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Resisting government labelling and engaging the community: The ‘March For Protection’ in Hong Kong

May 16th, 2013 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

Francesco Vecchio and Cosmo Beatson write for the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, an independent, student run publication that moves to engage with various aspects of forced migration through academic scholarship. The original article is available in the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, Volume 3, Number 1 and a simple PDF version is here.

This article intends to analyse an event that revealed new avenues for Hong Kong’s civil society to counter the government’s attempt to negate asylum seekers’ individual agency and the government’s opposition towards a comprehensive asylum policy. This article outlines the context which led to the organisation of the ‘March For Protection’ on 30 October 2012.In doing so, it aims to offer a starting point to explore and debate the march’s rationale, attainments and, more generally, civil society’s relationship with state power.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong recently grabbed the headlines with a protest march in which they demanded fairer screening and rebuffed official and public views that generally depict them as bogus claimants. In the wake of the ‘March For Protection’ (MFP) and widespread English-language press coverage highlighting the difficulties asylum seekers face in the territory (for example Chiu, 2012a; SCMP Editorial, 2012; Kennedy, 2013; Yeung, 2013), civil society and UNHCR Hong Kong’s head-of-office called forcefully for local authorities to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention (Chiu, 2012b; Read, 2013) and address current procedural shortcomings (Daly, 2012; Vision First, 2013a).

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, it enjoys relatively broad administrative independence in immigration policy. While it is not our intention to delve into China/Hong Kong relations, we note that although the mainland signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and provisions for refugees were included in domestic law, Hong Kong has instead firmly resisted its extension to the territory (Loper, 2010). Nonetheless, the city is a signatory to the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and a two-track asylum screening system is available to refugees. On the one hand, UNHCR performs refugee screening. On the other, the Hong Kong Government assesses claims under article 3 of CAT, which prohibits the removal of a person to the country where s/he would face torture or other cruel treatment. In spite of its potential to minimise mistakes, this bifurcated asylum reality has been said to give rise to procedural confusion, delays and a wasteful duplication of resources. In fact, refugees’ concurrent or sequential reliance on both mechanisms, affects the understandings of asylum seeking. Additionally, public policy is shaped by Hong Kong’s memory of dramatic mainlander and Vietnamese refugee inflows in the past (Vecchio, forthcoming). The government has repeatedly asserted that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the city would be flooded by waves of illegal migrants posing as asylum seekers to gain entrance and exploit local prosperity (see for example discussions in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, LG, 2011).

There are indications that this and other misconceptions are widespread in the community. A typical statement in this direction was made by scholar Victor Fung (2012), who recently alerted the readers of China Daily that waves of ‘economic migrants’ would inundate the city, working illegally to support their families back home. In his reply to UNHCR’s appeal, Fung warned that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the territory would be doomed to ‘sink’ into the harbour and ‘drown’. However, the reasons why such a catastrophic scenario would inevitably unfold were not disclosed. As often happens (see Tao, 2009), the rationale supporting official propaganda on the formation of the Refugee Convention/illegal migration nexus is rarely elucidated, giving us the impression that certain beliefs have become so profoundly ingrained in Hong Kong’s mindset that they amount to tautological truths. While proponents offer no evidence to support the formulation of their views, any attempt to negate them is resisted no matter what evidence is presented to refute their validity.

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Hon. Dennis Kwok letter to ISS

May 15th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Pakistan covers the March For Protection

May 1st, 2013 | Media | Comment

John Jacob writes for the Pakistan Christian Post on 30 April 2013

In Hong Kong, last Saturday on the April 27th over five hundred torture claimants and asylum seekers joined a protest against the “zero percent acceptance” . This protest was organized under non-profit, independent and a private organization called “Vision First”. These torture claimants told the interviewers, that many of them are living here for more than 10 years but the government wants them to go back to their countries where they can be persecuted. There are over 4000 who are hanging in the space for their future and waiting to put their first step on the land of freedom.

Among these 4000 plus, there are 30 Pakistani Christians who were able to escape persecution and many were severely persecuted, falsely accused and threaten by the government and Muslim religious parties of Pakistan. They are very much under pressure, stressed and worried what will happen to them if they will be removed back to Pakistan. What Christians are facing in Pakistan has been noticed and seen by the international media and United Nations but failed to stop injustice, false accusations of blasphemy, killing, kidnapping, gang raping, property snatching, threat calls, church attacks etc. Once if someone is target by Muslim groups it’s almost impossible for a person to escape.

