlines the context which led to the organisation of the ‘March For Protection’ on 30 October 2012.In doing so, it aims to offer a starting point to explore and debate the march’s rationale, attainments and, more generally, civil society’s relationship with state power.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong recently grabbed the headlines with a protest march in which they demanded fairer screening and rebuffed official and public views that generally depict them as bogus claimants. In the wake of the ‘March For Protection’ (MFP) and widespread English-language press coverage highlighting the difficulties asylum seekers face in the territory (for example Chiu, 2012a; SCMP Editorial, 2012; Kennedy, 2013; Yeung, 2013), civil society and UNHCR Hong Kong’s head-of-office called forcefully for local authorities to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention (Chiu, 2012b; Read, 2013) and address current procedural shortcomings (Daly, 2012; Vision First, 2013a).

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, it enjoys relatively broad administrative independence in immigration policy. While it is not our intention to delve into China/Hong Kong relations, we note that although the mainland signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and provisions for refugees were included in domestic law, Hong Kong has instead firmly resisted its extension to the territory (Loper, 2010). Nonetheless, the city is a signatory to the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and a two-track asylum screening system is available to refugees. On the one hand, UNHCR performs refugee screening. On the other, the Hong Kong Government assesses claims under article 3 of CAT, which prohibits the removal of a person to the country where s/he would face torture or other cruel treatment. In spite of its potential to minimise mistakes, this bifurcated asylum reality has been said to give rise to procedural confusion, delays and a wasteful duplication of resources. In fact, refugees’ concurrent or sequential reliance on both mechanisms, affects the understandings of asylum seeking. Additionally, public policy is shaped by Hong Kong’s memory of dramatic mainlander and Vietnamese refugee inflows in the past (Vecchio, forthcoming). The government has repeatedly asserted that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the city would be flooded by waves of illegal migrants posing as asylum seekers to gain entrance and exploit local prosperity (see for example discussions in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, LG, 2011).

There are indications that this and other misconceptions are widespread in the community. A typical statement in this direction was made by scholar Victor Fung (2012), who recently alerted the readers of China Daily that waves of ‘economic migrants’ would inundate the city, working illegally to support their families back home. In his reply to UNHCR’s appeal, Fung warned that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the territory would be doomed to ‘sink’ into the harbour and ‘drown’. However, the reasons why such a catastrophic scenario would inevitably unfold were not disclosed. As often happens (see Tao, 2009), the rationale supporting official propaganda on the formation of the Refugee Convention/illegal migration nexus is rarely elucidated, giving us the impression that certain beliefs have become so profoundly ingrained in Hong Kong’s mindset that they amount to tautological truths. While proponents offer no evidence to support the formulation of their views, any attempt to negate them is resisted no matter what evidence is presented to refute their validity.

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ISS shares the blame with refugees forced to work

May 15th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Yesterday we visited the Compound under the Tree with a leading journalist and a human rights barrister in preparation for an upcoming high level inspection. We were surprise to encounter a delegation from International Social Services (ISS) who finally deemed an inspection appropriate. These fine social workers asked constructive questions, but we wonder if they asked themselves, “Would I live here? Are these structures legal? What housing regulations do they breach?” Later we took our VIPs to see another compound which we expect ISS will want to visit next week. Our Bangladeshi friends were clearly angry with ISS: they stomped the grounds expressing pent-up frustration and disappointment for being ignored for years. The tide is turning and ISS is now treating them with respect, knowing full well their salaries depend on how they treat clients who are effectively effects guest of Hong Kong government.

