The Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) will reach its first-year landmark on 3 March 2015 and the results achieved appear rather underwhelming and disheartening for refugees seeking the protection of Hong Kong Government. Immigration Department reports that as of 12 February 2015 five claims were substantiated, which Vision First understands to include 2 minors protected with their family.
The refugee community is concerned that in 23 years since the “UN Convention Against Torture” (CAT) was extended to Hong Kong in 1992, Immigration recognized only 28 cases as tallied by the South China Morning Post. Vision First sighted several Notices of Decision that included no less than 10 children counted as individual cases, thus further diminishing the impact of such unimpressive results.
Clearly statistics paint an incomplete picture, yet they are essential to evaluate the fairness of a screening process that accepted 5 claims and rejected 826 between March and December 2014 – a 0.60% acceptance rate that is deeply discouraging for 9618 individuals whose claims were outstanding at the end of last year. Some might suggest discouragement is the target here.
Granted that Immigration officers have at best one year experience with USM, we can only hope that high standards of fairness apply to determinations that are, “of momentous importance to the individual concerned. To him, life and limb are in jeopardy and his fundamental human right not to be subjected to torture is involved. Accordingly, high standards of fairness must be demanded in the making of such a determination.” (Court of Final Appeal “Prabakar” judgment, 2004)
“How do Immigration officers assess the situation in my country?” questioned an African refugee, “They don’t understand simple geography…. I have no confidence. Officers are not country experts. They print maps from the internet and learn from general websites that don’t explain the deep-rooted problems I faced. Shouldn’t I be worried about the quality of assessments?”
An Indian refugee said he had claims of police corruption in India rejected on the basis that India was a democracy and government websites called for a corruption-free administration in which offenders would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The claimant was faulted for having failed to report to the Police Anti-Corruption Bureau that village constables had drawn false charges against him allegedly upon the instigation of a rich and powerful land owner. Should he be deported?
There is a vast difference between what governments represent on official websites and law and order as implemented in the streets, where the enforcement action of anti-corruption bodies might not be taken seriously. That is the difference between theory and reality, the divergence between the rule of law and its application in the dark corners where human weakness prevails.
For that matter, police abuse in the cover of darkness isn’t unknown in developed countries.
“I am so scared. I haven’t slept for three days. I am afraid Immigration will arrest me and put me in CIC [detention centre]. I don’t want to be deported because I can’t go back to my country,” sighed a 40 year Srilankan mother who secured informal refuge in Hong Kong through the domestic worker scheme – not an unusual practice for women escaping domestic, gender, ethnic or political violence in her country.
Vision First accompanied Ibrahim of the Refugee Union on an escort mission to Immigration Skyline Tower, in Kowloon Bay, where new asylum seekers are required to report to the General Investigation Section prior to lodging non-refoulement claims. The process is nerve-racking for persons who overstayed visas, or might have entered illegally, and must then surrender to immigration authorities to establish a protection status and void being arrested by police in the street.
“Without the Refugee Union I was too scared to surrender. I didn’t reported for two years to Immigration after I was terminated. I didn’t know what to do. I am afraid the police will arrest me,” remarked an undocumented Indonesian woman whose passport was retained by an agency for failing to settle exorbitant fees relating to her dismissal. “I better be a refugee in Hong Kong than go back. I owe loansharks 82 million Rupiah. They threatened to kill me if I don’t pay back with interest!”
“Before taking them to Kowloon Bay,” explained Ibrahim, “we register new cases and email Immigration with details and copies of documents. Only after receiving replies I bring them here to make sure new [claimants] are not arrested. Officers play tricks with those who come alone, like refusing to accept claims for some reason, or demanding documents they cannot produce. But if we go with them they will not arrest you.”
The lavish decor of this prestigious commercial building contrasts starkly with the grim tasks faced by dozens of hopefuls who commence their asylum ordeal at Skyline Tower with understandable trepidation. They start queuing up every morning at 8am on the ground floor, among officer workers accustomed to their presence, knowing that by 1030 an unofficial daily quota is closed and latecomers are gruffly waved away.
On 24 February we spoke with citizens from Gambia, Pakistan, Nepal, Tanzania, Srilanka, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nigeria and Indonesia who were unwilling to leave Hong Kong and understood that seeking asylum was the only pathway to remain legally for as long as they could. “I need more time. I have problems back home that make it dangerous for me. I don’t want to live in Hong Kong, but for now I must stay until I figure it out!” explained an African who had lived three years in China.
The lifts of Skyline Tower keep releasing a mix of colourful characters on the 5th floor landing. Confused and befuddled overstayers emerged with eyes darting left and right searching for clues. They were visibly nervous and probably uninformed about an asylum adventure that equally ill-informed peers might have recommended. At this stage, a credible and independent information service could possibly guide hundreds towards wiser and more practical choices.