They can’t go to police because police does not help them but always give favor to the Muslims. Because the entire Muslim community thinks that Christians are second class citizens and infidels therefor they have not equal rights with them which causing Christians to seek protection in different parts of the country but it seems there is no such place which you can say it’s safe now.The 30 Pakistani Christians here in Hong Kong appeals to the government of Hong Kong for not to remove them back, but to protect them. Pakistani Christians are peaceful, loyal and good citizens. This is also an appeal to the international community to write to the government of Hong Kong the injustice what Christians are facing in Pakistan.

Don’t starve refugees of the fruit of honest labour

May 1st, 2013 | Media | Comment

Aleta Miller writes for South China Morning Post on 1 May 2013

Imagine you are faced with an impossible choice. You must survive in Hong Kong on HK$1,200 a month for housing and three bags of food every 10 days, or you can risk working illegally, where you will likely face exploitation by unscrupulous employers who will take advantage of your vulnerability, and where you face possible arrest and prosecution by the authorities, with severe penalties. This is the dilemma that refugees in Hong Kong face every day, condemned to a life of deprivation and uncertainty. Unfortunately, misconceptions are rife about who refugees are and why they are here, feeding a fear that allowing the right to work would open the floodgates to economic migrants. Whereas an economic migrant chooses to come to Hong Kong to better their prospects, a refugee is forced to flee and cannot return because they are persecuted – sometimes by their own states. Currently, the refugee-status determination and resettlement process for applicants takes years to complete. Meanwhile, refugees must grapple with making ends meet in an unfamiliar city with no legal right to work or volunteer and relying on minimal welfare assistance that is inadequate for the cost of living.

Refugees are essentially forced into the very dependence for which they are often criticised, although they would prefer to be self-sufficient, if given the choice. The right to work is not the right to a guaranteed job; it is the right to have access to the labour market. It is a fundamental human right, without which other rights become meaningless. It is about more than being able to make a living; work is crucial for dignity, self-esteem and a sense of purpose. And poverty goes beyond unmet material needs – it also denies participation in society and personal autonomy over decisions that affect one’s life. The status quo is inefficient and creates perverse incentives. The right to work would make refugees more self-reliant and allow them to contribute to the economy; their valuable skills are untapped potential. By being granted the right to work, refugees would also contribute to the tax base, as well as be better prepared for resettlement. Access to livelihood opportunities would deter people from having to turn to the unregulated, informal economy or other means just to survive – reducing crime and labour abuses.

Social harmony would be improved by allowing those who are largely cut off from society to interact more with local people, playing a vital role in changing public perceptions. Exhausted arguments that the right to work would create a “magnet effect” are employed to justify the government’s tough stance on refugee protection. Based on the experience of other jurisdictions, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this claim, and the level of apprehension is disproportionate given the actual numbers: there are fewer than 100 recognised refugees in a population of more than seven million. The potential gains of granting refugees a legal right to work – for productivity, social cohesion, refugees’ mental and physical health and for our reputation as a world-class city where rights are respected – far outweigh the costs of doing nothing. On Labour Day, when we show solidarity with workers and honour their contributions, let’s not forget to extend our support to those who are still denied access to this basic right.

Protesters march during a demonstration by asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Asylum seekers want better screening from Immigration Department

Apr 29th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Jolie Ho and Joanna Chu report for the South China Morning Post on 28 April 2013

Hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest against what they see as the government’s failed screening process

Banging African drums and chanting words such as “justice”, hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest over what they say is the government’s failed screening process. The rally came as pan-democrats voiced support for an overhaul, with Albert Ho Chun-yan saying he would propose setting up a review committee. Cosmo Beatson, the march organiser and executive director of Vision First, which advocates for the rights of those seeking protection, said the Immigration Department’s rate of recognition of claims was effectively zero. “The recognition rate is only 0.02 per cent [of all claimants] … The department’s screening fails to identify victims,” he said. According to Immigration Department figures, five torture claims have been accepted since December 2009, and 3,110 rejected. About 4,350 are being processed and it estimates 2,000 decisions can be made in 2013-14. A department spokesman said yesterday the claim there was a “zero recognition” rate was groundless. “Any purported correlation between the number of substantiated claims and the standard of fairness or effectiveness of the screening procedures has no rational basis,” he said. Wako Basafe, an asylum seeker from Eritrea in East Africa who has been in Hong Kong for a year, said he wanted a fair and faster system. “From the way they accept asylum seekers, it seems that they just look at the map and see if there’s a problem like civil war in that country. If not, they will not be accepted,” he said. The department was given a greater role in assessing cases after the High Court last month ruled that the government could not rely mainly on a United Nations agency for asylum assessments. Ho, of the Democratic Party, said he had “every reason to believe that there must be some flaws in our screening procedures … to properly identify genuine claimants”. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said the way the government had “dragged their feet” in implementing the court-ordered reforms had been “shameful”.