Later in the evening shocking news circulated: Dadu was arrested in the afternoon working in a nearby warehouse. A Bangladeshi father of two, Dadu sought asylum in 2007 with solid grounds for a torture/CIDTP claim. In fact, he would certainly win protection with the right lawyer. Occasionally he is forced to breach his conditions of stay to earn money he needs to live. Critics might argue that there is never a justification for breaking the law, but we can reasonably contend the opposite. Forced to live in a squalid shack – where snakes slither uninvited – Dadu is a victim of unreasonable, and therefore unlawful, policies that strangle his existence. It is our opinion that ISS is equally culpable for his troubles, as they are mandated to execute the government’s asylum strategy. Let’s examine the financial reality Dadu shares with some 200 refugees living in Ping Che rural area:

  • to keep a shantytown roof over their head they are charged 1400$, but ISS only pays 1000-1200$. These are the cheapest rooms anywhere, but without income, how does ISS expect them to pay the balance? Would ISS staff please show refugees where and how to collect the difference?
  • to keep utilities running landlords extort 800$ a month, but ISS pays them nothing. Note that all refugees in Kowloon receive 130$ for electricity and 60$ for water every month. Why does ISS discriminate against rural refugees living in shacks? What does ISS do to counter these extortionary, undocumented utility bills?
  • to collect government food in Yuen Long they spend 28$, but ISS refunds 10$ expecting them to walk through fields for thirty minutes to catch a cheaper bus in another village, rain or shine. Why does ISS impose unnecessary hardship by demanding unreasonable routes? Would ISS staff like to hike to a distant bus terminal with these refugees?
  • to attend Immigration at Mataukok they spend 45$, but ISS refunds only 35$ (one guy only gets 33$). No explanation is given. No alternative route suggested. Months of pleads fall on deaf ears. Why does ISS deliberately throw roadblocks in their way? Would ISS staff like to cut 10$ from their commute to work?
  • to cook their food they need a gas cylinder ever two months, but ISS allows the purchase every four months (one guy gets it every five months). Note that all refugees in Kowloon are paid every two months. How does ISS expect them to cook and eat? Would ISS staff like to demonstrate how to cook for five months with one cylinder?
  • all ISS clients lament that refunds are made the subsequent month, if not later, so refugees must pre-pay essential needs while barred from working. While receipts are understandably required, why doesn’t ISS prepay once so that clients have cash on hand?

These examples demonstrate that Ping Che refugees are discriminated against by ISS. They should receive adequate social provisions that prevent destitution. They are not economic migrants who work to send money home. They are refugees seeking international protection who are forced to raise the money needed to survive. Dadu barely eked out an existence. He took the risk of 15 months jail (22 months for pleading non-guilty and 15 for guilty) to keep a roof over his head because he simply HAD NO ALTERNATIVE. The government will enter his details in statistics misconstrued to prove refugees are economic migrant, but truly what choice did he have? Dadu is older than average, smart and thoughtful. He is not a reckless individual. By going to work yesterday, he lost his freedom for 15 months in an attempt to pay his bills. Nobody who understands his living conditions could ever say that his motivation was profit, or greed.

If ISS provided adequate support – instead of depriving Ping Che refugees – it is likely that Dadu would be sleeping in the government sanctioned shantytown - not in jail. The asylum support system is rigged against refugees who are forced to work by the financial pressure imposed on them. One could argue that current social provisions are intentionally designed to force illegality, to criminalize and trigger deportation orders before genuine claims are determined. In other democracies one is fined for working in breach of conditions of stay, not jailed for over one year for a day’s labour. It is our opinion that ISS is complicit. Their policies impose a hardship that can only be countered by earning wages. ISS is therefore accessory to Dadu’s crime, having generated the conditions that contributed to his decision. They might not have been present at the commission of the offence, but are guilty as participants, as their negligent, harmful policies push refugees over the edge. Refugees united, look forward to the day when ISS is summoned to a Legco panel and to the high court to explain the rationale behind their inhuman policies.

We expect ISS to scramble their staff to inspect this compound next week

Hon. Dennis Kwok letter to ISS

May 15th, 2013 | Media | Comment

RTHK Kwok Talk: refugee women and family issues

May 10th, 2013 | VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Tiffany Sturman and Annabelle Singaram are both mothers and volunteers at Vision First Charity. They discuss refugee women and family issues.

