Government propaganda appears to be formulated to malign refugees by tossing anyone who dares to seek asylum in the “illegal immigrant” dumpster. Is the depiction of refugees as illegal immigrants justifiable? Let’s start with the facts:
On 30 July 2015, Immigration refused entry to six foreigners who landed at the Hong Kong International Airport. Three of them were Indians arriving from Delhi, while the others were a mother and two children flying from Ethiopia. After being denied entry, all six applied for asylum by raising non-refoulement claims through the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), thus blocking removal proceedings.
A government Press Release followed the next day, reported by several media outlets including:
- Six passengers refused permission to land lodge claims for non-refoulement
- (TVB) 六旅客被拒入境聲請免遣返疑事先策劃
The report appears to reveal what is an alarming problem. Attention should be drawn to these statements in particular: “while waiting for removal, the legal representative (of the Indians) lodged claims”, “for the three African passengers, a non-governmental organisation had already informed ImmD”, “the African female admitted that their travel documents did not bear their genuine identities”, “all of them lodged claims soon after they had been refused permission to land”, “ImmD will conduct further investigation on whether or not there is any person who intentionally arranged … to lodge claims”.
The media presented the above information as arguably indicative of abuse. Yet, Vision First claims the above actions and information are essential to due and fair process. It is a constitutional right of individuals to seek protection against refoulement. It is not a loophole in legislation.
Further, let’s consider:
- Hong Kong welcomed more than 5 million visitors a month in 2014. As one of the busiest tourist and transit hubs in the world, it is unremarkable that on average 20 asylum seekers sought government protection at control points every month last year. Considering international migration/refugee challenges, one might ask: Why so few?
- The legal representative for the Indians should not be singled out for assisting claimants “waiting for removal”, as if the asylum process were thus abused. The lawyer was simply doing his job advising clients who requested assistance in the process of seeking asylum. The claimants were smart to hire a lawyer who should be praised for resisting and (temporarily) succeeding against the state machinery that would otherwise have probably deported his clients.
- The press release fails to report that the African husband is a mandated UNHCR refugee attempting to reunite with a family he originally separated from when he fled abroad. Immigration knew this from interviews supported by documents, yet chose to depict the “African female” as a deceitful abuser in possession of fake passports. In fact it is legally acceptable for refugees to flee to safety with any documents that will achieve that objective.
- The press release fails to report that Immigration officers refused entry to the African mother and children (boy 6, girl 5) when they sought asylum earlier this year at the SkyPier at the Hong Kong International Airport. On that occasion, the mother submitted that her husband was a UNHCR refugee in Hong Kong and they would face danger if returned to Africa. It is disconcerting that her protection pleas were ignored and the family was removed without further investigation.
- The press release avoids stating that the NGO in question was the Refugee Union, perhaps to deflect attention from the valuable assistance the society offers refugees in need of advice and communication with government departments. It is reported that the husband of the African family sought the assistance of the Refugee Union that competently liaised with Immigration and secured the release of the mother and children in two days.
- No consideration is given to the basic legal principle that any asylum claim ought to be treated as genuine until the entire screening process is concluded. The press release instead seems to presume that the 3 Indians and 3 Africans were troublesome abusers of an otherwise fair asylum process. What are persecuted foreigners expected to do if raising claims at the airport is considered reprehensible?
It would have added insight to include some background information, such as an asylum policy that criminalizes claimants who are not granted economic rights to make an honest living — while trapped by a welfare assistance that is insufficient. Consequently those pushing drugs are not necessarily economic migrants, but may also include refugees who made the calculation that it is better (and more profitable) to serve 3-4 months in prison for selling drugs, than 15-22 months for working illegally. As no official statistics are available it is actually difficult to say how many people are involved, but the number appears to be on the rise.
Vision First understands that since international trade is down, due to the high dollar, many refugees have considered illicit activities to survive in a hostile environment that punishes harshly those who engage in ‘legal work’. The fundamental issues have not changed: refugees cannot work and are stranded in Hong Kong for many years with limited assistance. They strategize accordingly. And obviously there are those who take advantage of their desperate precariousness to hire them for criminal activities. This article fails to mention the syndicate bosses who exploit some of the most marginalized and destitute people in society left with no legal way forward.
Finally, refugees constrained by protracted destitution are not immune from the lure of crime, especially if they feels that society and the rule of law have turned against them. And we will all pay the price for it, directly or indirectly. We should seriously question the notion that we can advance ourselves by leaving the disadvantaged behind or by trampling on their human rights.