Apple Daily: 酷刑聲請成功率0.02%

Apr 23rd, 2013 | Media | Comment

【本報訊】關注難民權益的本港非政府組織 Vision First 指政府於過去20年來,收到超過12,400宗酷刑聲請,尋求庇護,但只有3宗獲批,比率只有0.02%,遠低於其他發達國家,質疑負責審批的入境處官員和上訴委員會成員的決策質素,以及聲請人未能得到足夠的法律協助。

號召難民周六遊行 - Vision First施小姐表示,尋求庇護者匆匆逃離國家,要在限時的28天提供證明文件存在困難;一些求助者表示,個別當值律師未能給予協助。她表示,港府於92年簽署聯合國有關禁止酷刑的公約,原由聯合國難民專員公署審批聲請,但程序透明度低;04年由港府設立甄別機制,到08年5月才有首宗成功個案,到今年3月和4月再有兩宗成功個案,一宗涉及一家五口,其中兩名子女在港出生。

組織號召難民、酷刑生還者、非政府組織和不同宗教團體於周六在中區遊行,抗議政府近乎零甄別保障。組織指在港尋求庇護的人,有的因為政見、宗教、種族、公開政治黑幕或反對極權政府,而在自己國家受到迫害和殘酷對待;他們來自包括格魯吉亞、伊朗、斯里蘭卡和利比里亞等地。

[Translation] Vision First, an NGO advocates for refugees, says the government has received over 12,400 torture claims in the past 20 years, but the government has only recognised three claims. This recognition rate of 0.02 per cent is severely lagging behind that of liberal democracies. They draw into question the quality of decision-making of immigration officers and appeal court members, as well as the adequacy of legal assistance offered to torture claimants.

Appeal to refugees to march on Saturday - Ms. Sze of Vision First says, asylum seekers fled their countries in a rush, it is difficult for the claimants to provide evidential proof in the required 28 days. Some claimants reflect that their assigned legal representatives are ineffective. She says, the Hong Kong Government signed up to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1992. UNHCR did the screening by then, but the process lacked transparency. The HK Government set up a screening mechanism in 2004, the first recognized case appeared not until May 2008. There have another 2 recognized cases in March and April this year, one of the cases is one single family of five members – of which two were born in Hong Kong.

The NGO appeals to refugees, torture survivors, NGOs and faith groups to march through the centre of Hong Kong on Saturday to protest at the government’s effective zero-percent protection rate. The NGO says that the asylum seekers in Hong Kong are from countries including Georgia, Togo, Sri Lanka, Iran and Liberia. They had been persecuted and tortured in their home countries for reasons such as political views, religion, race, uncovering dirty stories of political parties or against authoritarian government.

Al-Jazeera “Unwelcome immigrants struggle for status”

Apr 22nd, 2013 | Media | Comment

Reuters on the March For Protection

Apr 22nd, 2013 | Media | Comment

TVB Evening News on the March For Protection

Apr 22nd, 2013 | Media | Comment

Immigration grants recognized torture victim right to work

Apr 16th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Patsy Mok writes for South China Morning Post on 16 April 2013

A torture claimant received a temporary work permit from the Immigration Department just a day before he is to lodge a legal challenge against the department in the city’s top court today. The Sri Lankan is the first torture claimant to be allowed to work in the city. His lawyer, Mark Daly, said a letter from the Immigration Department arrived at the law firm yesterday, saying his client was granted “temporary permission to work on the [immigration] director’s discretion”. Daly described the news as “miraculous” as his client was due to apply for leave to seek to fight in the Court of Final Appeal for his right to work.

Daly said the man would pursue his case, despite the temporary permission. “The right to work as a right as opposed to discretionary permission [by the director of immigration],” Daly said. “Also the test case involves other applicants, such as refugees who cannot be resettled and who have been stranded here for many years. The treatment [of not allowing them to work] by the director of immigration has been cruel and quite inhumane.” Daly did not believe the director’s action was likely to open a floodgate, as only three of the refugees he represented had had their torture claims accepted. The department said last night it had received 12,409 torture claims up to March 31, with six substantiated and 4,348 still being processed.

It had only received one application for permission to work from a substantiated claimant – the Sri Lankan. The Sri Lankan man was one of five refugees who lost their battle for the right to work in both the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. He arrived in Hong Kong in December 2000 but has not been allowed to work. The court was told he suffers from severe depression. In November, the Court of Appeal ruled that the five could not invoke the Bill of Rights Ordinance to argue they had the right to work in the city. This was because they had no right to enter or remain in Hong Kong. But the judgment said the immigration director could exercise his discretion to let such people work.

(Kam Tin Outreach) Nobody can survive without income month after month.

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