The compound under a tree

May 9th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

In the rural area around Ping Che (Fanling) live about 150 Bangladeshi asylum seekers and torture claimants who have nobody to turn to for help. There are also refugees of other nationalities residing in that area, but this community is suffering the worst conditions. Besides the issue that not a single Bangladeshi has been accepted as torture victim in 21 years, their appalling living conditions are a matter of social justice and human rights. The squalid reality of their shanty homes must be exposed for several reasons:

  • Wasted years: some haven’t been contacted by Immigration in 6-7 years. Multiply 12,409 torture claimants (since 1992) by an average 4 year delay = 49,636 years. Divided this by an average lifetime of 75 years = 661 lives wasted waiting for ultimate rejection. The Immigration Department’s strategy is to force claimants to give up and leave in desperation. Justice delayed is justice denied.
  • Exploitation: this landlord houses 12 distressed refugees to collect rent of 1200$ a month per person. There are no proper roofs or walls, yet he has installed electricity meters to make sure he earns a profit on their utility bills. Who authorized or allowed this to happen? The Agricultural Department wouldn’t permit a pig farm in these conditions!
  • Dangerous conditions: lightning could strike the tree … rain and flooding could spark electrocution … gas cylinders could explode … the shanty homes could collapse in a storm, let alone in a typhoon. These shacks are not fit for human habitation and are infested by cats, insects, rodents and snakes. Yet a mother lives there with a baby! Who approved these homes?
  • Unsanitary quarters: there is no plumbing or sewerage. Kitchens, showers and toilets flow into open conduits infested by insects, rodents and … disease. Residents wait for the rain to wash the ducts and outlets clean. Luggage is stored in the rafters, away from the damp floor. Who inspected these premises? Who has a duty to check refugee homes?
  • Illegal structures: this yard is not zoned for residential use and the rooms do not meant any safety standard. The dwellings would never pass Land Department certification or Fire Department approval for any kind of use. Why are unscrupulous landlords lining their pockets with government rent assistance? Who authorized renting these rooms to refugees? Does ISS have actual or constructive knowledge of this?
  • Public funds: Is this misappropriation of government funds? It appears that SWD (and their agent ISS) is unaware of these deplorable conditions. Is anyone complicit with those who profit from this arrangement? In 2012 ISS received 143 million HK$ to support refugees. ISS rejects substandard rooms in Chung King Mansions and Kowloon, but appear to turn a blind eye  in the New Territories. Has ISS visited these homes? Are these inhuman conditions approved by ISS? Could this be a deliberate strategy to marginalize and frustrate refugees?
  • Criminalization: fearful of draconian sentences for illegal work (15 month jails for pleading guilty and 22 months for not guilty), the financial tourniquet cripples refugees’ survival strategies. However, we note that seeking physical security from persecution as well as economic opportunities in a country of asylum can hardly be regarded as incompatible objectives for poverty stricken refugees. What options do refugees have? How are they expected to survive?

This compound under a tree is one of several similar structures that house refugees in the Ping Che rural area. There are other shanty complexes scattered across the New Territory, particularly near Nai Wai, Kam Tin and in the Pat Heung hills. These dirty and dangerous shacks are unfit for living. Their use as permanent PAID homes for refugees must be exposed as a matter of social justice. What honour is there in offering protection with one hand, while strangling refugees with the other?

Vision First strongly objects to ISS’ decision to limit rent to 1200 HK$, without paying deposits for poverty stricken refugees who are not allowed to work. Critics will argue that residents on CSSA receive similar amounts. However, CSSA recipients enjoy supplement payments and may work any time for a minimum wage of 32 HK$/hour, without fearing imprisonment for a maximum of 36 months and a 50,000 HK$ fine. Refugees - cursed by the Hong Kong reality – are damned if they work and damned if they don’t! Vision First believes this situation is an affront to Hong Kong citizens who have put their fate in the government to do what is right and dignified in refugee policies. Let us not forsake our humanity.

