Joyce Man writes for South China Morning Post on 8 March 2013
The principle of not sending someone to a place where they may be persecuted has never been part of Hong Kong law, the government said yesterday. Benjamin Yu SC was speaking on behalf of the Immigration Department and the secretary for security at the Court of Final Appeal, where three African men were making a final bid to change how applications for refugee status are handled in the territory. Hong Kong is not a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The government does not take applications for refugee status, but instead refers them to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
When the UNHCR finds in favour of someone claiming refugee status, the government can allow them to stay pending resettlement. But this would be on humanitarian grounds, rather than out of any obligation. “Non-refoulement,” Yu said, referring to the principle, “has never been part of the common law in Hong Kong.” Vaughan Lowe QC, also for the government, said even if the court found non-refoulement was a rule in Hong Kong, it would be up to the government to decide how to meet the obligation. He said there was “no reason” why the UNHCR should not handle refugee claims in Hong Kong. The appellants – from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo – had their applications for refugee status and subsequent appeals rejected by the UNHCR.
They filed applications for judicial review but lost those, as well as appeals against those decisions. They argue the UNHCR screening process is inadequate and that its decisions are not open to judicial scrutiny. Hong Kong, they say, must make its own decision regarding their claims in an informed, fair and accountable manner. Refugee support workers are waiting anxiously for the court’s ruling. “We are definitely watching it closely,” said Cosmo Beatson, executive director of refugee support group Vision First. “The case is vitally important.” The case was heard before Mr Justices Patrick Chan Siu-oi, Roberto Ribeiro, Robert Tang Ching, Kemal Bokhary and Anthony Mason.
Article 5. “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
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Statistics about the number of refugees in the world tend to be mind-numbing. They do not do justice to their precarious plight. A simple example does it better, such as a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong crying poor. It informs the city’s 132 people with official refugee status that the UNHCR is cutting their monthly cash assistance from HK$500 to – nothing. The organisation blames the drain on its financial resources of events around the world, including a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria and violent regime change resulting from the “Arab Spring”.
The refugees do not have the right to work. This leaves them totally dependent on government rent assistance of HK$1,200 a month paid to landlords, groceries every 10 days and assistance with other basic necessities such as toiletries and transport to appointments with UNHCR or the government. Refugees have long ceased to pose a challenge to Hong Kong society, which was once a haven for Vietnamese fleeing political turmoil. But, for officialdom, memories of those times die hard. It is understandable that the government is wary of opening the floodgates to refugee claimants. But that seems a weak reason to leave refugee screening to the UNHCR and turn our backs on genuine cases.
Although the government has sought to fill the UN funding gap in the past by extending its humanitarian assistance programme, refugee groups understandably find the latest cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is, therefore, in the public interest that they are enabled to live with dignity while they await settlement elsewhere. It seems odd that Hong Kong is signatory to the convention against torture, which has led to hundreds of asylum claims, but not the UN convention relating to the status of refugees. We set great store by good safeguards for fundamental rights for citizens. The same spirit should prevail for those who turn to us for help.
Refugees tell Vision First they are fed up with UNHCR’s indifference and negligence
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.
We are deeply concerned about this disturbing news: “Since 22 February Sri Lankan human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias has reported being followed and under surveillance by unidentified men who have sought information about him from his wife and neighbours. Colleagues are concerned that he is in danger of enforced disappearance and physical violence.” Amnesty International warns that the life of Srilankan human rights activist Lakshan Dias is in danger. He is a prominent human rights lawyer who has been active in opposing the impeachment of the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court in January. Lakshan is a friend of Vision First and an Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) Steering Committee member. He is also respected by local Srilankans having practiced and assisted many countrymen seeking refuge in Hong Kong. Last month he warned the international community that he was followed and intimidated by unknown individuals with sinister intentions. The reasons for this climate of fear are unclear, though most likely relate to his high-profile human rights work. Several other lawyers have received death threats for engaging in protests advocating independence of the judiciary. Judges have also been threatened and attacked. In solidarity we post this appeal for action. We hope this news will also reach the relevant authorities, including UNHCR and Hong Kong Immigration Department, who may too hastily reject claims on the assumption that Sri Lanka is a safe country.