Immigration officers at the only counter are likely challenged by a ten-fold surge in asylum claims: from 491 cases in 2013, to 4634 between March and December 2014. The authorities might find it hard to explain the unprecedented surge despite policies designed to avoid ‘creating a magnet effect which could have serious implications on the sustainability of our current support systems and on our immigration control.’ The time might have come to completely overhaul the asylum process.
The cultural clash at the General Investigation counter is absolute: on one side of the window is a strained officer fielding questions in English and Chinese (resident friends seem to prefer the latter); while on the other side an anxious bunch presses for attention without the benefit of a number system. It becomes clear why the meek and less assertive are bounced back week after week.
Here is the gate that should bear the infernal sign: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here!” it is here that passports are sequestered, sometimes not be returned for years, and options reduced. For a few hours the hopeful pace anxiously the 5th floor lobby where neither a bench nor stool welcomes the weary. Then the system starts to divide: the fortunate are asked to photocopy documents and take a photo (average cost 70$), while the unfortunate are given a notice to return in a week or two.
There is a sense of relief among those who received a numbered ticket to queue up for the photo booth in room 504. They appreciate that they were not detained and in the afternoon they will obtain a Recognizance Form 8 issued by Hong Kong Immigration to overstayers seeking asylum. At this moment, the hopeful care less about the zero percent acceptance rate and more about the opportunity to remain in town for a few more months or years.
After Immigration officially releases them on recognizance, having established a breach of the original conditions of entry – thus criminalizing them as overstayers – asylum seekers may proceed to the 9th floor to lodge a USM claim. The process is simple: they submit a now standard form that circulated since January 2013 (it was first distributed by Vision First) and request a photocopy with a date stamp. A few weeks later Immigration will follow up with a request for written significations of claims and eventually offer an appointment to record fingerprints and photos.
Three times a week Ibrahim guides Refugee Union members to Kowloon Bay. He jokes about an officer complaining, “Don’t keep bringing people here, you make us busy”. Another officer once asked him for ID and wasn’t satisfied when he produced a RU membership card. Ibrahim was unfazed, “If you don’t like it, arrest me and call the police. They will confirm that they registered the Refugee Union to help all these people who are waiting here and wonder the streets without papers.”
The rebels incinerated the home of a father of five, killed three family members, and brutally tortured and left him for dead. When news spread that he was still alive, arrest warrants circulated and, a dead man walking, the father fled alone to China with the assistance of a consular friend. His wife and children hid in the bush where his eldest son died. Almost two years after seeking asylum in Hong Kong, Immigration Department accepted his claim as substantiated.
Another victim of persecution, a parent of two children, sought the protection of Hong Kong Government in mid-2014 and was recognized a refugee less than a year later with the support of exhaustive documentary proof. Between 3 March 2014, when the Unified Screening Mechanism was launched and 12 February 2015, there were 5 substantiated cases out of 826 claims, maintaining Hong Kong’s effective zero percent acceptance rate (0.61%).
Setting aside vexing doubts about the other 821 claimants denied protection, Vision First is deeply concerned about the harsh and inhospitable treatment of successful claimants. They are in one breath notified a potentially life-changing decision and also informally told they are not welcomed to integrate and reconstruct a new life in Hong Kong.
Despite the promise of not deporting them into harm’s way, claimants are made acutely aware that the prohibition from working stays while they remain confined to the same inadequate welfare provisions they experienced as asylum seekers. Protection (from refoulement) does not come with the right to make a living in Hong Kong.
The Notices of Decisions clearly express the authorities’ position on reluctantly granting temporary asylum until alternative solutions are identified to rid the city of the annoyance of refugees. Claimants are informed that “in the circumstances, you will not be returned to [your country] for the time being”.
Then cases are “passed to the UNHCR for consideration should (you) be recognized as refugees under its mandate and … resettled to a third country as appropriate”. It seems that asylum policies in Hong Kong haven’t evolved from reliance on the United Nations to conveniently sweep away local problems with minimal expense and hassle.
The Notice of Decision warns that, “the making of removal order against you would not be precluded”, i.e. stopped, as “the Immigration Department may consider whether there is any special country other than (your homeland) to which you may return. If any such specific country is identified, you may be removed there.”
Further, the Notices of Decision issued by the Immigration Department states, “if you wish to leave Hong Kong at your own initiative, you may do so notwithstanding your substantiated non-refoulement claims. Please however be reminded that your non-refoulement claims will be treated as withdrawn and will not be re-opened if you leave Hong Kong.”