Click image to see the report Vision First made on this compound in May 2013

Pakistan covers the March For Protection

May 1st, 2013 | Media | Comment

John Jacob writes for the Pakistan Christian Post on 30 April 2013

In Hong Kong, last Saturday on the April 27th over five hundred torture claimants and asylum seekers joined a protest against the “zero percent acceptance” . This protest was organized under non-profit, independent and a private organization called “Vision First”. These torture claimants told the interviewers, that many of them are living here for more than 10 years but the government wants them to go back to their countries where they can be persecuted. There are over 4000 who are hanging in the space for their future and waiting to put their first step on the land of freedom.

Among these 4000 plus, there are 30 Pakistani Christians who were able to escape persecution and many were severely persecuted, falsely accused and threaten by the government and Muslim religious parties of Pakistan. They are very much under pressure, stressed and worried what will happen to them if they will be removed back to Pakistan. What Christians are facing in Pakistan has been noticed and seen by the international media and United Nations but failed to stop injustice, false accusations of blasphemy, killing, kidnapping, gang raping, property snatching, threat calls, church attacks etc. Once if someone is target by Muslim groups it’s almost impossible for a person to escape.

They can’t go to police because police does not help them but always give favor to the Muslims. Because the entire Muslim community thinks that Christians are second class citizens and infidels therefor they have not equal rights with them which causing Christians to seek protection in different parts of the country but it seems there is no such place which you can say it’s safe now.The 30 Pakistani Christians here in Hong Kong appeals to the government of Hong Kong for not to remove them back, but to protect them. Pakistani Christians are peaceful, loyal and good citizens. This is also an appeal to the international community to write to the government of Hong Kong the injustice what Christians are facing in Pakistan.

Don’t starve refugees of the fruit of honest labour

May 1st, 2013 | Media | Comment

Aleta Miller writes for South China Morning Post on 1 May 2013

Imagine you are faced with an impossible choice. You must survive in Hong Kong on HK$1,200 a month for housing and three bags of food every 10 days, or you can risk working illegally, where you will likely face exploitation by unscrupulous employers who will take advantage of your vulnerability, and where you face possible arrest and prosecution by the authorities, with severe penalties. This is the dilemma that refugees in Hong Kong face every day, condemned to a life of deprivation and uncertainty. Unfortunately, misconceptions are rife about who refugees are and why they are here, feeding a fear that allowing the right to work would open the floodgates to economic migrants. Whereas an economic migrant chooses to come to Hong Kong to better their prospects, a refugee is forced to flee and cannot return because they are persecuted – sometimes by their own states. Currently, the refugee-status determination and resettlement process for applicants takes years to complete. Meanwhile, refugees must grapple with making ends meet in an unfamiliar city with no legal right to work or volunteer and relying on minimal welfare assistance that is inadequate for the cost of living.

Refugees are essentially forced into the very dependence for which they are often criticised, although they would prefer to be self-sufficient, if given the choice. The right to work is not the right to a guaranteed job; it is the right to have access to the labour market. It is a fundamental human right, without which other rights become meaningless. It is about more than being able to make a living; work is crucial for dignity, self-esteem and a sense of purpose. And poverty goes beyond unmet material needs – it also denies participation in society and personal autonomy over decisions that affect one’s life. The status quo is inefficient and creates perverse incentives. The right to work would make refugees more self-reliant and allow them to contribute to the economy; their valuable skills are untapped potential. By being granted the right to work, refugees would also contribute to the tax base, as well as be better prepared for resettlement. Access to livelihood opportunities would deter people from having to turn to the unregulated, informal economy or other means just to survive – reducing crime and labour abuses.

Social harmony would be improved by allowing those who are largely cut off from society to interact more with local people, playing a vital role in changing public perceptions. Exhausted arguments that the right to work would create a “magnet effect” are employed to justify the government’s tough stance on refugee protection. Based on the experience of other jurisdictions, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this claim, and the level of apprehension is disproportionate given the actual numbers: there are fewer than 100 recognised refugees in a population of more than seven million. The potential gains of granting refugees a legal right to work – for productivity, social cohesion, refugees’ mental and physical health and for our reputation as a world-class city where rights are respected – far outweigh the costs of doing nothing. On Labour Day, when we show solidarity with workers and honour their contributions, let’s not forget to extend our support to those who are still denied access to this basic right.