Hello, my name is Monica and I am a MSW candidate at HKU, as well as a Vision First intern. Over the past months we have organized a well-attended programs for VF ladies to come together for support, solidarity and a little fun – something sorely missing in their current lives. Last Wednesday, a group of refugee women, together with their children, had a great time at Deep Water Bay Beach, a place where none of them had been before, despite being a short bus ride from Central. These ladies, coming from different countries, are members of the Vision First “Cooking & Storytelling Group”. There are few things women like better than chatting while sharing cooking tips and stories about their families, countries and experiences. They have happily attended this group weekly for three months already and have formed deep, supporting friendship with one another. It was the first time these ladies left the concrete jungle behind to enjoy sunshine and fresh air in Hong Kong – the best things in life are truly free!
“I really want to thank you for giving us such a beautiful day!” Magda from East Africa said to volunteers at the end of the outing. As a matter of fact, the ladies themselves contribute greatly to the preparation. Some helped to bring members who did not know the location, some brought BBQ materials and carried all the way to the beach, some took care of the children when others were busy broiling the food. To them, cooking and sharing had become a delightful way to fight the anxieties in refugees’ lives and also make new friends. And the sunshine and fresh air on the bay area indeed relieved them from Hong Kong’s merciless city life. On a bright sunny day like this, the ladies could finally wear their beautiful make up, put on their colorful dresses and be who they truly are. As Fatima walked to the beach, she stood in the middle of the ocean water and looked into the far way mountains, she seemed to be embracing her moment of Zen.
The children also had a lot of fun. They quickly became friends and played together. They climbed up near the fence to watch the boats floating on the water; they chased each other through the paths between the BBQ sites; they hide from their moms who were eager to check how much food was left in their mouths. Then they held hands and posed expertly for the camera, as if they were stars on a magazine shoot! After the BBQ, the ladies and children went to the beach to play by the water together. Rashmi with her son and a friend’s little girl went into the bay and had a fun water fight. Their clothes were soaked, but their laughter was like music. The picture of Rashmi gently holding her boy in the middle of the water, became a touching memory to the volunteers. However, nobody would argue that this photo below perfectly captures the wonderful spirit of that sunny afternoon of friendship and hope.
Here is a song composed and sung by our very own Emmanuel Prah, a man with a deep soul. He came to Hong Kong to seek refuge in 2005 and experienced the many ups and downs of this experience - mostly downs actually. A passionate musician, Emmanuel contributes his talent to several churches and finds in music the consolation and hope that reality deprive him of. In a friend’s home studio, he arranges and records songs that witness the unconquered spirit of marginalized souls who enduringly refuse to stay down when trodden upon. In September 2012 his torture claim was predictably rejected. The Notice of Determination explained that, “your country is taking charge of those who are torturing people and now there is no danger there.” Understandably, our friend wasn’t willing to accept HK Government’s assurance on the matter!
What is noteworthy is that Emmanuel is married to a lovely Hong Kong wife and the couple had already applied for a dependent visa. Given these circumstances no consideration, Immigration proceeded to arrest and detain a ‘future citizen’ with the firm intention of removing him from the city. There are many individuals in this position and Vision First regrets Immigration’s lack of consideration towards those married to Hong Kong partners - who will in due process become fellow citizens. It appears to us shortsighted and counterproductive to incarcerate the legitimate spouses, and often parents, of HK citizens for failing to secure international protection against Immigration’s 100% rejection rate. What message are the authorities sending their soon-to-be compatriots? What do children think of a government that removes their parents?
Please click here to listen to Emmanuel’s “Yes we can” … dedicated to the overworked folk at Immigration Department.
Click the picture to listen to “Yes we can” by Emmanuel Prah
Betty Cheng writes for Oriental Daily on 27 February 2013