(Mr. Tim Collard’s letter to the South China Morning Post, 14 January 2011)
My father, Bill Collard, director of immigration from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, always insisted that Chinese illegal immigrants at the time were generally not refugees but economic migrants, and he was very clear and uncompromising about this. He waged a long and eventually successful campaign to have such illegals returned to the mainland provided they had not already settled in Hong Kong. He would have entirely agreed with the current director’s position as implied in the report that it is important not to encourage “more people with questionable claims to take a chance on coming to Hong Kong”.
Nonetheless, “hard-nosed” though he undoubtedly was about economic migrants taking advantage of a tolerant society, he was acutely aware that genuine refugees needed to be treated differently. He would have been appalled at our present government’s lack of common humanity in dealing with those whose claims of persecution and even torture have been validated. The director of immigration and his superiors are highly paid civil servants responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the community and they have powers of discretion to make exceptions to general policy when appropriate. If this were not required, a computer could just as well determine who stays and who works, and at a fraction of the cost.
Were true refugees returned to their place of origin it is highly possible they would be killed. Given that they have nowhere else to go, forcing them to exist on pitifully meagre welfare allowances, without the right to work year after year, is inhumane. It is also contrary to the spirit of international agreements on the matter, to which the Hong Kong government is a signatory. Hong Kong rightly aspires to “world city” status, but our government seems to be losing sight of the fact that this also implies some responsibility. It is necessarily difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain refugee status and very few do it. When these very few establish they were, and would still be, persecuted and tortured in their home country, and we allow them to stay on that basis, do we really need to continue to torment them in this petty, hypocritical manner?