HK a ‘hard place’ for asylum seekers

Jun 20th, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

South China Morning Post - Simpson Cheung writes, Jun 20, 2012

The recognition rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is unacceptably low compared to Western countries, a local aid group said ahead of World Refugee Day today. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees last year, without giving an exact figure. There were 149 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and a further 638 awaiting the results of their applications as of last month.

However, Cosmo Beatson, the co-ordinator of Vision First, a local volunteer organisation that provides humanitarian services to UNHCR asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, said the recognition figure was closer to 3%, and his group had pushed the Hong Kong government to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It would accord refugees in the city rights similar to those of residents while they await resettlement or local integration.

According to the UNHCR, asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong have access to government-provided humanitarian assistance including basic accommodation, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of petty cash for travelling expenses. In addition, the UNHCR provides HK$300 a month to each. However, even recognised refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and must rely on charity for many of their needs. Only refugee children under 18 can receive education, at the government’s discretion.

“The figure is about 3% and actually tells us that the system is not doing its job,” Beatson said. “The recognition rate is extremely low, to the point that it is almost a joke.” According to recent official figures, the recognition rates for refugees in Britain and Australia, where the ethnic mix of asylum seekers was similar to that of Hong Kong, were 35 per cent and 38.3 per cent. Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face a long screening process with the UNHCR or Immigration Department, which has only accepted one torture claimant since 2008. If accepted as refugees, they must resettle elsewhere, as the city has no legal obligation to grant them residency.

Beatson said that while it was true some applicants lied to authorities to buy time in Hong Kong for economic reasons, the system also screened out genuine applicants who faced torture or even death back in their home countries. Beatson suggested that Hong Kong follow the UK and most European countries and allow asylum seekers to work if their applications are pending for more than six months. A government spokesman said extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong’s developed economy and liberal visa regime.

Vision First runs Hong Kong’s only refugee shelter

So near so far …

Jun 12th, 2012 | Media | Comment

The Standard - Eddie Luk writes on May 25, 2012

Building refugee camps is among extreme suggestions being put forward as a way to handle a challenging group of asylum-seekers. It comes from a New Territories politician who says some of the 5,900 asylum-seekers – mostly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia – who claim to face torture in their countries mean trouble around his Yuen Long district, where many stay. Others recoil at the very idea of rolling back the years even in a limited way by creating camps like the ones that long blighted districts and islands – and society in general. For the days of Hong Kong handling refugees with a strong arm and behind walls and wire are a recent memory. The last of about a dozen camps that started to be set up for boat people in 1975 closed in 2000 after 143,000 mostly Vietnamese were resettled elsewhere, while 67,000 were repatriated and several thousands stayed here in a community largely created by refugee waves. Today, the United Nations goes about handling “standard” refugees who land here, while those claiming to face torture are handled separately by the Immigration Department.

A crunch is coming, however, for people in the torture-claim category even if it’s not the regimented life in a camp for them and, perhaps, their families. Trying to soften any new blows, claimants and the people who support them with food and shelter say it’s already a case of backs to the wall because they are forbidden to work. And with the 5,900 living from day today as cases are processed, they say, it’s no surprise a few are linked to crimes and illegal employment – topics that have become a minor clamor recently. The trouble is that claimants can drag out the screening process beyond reasonable time and thus delay final decisions. And few can await final decisions with confidence. Only one person has had a story of facing torture back home accepted by immigration checkers. Officers have booked 11,647 torture-fear cases in recent years. Among them, 1,716 were rejected, and we know 5,900 are pending. Of the other 4,030 cases, it’s likely some withdrew claims and moved on by choice.

At present, an official says, “it takes an average of nine weeks to process a case after the receipt of questionnaires and supporting documents from a torture claimant until a decision is made by the Immigration Department.” On the longest time that’s been spent checking, the official says only that “the length of time required to process torture claims varies, depending on individual circumstances.” But that nine weeks is a smokescreen. For there are tried and true time- wasting tricks used on officers. Even the director of Unison, a non- governmental organization that helps South Asians, admits claimants can look to stay for more than three years by using various stalling tactics. “Some fraudulent claimants can stay in Hong Kong for as long as 10 years,” says Wong Wai-fun. “It seems the government has been avoiding the problem as thousands of claims are pending. The government must speed up the process of identifying claimants who are genuine.” Procedures for handling cases certainly offer loopholes. Under the present screening system, claimants must within 28 days of having their cases accepted substantiate their fears by providing all “relevant information” and filling out a questionnaire.

