A 32 week pregnant former domestic worker reported to Vision First that in March 2015 Immigration officers used heavy-handed tactics in an attempt to remove her from Hong Kong International Airport.
Through sheer determination she scored a victory against state machinery that presumably safeguards border integrity with due regard to human rights.
Fitrini (not her real name), 28, was terminated by her Chinese employer when she was two months pregnant, despite discrimination against expectant women being outlawed in this cultured and sophisticated city. She recounts, “I read my contract and nothing said that I could not get pregnant. He didn’t have the right to terminate me. My agency said that they could not help.”
Fitrini fell pregnant with her South Asian boyfriend who supported her throughout the ordeal as they sought a way to stay together. They still plan to marry in the future, “after we find a solution to our problem because after my visa expired I had to leave Hong Kong.” They are in love and wish to raise their child together “if Immigration gave me a chance to stay here,” the mother explained.
In an attempt to stay legal, Fitrini went first to Macao for one month. Upon her return to Hong Kong she was questioned by Immigration and eventually granted a one week visa, “Because I said I have many clothes and things I must collect before I go back to my country.” She then left behind the city, her boyfriend and her dreams of a happy family.
Fitrini’s Muslim family was furious at her predicament. They felt that an unmarried pregnancy brought unforgivable shame to them. “My family could not accept me. Everyone turned against me because of the baby. I could not stay home, so I decided to return to Hong Kong. I hadn’t done anything wrong and thought that Immigration would give me a chance because my boyfriend was here.”
Fitrini narrated her experience. “I had a good record and I hoped Immigration would give me a visa upon arrival. Instead they refused me to let me in. They asked why I came back and I told them I had to meet my boyfriend. They detained me and warned, ‘This time no bargain’. I asked what does it mean? The said a flight had been arranged and I had to leave Hong Kong”
“I said I could not go back because I had problem with my family and I wanted to see my boyfriend, but they would not listen. [With a pretext] to move me to another office, they took me in front of the plane but I knew what it was and grabbed the cabinet and screamed. There were three female officers pulling me but I grabbed the chairs and screamed as many [passengers] watched.”
“I was 30 weeks pregnant and afraid to go back home. I have to stay in Hong Kong to see my boyfriend who was waiting outside the airport. Why they do that to me? They dragged me to the airplane three or four times and I have to fight with them … I was screaming and kicking in front of everyone. This was very shameful but I had no choice.”
“I did not tell them I understand Chinese. When they talked about getting a wheelchair and tying my arms and legs, I warned that I would make suicide before they put me on the plane. For four days they pressured me and used force. I did not believe that Hong Kong Immigration could do this. After four days they let me use my mobile phone and I called outside. Before they refused me to see the lawyer that came with my boyfriend, but then they agree.”
“I never wanted to be as a non-refoulement claimant, but I had to sign [a USM claim] to get in. I only wanted to see my boyfriend to find a way out for our problem. We have a baby and we want to be together. Immigration said I could not have the baby in Hong Kong. They force me to leave, but I fight with them and in the end they released me.”
This incident sheds light on questionable tactics adopted by Immigration officers to remove a vulnerable and pregnant Foreign Domestic Helper considered undesirable and deportable because no longer useful as cheap domestic labour, despite Hong Kong’s ostensible support of human rights.
Vision First is alarmed at news from detainees in Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre, Tuen Mun (CIC). It is reported that the Director of Immigration may have failed to respect the importance placed on the non-derogable and absolute “Right to Life”, as enshrined in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance that is binding on all government authorities.
On 23 March 2015, Vision First wrote an open letter to the Director of Immigration, inquiring among other issues about particulars of the training of officers charged with processing “Right to Life” claims. The Court of Final Appeal held that the right to freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of life also applied to persons not having the right to be in Hong Kong, including refugees.
The right not to be arbitrarily deprived of life (i.e. extra-judicially killed) is fundamental and absolute. It is a universal human right that cannot be limited, suspended or restricted for any reason, by any person.
Vision First is disturbed by allegations detailed in an email we received from a Refugee Union member who recently visited a detainee. Extracts from the email are as follows:
- CIC Immigration is doing really bad things. Just I come out from there after visiting my friend there;
- He says he already sent the BOR 2 claim form to Kowloon Bay but until now no results;
- There are many people inside who already applied for (High Court) Judicial Reviews (of Immigration Notices of Decision) 6 to 7 months before but still inside;
- In CIC immigration officers denied to accept BOR 2;
- People are inside very upset and afraid;
- They don’t understand what to do;
- They says that if they send letters to anyone those letters are not going out from CIC.
Several refugees confirmed this information. The Director of Immigration may be acting unlawfully in the execution of removal and deportation orders that ought to be stayed when detainees file “Right to Life” claims?
These allegations only deteriorate the already precarious reputation of the Hong Kong Government in the field of human rights, suggesting an ostensible turn towards uncompromising obstinacy that certainly stands at odds with the city’s self-proclaimed liberal and welcoming urban lifestyle.
