In recent months the government has waged a war of words against asylum “abuse” in general and claimants arriving from India in particular.
Hong Kong might not be a city “of extraordinary compassion”, as Prime Minister David Cameron said about Britain, but crucially the High Court requires that, “a refugee claimant deserve sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status. However, his basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government.”
Further, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance unequivocally prescribes that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Art. 3).
Despite such exquisite guarantees of refugee rights and government duty, in the evening of 22 August 2015, a destitute, starving, homeless and sick refugee collapsed in the streets of Jordan and was rushed unconscious by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he was treated for 18 days. The diagnosis was loss of consciousness, sepsis, psoriasis and alcohol dependence.
“I lost consciousness and hit my head,” recalls Singh, “Someone called an ambulance and I woke up in the hospital. I drank beer for the pain and itchiness of these sores covering all my body. It started small but got very worse [in the] six months [that] I waited for Immigration to give me new immigration paper. I had no help, no food and could not go to the clinic. For long time I sleep in the streets.”
In 2010 the Marine Police arrested Singh as he entered illegally from China. He was released from Immigration detention after lodging a torture claim based on his fear of death threats which has not yet been determined under the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). Around May 2012 he lost his Recognizance Form 8 and stopped reporting to Immigration for fear of being deported.
A refugee friend recalls the night in March when he encountered him, “It was freezing cold. I saw a man shivering on a bench in the park. I asked where he was from and what happened. He told me he was from India. He was sick and very desperate. I offered him food and the next day I took him to the Refugee Union. Two days later I took him to Immigration to apply for a new paper.”
According to Singh and his friend, who speaks fluent English and assisted him throughout, Immigration was fully informed about Singh’ predicament and especially about his medical condition that an officer agreed “was very critical”. And yet Mr. Singh was told to wait “one or two weeks”, repeatedly, until he grew the suspicion that Immigration planned to arrest and deport him.
Ignorance of his rights exacerbated the suffering Singh endured until he lost consciousness. The asylum process however showed little sympathy and did not prevent destitution by providing essential shelter, food and, most critically, medical treatment. On one occasion Singh says, “My officer told me that if I want to go back to India they will arrange the ticket immediately.” Yet his request for a replacement Recognizance Form has been ignored since March 2015.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital compounded Singh’s ordeal by demanding $25,870 upon discharge and withholding essential medications until the bill was settled. The penniless and despairing refugee had no option but to walk out of the hospital in shame. “They told me to go to the clinic in Jordan for treatment, but first I must pay the hospital bill. How can I pay? I have no money,” he laments.
Paranoid by fears of abuse and anxious to reduce the number of asylum seekers, Hong Kong Government is waging a war of attrition against refugees with forced hardship deployed as the main weapon. This approach is deeply regrettable as the effect on asylum abusers is questionable, while the impact on the weakest refugees is obvious. The time has come for the authorities to look in a mirror and figure out why the asylum process is failing everyone – vulnerable refugees especially.
UPDATE – The day following this blog, Singh was issued with a new Recognizance Form and collected medication from Queen Elizabeth Hospital that waved all charges.
The summer of 2015 will be remembered for the unprecedented European refugee crisis that, at the cost of more than 3000 lives, galvanized public attention, prompted alleged policy changes and caused an apparent although inconsistent and perhaps short-lived shift from apathetic indifference. “There is an enormous response from the public,” said an aid-worker in Malta, “The tide of indifference is shifting.”
Faced with extraordinary challenges, some European leaders are offering support and money they should have pledged earlier. Although the effectiveness of such emergency expenditures remains to be seen, European heads of state appear to be cognizance of the moral imperative of doing what is needed irrespective of financial cost and socio-cultural ramifications.
Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged 10 billion euro over two years to settle a record 800,000 refugees representing a one percent population growth that will profoundly impact German society. She remarked, “The fundamental right to asylum does not have a limitation. As a strong, economically healthy country, we have the strength to do what is necessary and ensure that every asylum seeker gets a fair hearing.”
After criticizing rescue operations in the Mediterranean, Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that the UK will receive 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years and pledged millions of pounds to assist frontline countries in the biggest, yet repeated, refugee crisis in decades. Speaking to the House of Commons he remarked, “In doing so, we will continue to show the world that this country is a country of extraordinary compassion.”
President Francois Hollande offered 11 million euro and stated that France will take 24,000 refugees over the next two years. He urged the European Union to make a collective effort to ensure that the European ideal of open borders would continue to be respected. Facing strong right-wing opposition, Hollande wants the French to accept a shift in policy regarding migrants.
Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila went a step further by offering his second home to a refugee family, as he no longer used it after moving to the capital. Meanwhile a German daily ran a popular article with advice on how to take in refugees, following the lead of lawmaker Martin Patzelt who hosted an Eritrean family. Patzelt wrote on Facebook, “I am trying to do my part … by giving a home to refugees and helping them to integrate into our country.”
Meanwhile Pope Francis invited every parish, convent and monastery across Europe to open their doors to homeless refugees who are “fleeing death from war and hunger and are on the path towards a hope for life.” He remarked, “Faced with a tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees, it is not enough to say ‘Have courage, hang in there.’” And the Vatican will welcome two refugee families.
Not without a hint of hypocrisy, riding the wave of public opinion distraught by photos of a dead toddler (hardly a unique occurrence), many European leaders have sprung into action. Citizens of Austria are sending convoys of private cars to assist refugees stranded at the Hungarian border. The first arrivals in Vienna were greeted with warm meals, blankets and shopping carts of food, water and hygiene products. Spaniards have gathered in street protests urging a better reception of refugees in Spain. A demonstration is planned this Saturday in London in solidarity for refugees.
In Hong Kong however refugee discourses hinge on securitization patterns. Death is a potent wake up call for the public. Does Hong Kong need to see some toddler dying in this city’s streets to finally question Hong Kong Government’s abysmal track record. Reports reach Vision First of asylum seekers engaging in the perilous journey to cross the sea between Hong Kong and China. Like Europeans a few days ago, these travelers are called migrants, or more precisely “illegal economic immigrants”. What will it take to shift for Hong Kong’s negligent indifference to refugees?
“There is no chance for you to make an appeal. You should give up”, an African refugee reported being told by his duty lawyer a few weeks before withdrawing his asylum claim. According to the Standard, on top of 2237 rejected cases, 1600 claimants cancelled their asylum bid since the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) was launched in March 2014.
Although the number of new arrivals is surging, rejection and withdrawal figures suggest that Hong Kong Government is waging a psychological war that underpins a “long established policy of not granting asylum” (Security Bureau, § 6).
The absurdity of seeking asylum in Hong Kong was a painful experience for Marku (not his real name). Without questioning his credibility, Immigration rejected his claim with the assessment that he could relocate or hide internally in his country.
Concealment in remote areas (including spider holes?) might indeed be an option for individuals fleeing persecution. However, in our experience, Immigration appears to unimaginatively and unconvincingly suggest “internal flight” and “internal relocation” as the only viable alternative when dismissing otherwise credible asylum applications.
“My lawyer said that I should go back to my country and live someplace else,” Marku reported with frustration. “He advised me not to appeal despite hearing that my country was at war and my problem is very big. He said, ‘Your immigration officer was right. He made the right decision to reject your claim.’” Marku was incredulous and had the impression that, “My lawyer just came to help Immigration to reject me!”
Marku continued, “The lawyer didn’t provide even one (COI) document that I saw. Everything I did myself. I didn’t hear him give me any advice, or suggest anything during the interviews. It was like he was not my lawyer. It was like he was one of the officers of Immigration. He did not care about me. He did not care about my case, about anything.”
States erect policy walls inside borders to discourage and deter refugees. These barriers are less sinister, yet arguably more harmful, than border fences. As Marku experienced, such impediments obstruct the course of asylum and the securing of protection, “I have proof. I have everything. I have death certificates (of family members), but they don’t care. I decided to go back because Hong Kong Government is not serious.”
Refugees bounce from interview to interview for years till 99.7% are either rejected or withdraw their claims in frustration. The trend is less indicative of abuse, than a challenge to the credibility of an ill-conceived and poorly implemented asylum system. On the flip side, in light of the “long established policy of not granting asylum”, the screen-to-reject process might be considered a resounding success.
Hong Kong’s culture of rejection hit Marku hard, “I am very disappointed. I am just wasting my time in Hong Kong for nothing. I have (many) family members who fled to (a neighbouring country) and were all recognized by the UNHCR because of my personal problems, not because of something that happened to them. I told Immigration and still they rejected my claim.”
Marku, who was allowed by Immigration to fly to a neighbouring African country, was utterly disillusioned, “All they want to do is to reject people. There is no justice in Immigration for asylum seekers and refugees. I stopped in Hong Kong for protection, because if I went home they would kill me. But now I know they don’t give protection. Now I know the USM is fake. Why should I stay? After I closed my case, Immigration wrote, ‘Your appeal and petition are dismissed on the ground that your contemplated risks are no longer in existence.’”
Is that intended to rub salt in the wound?