The deadline can be extended if claimants provide reasons to delay, and they do. Likewise, interviews are fixed once officers have received material, but these sessions can lead to requests for clarification or expansion of a claim. Lawyers can keep the speed of the process in check as legal representatives are allowed to accompany claimants to interviews. Common delaying tactics include withholding information, absences from interviews and closing a claim and than reinstating it. And as officers pick through paperwork, claimants could be out and about seeking illegal jobs. The administration is now moving to amend the Immigration Ordinance. There would be leeway for officers to check “whether there is a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights in the torture- risk state” and “whether there is any region within the torture-risk state in which the claimant would not be in danger.” That’s not nearly enough closing of loopholes, says Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin. “Some claimants can still say they have lost documents such as passports so that Immigration Department officials find difficulties and lengthy procedures to confirm identities with home nations. They can also cite sickness and avoid screening interviews repeatedly.”

Another problem, Wong says, is people making torture claims after failing to secure papers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong. A member of the legislative panel that will scrutinize proposed changes to the Immigration Ordinance, Wong also says “the Immigration Department has been relatively passive in its role of screening claimants.” For some South Asians, he adds, the claims appear to be a tactic to allow them to work here illegally. So more needs to be done to prevent them sneaking into Hong Kong and filing false claims. Wong says that will require tougher action to counter illegal work, including measures to deter employers from hiring these asylum-seekers, usually on construction sites or in recycling plants. “If fraudulent claimants can’t find jobs here they will definitely leave,” he argues, and there’s support for that view in the fact the Immigration Department last year booked 1,432 torture claims, down 20.8 percent on 2010. That was surely connected by a new ban on torture claimants taking even part-time jobs. Wong says too that punishments for bosses who hire asylum-seekers are not tough enough. Maximum penalties are three years in prison and fines up to HK$350,000.

Yuen Long district councillor Chow Wing-kan backs Wong in a call for tougher action as he watches torture claimants moving into villages in his area because rents are too high elsewhere. He claims they have been linked to stealing, with some even associating with triads. But Chow thinks quite a lot more needs to be done than just speeding up screening and cutting off jobs. He’s the man who wants officials to study the option of open refugee camps, which he claims is a suggestion geared to helping asylum-seekers. “Setting up open camps run by non- governmental organizations can help improve torture claimants’ living environment,” he believes. “Inside a camp there would be provision of food and basic health-care services, and children can receive education. “I don’t see that such a move would violate against human rights as claimants would enjoy the freedom of being able to go where they want. They just sleep inside the camp at night time.” That was a system that worked previously, of course, but a Vietnamese asylum seeker could walk through the gates to go to work. Open camps were also bolt holes for bad guys and grim living for families. Among those who cringe at the thought of a return to camps is Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a member of the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission.

Seeing camps as “similar to detention centers in nature,” he says any move to open one “would be aimed at containing those torture claimants and allow the government to better control them.”Recalling Hong Kong’s previous experience with camps for Vietnamese, Tsoi said widespread problems were associated with them. Any attempt today to “adopt segregation tactics to contain these asylum- seekers,” he forecast, would be “doomed to failure.” Mabel Au Mei-po, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, says that instead of camps “the government should consider allocating decent hostels for torture claimants. The government should allow claimants to choose whether they will live in hostels or get funding from non-governmental organizations to rent flats.” On easing the strain on torture claimants who rely on food handouts provided by NGOs, Au says, the government should consider allowing them to take work part-time jobs when they are still waiting for the department’s decisions on their cases. That wouldn’t affect the labor market jobs, says Au, who also calls for speeding up the screening process. Chow, naturally, wouldn’t want people leaving a camp to go to a job. He says that freedom would encourage more fraudulent claims from people who sneak into Hong Kong to find work.

Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, suggests government officials consider unifying the processing of torture claims and refugee status under the Immigration Department to streamline procedures. Currently, asylum-seekers either seek refugee status from the UNHCR in Hong Kong or apply to the Immigration Department for classification as people in danger of being tortured. This separation has been criticized for years, with Law noting that Hong Kong is among the few places in the world to have adopted a dual-track system. “Such a system has lengthened the time for handling claims,” Law says. “Sometimes you can’t distinguish clearly whether applicants should be regarded as refugees or torture claimants.” Western nations, Law says, have combined the processing of torture claims and refugee status and saved time and money. “When people are labeled refugees, the UNHCR can help them settle in other nations,” he adds. But the Security Bureau indicates it’s unlikely to broaden its role in asylum seeker-refugee matters. It points to a “firm policy of not granting asylum” and the fact a UN convention on refugees has never applied here. Hong Kong’s prosperity, it states, “makes us vulnerable to possible abuses if the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is extended to Hong Kong.”

Mark Daly, a prominent rights lawyer here, says Hong Kong has responsibilities and obligations to improve its screening to speed up torture- fear claims. Officials can only blame themselves for the backlog of cases, he adds, and the answer is more resources and manpower. Yet independent lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun doesn’t want a speedier process taking hold if that could mean thousands of claims are moved along smartly and among them someone with a genuine claim is rejected. The FTU’s Wong, taking lines that others are likely to follow, balances such reasonableness against burdens on welfare, health and education services if the number of torture claimants increases. And indicating that there will indeed be a hard push to clear cases from the books and cut the number of losing claimants who might be thinking of another way to stick around, Wong says immediate deportation must follow a finding that a fear of torture is not real.

Stuck in HK’s bureaucratic purgatory

Jun 10th, 2012 | Media | Comment

SCMP – Simpson Cheung writes on Jun 10, 2012

A young African granted refugee status by the United Nations is angry at being denied an education and the right to work in Hong Kong. Amed (a pseudonym), 23, has been in the city for eight years, but since turning 18, no school has been willing to admit him. And as a non-permanent resident, he is not allowed to work. But providing education to refugees would make it easier for them to resettle elsewhere, community organisations say. For now, Amed is still waiting to be resettled in another country. He has been rejected by the United States and Canada, and has waited a year to hear from France. As such, he is forced to occupy his time by playing soccer, watching television, or window-shopping because he has no money. “How is it that I can be in Hong Kong without going to school for eight years?” Amed lamented. Among 146 UN-recognised refugees in Hong Kong, Amed arrived in the city in 2004 when he was 16 after fleeing a war in his home country, which he refused to name due to security reasons.

Two years later he was granted refugee status, but he has since lost all contact with his family. When he arrived, Amed was admitted to Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo) on an exceptional basis for an initiation programme by the then Education and Manpower Bureau. For six months he learned Cantonese and English and showed his talent by winning the most-improved student award. But he says he has since forgotten all the Cantonese. After the programme ended, he was told the government would not refer students over the age of 18 to schools, and that he would probably be leaving soon. So Amed personally applied to two schools, but did not hear from them. He also applied for courses ran by the Employee Retraining Board and the Vocational Training Council. But he was rejected because the law forbids him from working. Eager to learn, Amed thinks the government should provide him with an education. On his part, he has attended some English classes organised by non-governmental organisations, but he wants to study more advanced courses to improve his future prospects. “When you are allowed to go to another country, the knowledge you have gained in Hong Kong would make life easier,” he said.

Annie Lin, a community organiser with the Society of Community Organisation, said: “Those who are recognised as refugees should be allowed to work and young people should be allowed to study.” Currently, Amed is living in a Caritas shelter and gets HK$300 a month from the UN. The government pays his board and lodging. In a judicial review last year, the Court of First Instance ruled that the Immigration Department could review whether refugees could work on case-by-case basis. But no one has been allowed to as yet. The case would be appealed in September, Lin said. An Immigration Department spokesman says the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has not been extended to Hong Kong, and the city has no obligation to admit individuals seeking refugee status. He says education assistance is provided to child refugees on compassionate grounds and does not object to adults applying to any school on a self-financing basis. At the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a spokesman says the agency would protect refugees awaiting resettlement from being deported.

TREE – the tshirt project

Jun 9th, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

Refugee set, and left, adrift

Jun 2nd, 2012 | Media | Comment

The New York Times, June 2, 2012

Around the world, some 42.5 million vulnerable people were forcibly out of their homes and on the move in 2011, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are growing concerns that those numbers will get even worse in the face of armed conflicts and political violence that are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, population growth, rising food prices, natural disasters and struggles for scarce resources. According to António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Africa and Asia are the most vulnerable regions. But new crises are appearing unpredictably — in the past year, thousands have been driven from their homes in Syria, Sudan, Mali, Yemen and Côte D’Ivoire — and will continue to grow. Since 2005, the agency’s caseload has expanded — from about 24 million, mostly internally displaced persons and refugees, to roughly 37 million at the end of 2010.