The Unified Screening Mechanism may as well be said to have failed in keeping up with its promise of protection, remarked a senior lawyer at a Vision First meeting this month. He was of the opinion that the administration mismanaged the process to such an extent that fair-minded observers would not consider it a success, if not for rejecting 99.9% of asylum claims.
The big picture is alarming. USM was expected to finally process claimants, whose numbers hovered around 5000 for years. But in 2014 the number doubled to 10,000, with new claims lodged at more than 300 per month. This surge surprised the administration that expects a considerable rise in screening costs, welfare assistance and the publicly funded legal scheme.
The backlog of claims is expected to increase further as refugees becomes familiar with the “Right to life claim” (BOR 2) which requires that asylum bids be also assessed on grounds relating to Article 2 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, which is binding on the Immigration Department.
From documentation acquired by Vision First and freely available on the LegCo website, it seems that rather than reviewing an asylum system, that seems to neither protect nor uphold refugee rights, the administration is considering fast-tracking screenings, affecting legal safeguards. However, placing departmental expediency and completion targets ahead of obligatory “high standards of fairness” will pave the way for extensive judicial reviews, warned the HKBA.
If the administration’s approach to screening and determination is cause for alarm, the welfare side is of little consolation. It should be pointed out that hundreds, if not thousands of claimants have been in limbo for years without adequate welfare or employment rights. Such unfair treatment inflicted unjustified hardship on already vulnerable persons who hoped to find sanctuary in Hong Kong.
Instead of protection, refugees experience rejection through countless difficulties that hamper their daily existence. It takes months to obtain assistance, during which time new arrivals are often left hungry and homeless, fending for themselves in the streets. “We signed the contract with ISS but cannot find a place for 3000$. Without a room ISS only provide dried food like biscuits, instant noodles and canned food!” lamented an African couple who has slept on a sofa-bed at Vision First for several weeks.
The mismanagement of food rations continues despite refugees vociferously protesting for more than a year. There might be a widening rift between the SWD and ISS-HK that exposes a communication problem, to put it gently, relating to millions of dollars in food allowances that failed to reach the plates of destitute and hungry refugees. “Where is the remaining money” questioned Cable TV.
The 69 refugee slums exposed by Vision First are emblematic of the faltering asylum system. As a matter of fairness and humanity, it is reasonable to expect that the slums be wound down gradually without mass evictions that cause preventable homelessness. To the contrary, the same indifference to the wellbeing of refugees manifested in the establishment of slums, is blatantly obvious in their abrupt closure without offering basic, functional and safe accommodation.
A distraught refugee recently made homeless exclaimed, “I waited seven years for Immigration to [determine] my case. Still no answer. Now I have no place to stay and nowhere I can rent for 1500$. Hong Kong wants all refugees to go away! If we could go to another country we would leave … but how?”
About a month ago two master students from Australia arrived in Hong Kong. Their mission was to study the life and circumstances of refugees in Hong Kong. “I want to find out how refugees and asylum seekers are treated here,” said one, “Refugees are my thesis for my doctoral study in criminology.”
Their journey started on a sour note after they sent a parcel to the Refugee Union. When it arrived, the Post Office issued a note advising to collect the parcel. The following morning at the Post Office a Refugee Union member produced his Identity Document to claim the parcel, but the clerk refused to accept his Recognizance Paper as a proof of Identity.
She remarked, “This is not a Hong Kong ID. We cannot give you this parcel as we don’t know you. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what this document it.” It was very frustrating. We presented the Refugee Union membership card, but she was adamant that a Hong Kong ID card was required for collection. She called a senior who confirmed that either a Hong Kong ID card or passport was required, or else they would send the mail back to the sender.
We were unable to claim a parcel at a Hong Kong Government office by producing a document issued by Hong Kong Government after our passport were confiscated! Back at our desk we emailed the sender and explained the predicaments. They thought it bizarre that refugees hold a document that is meant to prove identity, but is not freely accepted in Hong Kong.
The Recognizance Paper with its archaic, imposing A4-size never goes unnoticed. It is meant to embarrass and demean refugees as an undesirable and unwelcome lot discriminated by the denial of legal status, even when Immigration takes a decade to determine claims. The classification of the unwanted starts with their criminalization – overstayer, outlaw and convict!
Shouldn’t the Post Office be briefed on and instructed to accept Recognizance Papers? Today there are over 10,000 such documents in circulation and refugees might need to produce them at one of the 129 post offices, where ignorant officers look aghast at bearers, “What is that? I don’t know what this is?”
The students found this story hard to believe, “In Australia we do not treat refugees like that. They enjoy their rights as human beings and live with dignity as everybody else. It’s a big shame what you go through. It is even doubtful that these arrangements are beneficial to Hong Kong in the long-term.”