Finally, another paragraph in the disheartening notices warns, “For the avoidance of doubt, please be also reminded that a person will not be treated as ordinarily resident in Hong Kong … during any period in which he or she remains in Hong Kong only by virtue of a non-refoulement claim, including the period when his or hers non-refoulement claim is substantiated.”
The analysis of such protection documents reveals five warnings from Immigration: 1) we won’t send you back for now; 2) you are not welcome so get the UNHCR to resettle you elsewhere; 3) you are under a removal order and could be deported to another country; 4) you can’t work and won’t receive adequate welfare, so you can volunteer to leave; 5) if you are stuck here for years be aware that you are not treated as ordinarily resident and won’t be allowed citizenship.
As if the above were not depressing enough, the inauspicious Notices conclude with a final warning, “Please also note that your substantiated non-refoulement claim may be reviewed should there be any changes of circumstances and other reasons for considering revocation.”
Hong Kong Immigration’s notices granting international protection to distraught refugees conclude with the word: REVOCATION. It might reflect the spirit in which the Immigration Department reluctantly grants protection following a series of court judgments warning that, “the courts will on judicial review subject the [Immigration] determination to rigorous examination and anxious scrutiny to ensure that the required high standards of fairness have been met.”
I am a 30 year old South Asian who escaped the breakdown of law and order in a country where corruption protects the powerful who commit crimes with no fear of arrest or prosecution in court. It is meaningless for HK Immigration to claim, “You failed to report the incident to the police [in your country]”, because protection is guaranteed to the highest bidder, not to victims.
One night in 2010 I was smuggled on a speedboat from China to Hong Kong with ten other people. We were very lucky because the next day a powerful typhoon struck and the dangerous crossing could have been deadly. I was very scared at sea on a flimsy fishing boat in pitch darkness. At one point we were hit by a huge wave and we thought we would die.
The smugglers landed us on the coast and told us to walk into the mountains to find the road. They didn’t come with us and we got lost walking at night. For seven days we roamed the mountains in Sai Kung Country Park. We had no food and drank from the streams we crossed. We were relieved when the police arrested us because we were desperately hungry and afraid we wouldn’t make it.
For five years I have been suffering as a refugee. The rent and food we receive is not enough. I have lived three years in the slums, the only place I can rent a room for 1500$. I used to work to pay for a village room, but I suffered a serious injury in the container port. A wave struck the container barge we were offloading and a cargo chain detached and snapped my right arm.
I have heard about two refugees who died under falling containers. I doubt there were any inquiries into their deaths or safety procedures were reviewed. Bosses give refugees dangerous jobs because they know we cannot complain and they won’t have to pay for damages if we get hurt. I did not come to Hong Kong to die, but to live. I risked my life coming here and also working to survive.
Last week my ISS caseworker (name withheld) told me not to protest. He said that a big officer would visit the slums and I should not join the demonstration for safe housing. I stayed in my hut and waited. The big officer did not come. I think ISS tried to block the protest because they don’t want us to talk about our suffering. ISS tell me to find a legal room for 1500$, but they know it is impossible.
I only get some food and 1500$ rent from ISS. In five years they gave me nothing, then last week they gave me a green blanket. I waited five winters for one blanket! Everything I use I collected from nearby garbage dumps where I go on Saturday nights after residents dump old things. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have clothes to wear, a bed to sleep on, a fridge to store food and a stove to cook.
I am not an economic migrant. I came to Hong Kong to save my life, not work or be a beggar.
Following the death of a refugee in the Hong Kong slums, AFP went on assignment with the Refugee Union. The shameful treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers was captured by an expert lens for the world to witness. Over a day we visited five notorious slums and met refugees who on average waited already five years for a decision on their claims without receiving a reply. They wait patiently in total destitution as those responsible turn a blind eye to their plight.
The material used to partition slum rooms are advertising billboards that might have been discarded after some fancy show at luxury shopping mall. It is striking that amid the city’s unbridled affluence there are human beings suffering under government care without proper accommodation. These living conditions tarnish the reputation of Hong Kong as an international financial centre where every person ought to be treated with respect, irrespective of immigration status.
The refugees welcomed us inside their shacks where, they explained, every item was recovered from garbage pits including electric stoves and flat-panel TVs. They spoke about the dynamics of survival in a metropolis, where coping without work is harsher than most people imagine. Despite such odds, refugees preserve great dignity which was masterfully captured by the photographer.
From all accounts, it might be the twilight of refugee slums in Hong Kong and the Refugee Union was grateful for the coverage this reprehensible policy is getting. “Show the world how they treat us,” exclaimed Afzaal from Pakistan, “We are not animals to lock in a farm shed. One night a snake bit my leg inside my hut. I had no idea if it was poisoned. We are scared of electricity, flooding, fires and the police banging our doors in the middle of the night. We are refugees, not criminals.”