Protesters march during a demonstration by asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Asylum seekers want better screening from Immigration Department

Apr 29th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Jolie Ho and Joanna Chu report for the South China Morning Post on 28 April 2013

Hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest against what they see as the government’s failed screening process

Banging African drums and chanting words such as “justice”, hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest over what they say is the government’s failed screening process. The rally came as pan-democrats voiced support for an overhaul, with Albert Ho Chun-yan saying he would propose setting up a review committee. Cosmo Beatson, the march organiser and executive director of Vision First, which advocates for the rights of those seeking protection, said the Immigration Department’s rate of recognition of claims was effectively zero. “The recognition rate is only 0.02 per cent [of all claimants] … The department’s screening fails to identify victims,” he said. According to Immigration Department figures, five torture claims have been accepted since December 2009, and 3,110 rejected. About 4,350 are being processed and it estimates 2,000 decisions can be made in 2013-14. A department spokesman said yesterday the claim there was a “zero recognition” rate was groundless. “Any purported correlation between the number of substantiated claims and the standard of fairness or effectiveness of the screening procedures has no rational basis,” he said. Wako Basafe, an asylum seeker from Eritrea in East Africa who has been in Hong Kong for a year, said he wanted a fair and faster system. “From the way they accept asylum seekers, it seems that they just look at the map and see if there’s a problem like civil war in that country. If not, they will not be accepted,” he said. The department was given a greater role in assessing cases after the High Court last month ruled that the government could not rely mainly on a United Nations agency for asylum assessments. Ho, of the Democratic Party, said he had “every reason to believe that there must be some flaws in our screening procedures … to properly identify genuine claimants”. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said the way the government had “dragged their feet” in implementing the court-ordered reforms had been “shameful”.

Apple Daily: 酷刑聲請成功率0.02%

Apr 23rd, 2013 | Media | Comment

【本報訊】關注難民權益的本港非政府組織 Vision First 指政府於過去20年來,收到超過12,400宗酷刑聲請,尋求庇護,但只有3宗獲批,比率只有0.02%,遠低於其他發達國家,質疑負責審批的入境處官員和上訴委員會成員的決策質素,以及聲請人未能得到足夠的法律協助。

號召難民周六遊行 - Vision First施小姐表示,尋求庇護者匆匆逃離國家,要在限時的28天提供證明文件存在困難;一些求助者表示,個別當值律師未能給予協助。她表示,港府於92年簽署聯合國有關禁止酷刑的公約,原由聯合國難民專員公署審批聲請,但程序透明度低;04年由港府設立甄別機制,到08年5月才有首宗成功個案,到今年3月和4月再有兩宗成功個案,一宗涉及一家五口,其中兩名子女在港出生。


[Translation] Vision First, an NGO advocates for refugees, says the government has received over 12,400 torture claims in the past 20 years, but the government has only recognised three claims. This recognition rate of 0.02 per cent is severely lagging behind that of liberal democracies. They draw into question the quality of decision-making of immigration officers and appeal court members, as well as the adequacy of legal assistance offered to torture claimants.

Appeal to refugees to march on Saturday - Ms. Sze of Vision First says, asylum seekers fled their countries in a rush, it is difficult for the claimants to provide evidential proof in the required 28 days. Some claimants reflect that their assigned legal representatives are ineffective. She says, the Hong Kong Government signed up to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1992. UNHCR did the screening by then, but the process lacked transparency. The HK Government set up a screening mechanism in 2004, the first recognized case appeared not until May 2008. There have another 2 recognized cases in March and April this year, one of the cases is one single family of five members – of which two were born in Hong Kong.