Today’s environment is also more chaotic. Instead of negotiating with governments for humanitarian access, the agency often must deal with multiple actors, including warlords and rebels and breakaway regions, even less subject to international pressure, law or shaming. The risk for aid workers and the displaced has increased. There is also a crisis of political will. The international community, preoccupied with financial and domestic crises, has been less willing to help — whether with money or diplomacy or offers of asylum. Take the 7.2 million refugees considered to be in “protracted exile,” meaning they may never go home again. The report said that everybody involved — host countries, countries of origin and donors — “seem less able to work together to find solutions.” There are no easy answers, but certain strategies stand out. In 2010, 94 percent of all resettled refugees went to just four countries: Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United States, which takes more than any other country. Surely there are scores of others that can also open their doors. Better systems for predicting crises and quickly responding to natural and man-made disasters would also help. As ever, the best solution is for the world to do a better job of pre-empting conflicts in the first place.

UNHCR launches flagship publication on State of the World’s Refugees

May 31st, 2012 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

NEW YORK, United States, 31 May 2012

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned on Thursday that factors causing mass population flight are growing and over the coming decade more people on the move will become refugees or displaced within their own country. In comments marking the launch in New York of “The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity” (PDF edition) Guterres said displacement from conflict was becoming compounded by a combination of causes, including climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition. All these factors are interacting with each other, increasing instability and conflict and forcing people to move. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, finding solutions, he said, would need determined international political will. “The world is creating displacement faster than it is producing solutions,” said Guterres. “And this means one thing only: more people trapped in exile over many years, unable to return home, to settle locally, or to move elsewhere. Global displacement is an inherently international problem and, as such, needs international solutions – and by this I mainly mean political solutions.”

Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya

The new publication details these and other changes to the environment for the displaced since 2006, when the previous edition of the book was published. It presents a decidedly gloomier outlook: larger and more complex displacement challenges, increased threats to the safety of humanitarian workers, and states needing to strengthen their cooperation. Notable among these changes is the emergence of internal displacement as a dominant challenge. Today, most of the world’s 43 million people forced to flee their homes are not refugees but people who are displaced within their own countries, commonly referred to as internally displaced people, or IDPs. Globally, some 26 million people fall into this category, compared to around 15-16 million refugees and a further 1 million asylum-seekers. For humanitarian workers, an ensuing implication is that helping the displaced is becoming more costly and dangerous. In countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen or Iraq, getting help to internally displaced populations means working in environments where access is difficult and conflict or criminality can present deadly risk.

“The State of the World’s Refugees” looks at these problems and the state of cooperation among countries. “The space for humanitarian intervention is shrinking exactly when the need for humanitarian help is increasing. Pressures on the international protection system are clearly growing. In some industrialized countries in particular we see fortress mentalities that serve only to shift responsibility and compassion elsewhere. In a world where societies are becoming multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, it is essential to promote the values of tolerance and to fight the manifestation of xenophobia,” said Guterres. Several chapters in the book look at emerging challenges, including the growing numbers of urban refugees as well as displacement from climate change and natural disasters. The book notes that more people are displaced annually by natural disasters than by conflict. And it carries a warning about gaps in international protection when it comes to people who flee across borders to escape climate change impacts or natural disasters. They are not recognized as refugees under international law. The book describes how UNHCR and its partners have developed innovative practices in response to evolving displacement challenges.

However, it also elaborates the struggle UNHCR often faces in promoting state compliance with customary international law as it relates to the forcibly displaced, or the compliance of signatory states to their obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. It looks, too, at the problems of the world’s estimated 12 million stateless people – without citizenship of any country, they are often trapped in legal and human rights limbo. Eighty per cent of today’s refugees live in the developing world. Greater international solidarity is needed to address this challenge, the book concludes. This encompasses providing more resettlement opportunities for refugees in the industrialized world, focusing development cooperation projects to foster sustainable voluntary return or local integration, and supporting host communities. A new deal in burden and responsibility sharing is needed in the whole cycle of refugee protection from prevention of conflict to solutions.


Lost in asylum or lost in analysis?

