The Legislative Council Security Panel meeting of 7 July 2015 failed to shed light on the structural problems that have drawn criticism to the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) and its questionable 0.5% acceptance rate. The Security Bureau report that “amongst the 1873 non-refoulement claims determined by Immigration, 8 are substantiated”, figures that were sensationally echoed in the Chinese press as “99.5% of non-refoulement claimants are false”. Is that really the truth?
Vision First introduced the discussion on acceptance rates in 2012, when we first questioned the credibility of the Immigration Department’s effective Zero Percent Acceptance Rate that not only fails to protect persecuted foreigners, but is manipulated to brand refugees as abusers who should be expeditiously deported. Statistics however are only useful if provided with context and analysis.
A case in point is the period refugees wait for decisions – namely rejection. The Security Bureau reported that “since the commencement of USM, it takes Immigration about 25 weeks on average to decide on a claim”. However such an average is limited to the 1873 cases already determined. It does not include hundreds of refugees who arrived many years ago and, either have not been screened, or still await first-tier or second-tier determinations.
Vision First is aware of numerous refugees whose Torture Claims, in some cases filed years before the USM was launched, were not decided. The authorities have suggested that they may request prioritized screening, but what incentive do they have with a 99.5% certainty of being refused and then facing removal into harm’s way? Is it possible that Immigration avoids determining cases that are hard to refuse and might then cause embarrassment through judicial reviews? Some of these refugees have waited more than a decade.
It is certainly staggering that since the USM was launched in March 2014, a record 6461 new claims were lodged, a 250% increase on the previous year. The figure is greater than the entire refugee population was in early 2014 and might be indicative of Hong Kong’s growing status as a global city that attracts persecution, labour and poverty-induced migration. Hong Kong is apparently unable to categorize and manage them all effectively.
An analysis of the recent surge is beyond our scope. One might however consider the fact that Hong Kong has no temporary migration scheme for troubled foreigners, who don’t fit the definition of refugees, but are nonetheless fearfully reluctant to return home for a combination of reasons that may include debt, harassment, destitution and persecution. The predictable fallout from the city’s exploitation of 350,000 domestic workers should also draw attentive scrutiny.
Other issues are raised by the 43% of claimants (4250) who entered Hong Kong illegally. While the way of entry has no bearing on asylum grounds, the figure underscores border porosity and the resourcefulness of agents in eluding both Hong Kong and Chinese border controls. The problem should be raised as an indictment of immigration capacity, not as evidence of refugee deviance, because the persecuted are entitled to seek asylum through any channels – legal or clandestine.
Finally, the 0.5% acceptance rate may be challenged in relation to Pakistan that represents the top country of origin for refugees seeking sanctuary in Hong Kong (20%). Any cursory internet search reveals that Pakistan suffers appalling human rights violations, as well as violence against religious minorities, women, journalist, activists and underclass ethnic/tribal minorities. The government’s inability to guarantee security and eradicate corruption are further concerns.
Vision First puts forward two sets of data for further consideration and analysis.
Australia acceptance rate of Pakistani refugees:
- in 2012-13 — 80%
- in 2011-12 — 75%
- in 2010-11 — 80%
- in 2009-10 — 84%
- in 2008-09 — 76%
Hong Kong acceptance of Pakistani refugees, since the ratification of the UN Convention against Torture:
- from 1992 till July 2015 — ZERO
QUESTION: Do fake Pakistani refugees avoid Australia to come here, or is the USM fake?
Agenda item no. 4: Unified screening mechanism for non-refoulement claims
LC Paper No. CB(2)1832/14-15(03) - Paper provided by the Administration
LC Paper No. CB(2)1832/14-15(04) - Background brief prepared by the Legislative Council Secretariat
Discussion starts at the 15:39 time marker
Refugees are not allowed to purchase certain products with the newly introduced food coupons. On 8 June 2015, the Legislative Council “Panel on Welfare Services” suggested that the Social Welfare Department, or its contractor ISS-HK, produce a detailed list of excluded products. The list would help avoid, or at least minimize, arguments between refugees and cashiers that inconvenience impatient customers at busy check-out counters.
There are plans to expand the coupon network to other supermarkets to increase product variety (including Halal and ethnic choices) and price competitiveness, as the 280 stores operated by Wellcome are not known for the cheapest prices. Meanwhile, cashiers require training and guidelines to reduce the subjective interpretations of the “Terms and Conditions” printed on the back of coupons.
Here is an example of the challenges faced by refugees: a mother shared on the Refugee Union chat, “One of my friend went to Wellcome and wanted to buy milk for her baby and the cashier say that she can’t buy the milk with the coupon. So what is the use of the coupons that we get from ISS if we can’t buy the milk for our babies?” A member updated the group, “After the fight at last she got the milk. I think it depends on the Wellcome staff.” Another offered a thoughtful solution, “We need to present our problems as mothers to the Social Welfare as quickly as possible.”
A Vision First member reported that she had successfully purchased baby formula at several Wellcome stores, until it ran out in her neighbourhood. Babies can be incredibly fussy about what they eat. The mother broadened her search and found the preferred brand at a 24-Hour Wellcome, only to be told that the coupons were not accepted for “baby needs”. After assuring the manager that other branches allowed the purchase, she left with a hungry, screaming infant.
A refugee family traveled to Causeway Bay to shop at a Wellcome store that offered a large variety of fresh vegetable and fruits which their three children could not enjoy under the previous in-kind food distribution. It was evening and the store was especially busy. The cashier was confused and called the manager who inspected each item in the shopping cart: Nutella was removed “because it is chocolate”; chicken fillets were removed “because they are not frozen”; potato chips were removed “because they are snacks”; vinegar was removed “because it contains alcohol” …
The mother and children were embarrassed by the protracted and fastidious inspection executed under the intrusive stare of a growing queue of annoyed customers. The husband was downright offended. He was insulted by the examination, yet had no recourse against such degrading treatment if he wanted to collect groceries for his family. He vowed never to return, which was probably of little consolation.
Are food coupons and the absurd policing of shopping cart meant to introduce a new form of humiliation that refugees must submissively endure to remain in our city? It has been reported that refugees must present all their receipts to caseworkers in order to receive coupons for the following month. What is the point of this practice if Wellcome staff already performs the inspection?
There are many reports of coupon-bearers being denied baby formula, fresh milk, non-frozen meats, as well as sweet and savory goods that could be classified as ‘snacks’. No wonder the trading of food coupons is already underway, selling for about half face value to the same astute middlemen who previously profited from emergency rations and now trade in valuable coupons.
Vision First urges authorities to scrap the products ban, or at the very least to promptly publish the list of excluded items, as the terms and conditions carried by the food coupons remain open to interpretation.