The NGO appeals to refugees, torture survivors, NGOs and faith groups to march through the centre of Hong Kong on Saturday to protest at the government’s effective zero-percent protection rate. The NGO says that the asylum seekers in Hong Kong are from countries including Georgia, Togo, Sri Lanka, Iran and Liberia. They had been persecuted and tortured in their home countries for reasons such as political views, religion, race, uncovering dirty stories of political parties or against authoritarian government.

A fourth Tamil is recognized as torture victim

Apr 23rd, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

At a strategy meeting for the upcoming street protest, it was said “Wait and see, Immigration will accept another torture claimant before 27 April to look good when the press challenges them over the zero-percent!” Instead of admitting with a red face, “There was one substantiated claim in May 2008″, they powers-that-be devised a more palatable strategy and yesterday recognized a fourth Tamil torture victim. One cannot fault the logic of this strategy, though its timing appears to be closely connected with our demonstration. When Mr. International Journalist calls Immigration Tower – and we have it on good authority this is happening – how much nicer for the besieged spokesperson to reply with a smile, “What zero-per-cent? In actuality, the administration accepted five claimants last month [NB. 1 claim for a family of 5, two kids born here], one in early April and another one this week.” This is exactly what we predicted. Yesterday another Tamil gentleman joined the ranks of those the government promises, much belatedly, not to repatriate into harm’s way, or more likely, certain death.

The credit goes entirely to the fighting spirits at Barnes & Daly (recently restructured as Daly & Associates) who represented all four winning cases. This raises a first self-evident issue: if other duty lawyers practiced their profession as diligently, then presumably more victories would be celebrated elsewhere. We understand there are about 300 duty lawyers defending torture claimants. One has to wonder about the skills and commitment of the others, who seem reluctant to defend their clients tooth and nail. As for today’s success, here are the details: for obvious reasons, his name cannot be divulged, so let’s call him Mr. Four. Mr. Four is the fourth Tamil to be protected and his legal battle took a lengthy eight years. He is single, lives in Shamshuipo – the heart of the Kowloon refugee community - and arrived in 2005 after spending several years in a refugee camp in India and seeking asylum in Malaysia. Finding life unbearable in those two countries, he fled to Hong Kong hoping to gain international protection. Mr. Four’s case was rejected by UNHCR and Immigration also rejected him both at first instant and appeal. Rumour has it that, after he was detained at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC), Mr Daly had him released the next day. Yesterday’s details are still sketchy, but we are told there was a High Court hearing and finally Mr. Four’s claim was accepted.

So what about the “zero percent” Vision First is taking to the street? There was a confrontation in the office of ISS this week. One of our supporters was distributing flyers there, encouraging claimants to support the march. A senior officer approached and challenged him, “It’s not true that it’s zero percent!” Apparently this officer, buying the official line, thought this claim was a calumny devised to discredit the government. But hold on a moment and launch the calculator app on your smart phone. There have been 12,409 torture claims raised in Hong Kong under the Torture Convention since 1992. With 4 successful claims to-date, let’s divide 4 by 12,409 … the result is 0.0003 … which converted to a percentage is 0.03% … this effectively rounds up to zero percent. Vision First will campaign against the “zero percent acceptance rate” until 124 victims of torture have been recognized. Only then may we speak mathematically of one percent. Until that distant day, any calculator will easily prove the point. While we gladly celebrate with Mr. One, Mr. Two, Mr. Three and Mr. Four, how can we forget the suffering of the thousands who had their cases rejected? How can we turn our backs on those who are grilled by Immigration on low heat year after year? Who will remember the skinny young man who was taken seven times from CIC to the airport, lost a tooth fighting off officers, and was finally drugged with a laced meal to be buckled into an aeroplane seat? Who will remember the hair-raising screams of the lady who called her boyfriend on the phone as she was dragged off, helpless, to the airport? How many times was justice trampled in twenty years of, so-called, torture protection?

For a comparison with refugee protection rates in Australia, please click here.

Disseminating reliable information is the first step in fighting social injustice

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