May 31st, 2012 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

The Standard, “Lost in Asylum” by Eddie Luk, published May 18, 2012

An informed discussion about refugee issues in the news is welcome, however several points need clarification in The Standard’s article. The story, while providing interesting information on specific crimes, fails to make a clear distinction between ‘South Asian criminals’ and ‘South Asian asylum-seekers’, regrettably bunching both in one damaging misconception. The examples chosen by the reporter to support his views are at best misleading – as he labels everyone “South Asians” – and are further murking the waters of stereotypes and intolerance. The fact that some asylum-seekers are hired by criminals may be true, but what does this say about the asylum process? Could a previously honest individual turn to crime after years of abusive marginalization? What desperate conditions is she forced to endure? What support does he receive in the country of asylum? How can she meet financial obligations when barred from working legally?

The harsh reality is asylum-seekers, after selling food rations and what is salvaged from garbage, are *forced* to offer manpower in the informal economy of 3D jobs. This is the dirty, dangerous and demeaning work that citizens turn their nose on, but needs to be performed for the economy to function efficiently. On occasion these tasks are controlled by triad societies, making the connecting between the world of asylum and the world of crime, that slips into predictable vicious circle. We can’t simplistically blame the supply where there is pernicious demand, especially when such demand is structural and pre-exists the arrival of asylum-seekers. In other words, when a CAT claimant commits a felony, he relieves a domestic gangster from dirtying his hand – the culprits might have changed, but sadly the law would still have been broken. One could argue that South Asian criminals accepting lower-than-local-pay says more about the globalization of crime than lawless asylum-seekers. Similarly the city has witnessed trigger-happy Mainlanders running amok on the streets, yet we don’t equate these with the big-spenders in the malls, though both entered under the same Immigration scheme. The analogy could continue with Thai massage ladies entering on tourist visas and other common abuses of the Immigration Ordinance. To this end, this article is unconvincing in shedding light on the criminality of asylum-seekers in general and South Asian ones in particular.

Moreover, the story’s arguments about asylum abuse are laughable. The evidence does point towards most CAT claimants delaying their case with stalling tactics, like failing to show up, presenting late evidence, calling sick, changing lawyers or phones, etc. However, is this malicious behaviour or a plausible survival strategy? Let’s imagine being in their uncomfortable shoes and facing such bleak prospects. For example, if you were a Tamil Srilankan and were about to be deported to face torture our ImmD doesn’t consider ‘likely’ would you cooperate with procedures? If you were a Pakistani fleeing tribal/Taleban/tyrannical persecution, would you facilitate your return into harm’s way? We might note these individuals are acutely aware every single torture claim of 1,717 was rejected, between Jan 2010 and Apr 2012, leading to immediate deportation procedures. They know there was one success in 2500 cases, which means the odds of success are an unreachable 2500 to 1. Indeed why are we surprised claimants resort to every legal stratagem to delay the inevitable? In substance, many stall their cases, not because they are unfounded (maybe some are), but because the system is flawed and designed to invariably fail everyone. This raises the question: how can 2500 claimants all be liars? Meanwhile, it’s understandable that anyone fearing for her life delays deportation, even if at times such behaviour might be construed as abusing the system. Why should we be surprised that 5.8% of rejected claimants were prosecuted for overstaying or illegally remaining? Rather it’s surprising the percentage isn’t higher with such widespread fear of returning home. Perhaps we might inquire how CIC detention numbers are rising and how many volunteered for repatriation. Predictably, until we see changes in CAT results we won’t see asylum-seekers rushing in to complete interview processes.

BBC: Ivy League education free on the web

May 16th, 2012 | Advocacy, Media, VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Many school children shed sweat and tears to pursue the privilege of a top university education. But only a lucky few will make the grade and then they will have to fund it. The tech world however is full of visionaries intent on disrupting traditional establishments. BBC Click’s Sumi Das reports on a brand new project which is already causing ripples around the globe as it is making a top notch education available to anyone, anywhere and for free.

“I have waited many years to see something like this that would empower working people, poor people, and isolated ones, to learn at the top level from the best in a more accessible way.”

click to play video

Wax warriors fundraiser

May 12th, 2012 | Media, VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Coast 28 May – fundraising for Duvalld

Apr 17th, 2012 | Media, Personal Experiences | Comment

SCMP article May 2011 

SCMP article 22 April 2012



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