By Grace Tsoi – published in HK MAGAZINE, June 09, 2011
Let’s call this young man S in order to protect his identity. Five years ago, S was an innocent high-school student in Sri Lanka. His life was supposed to center around school, friendship and romance—but because he was a heavily persecuted ethnic minority in a Southeast Asian country, his people had to fight for their own land. Worried about his safety, S’s mother hired an agent to help her son escape a deadly fate. At the age of 15, S left his family behind and embarked on a one-way journey away from home.
S made his way to Hong Kong three years ago—but it has not been the sanctuary he hoped for. “I don’t like anything here except the safety,” S says. “My future is denied in Hong Kong.” Since Hong Kong doesn’t grant citizenship to asylum seekers, their only hope is to get resettled in other countries. However, it takes more than five years on average for the authorities to determine a refugee’s status and to arrange resettlement. That means refugees have to spend years waiting in the city, with limited access to the opportunities and services it has to offer. Hardest of all is the uncertainty: they never know whether their application will be rejected, or when they’ll be resettled.
For these residents, Hong Kong is the worst kind of limbo. Instead of the freedoms extended to most of the SAR’s denizens, refugees lead a very restricted life in Hong Kong. The government does offer assistance, but it’s minimal. Asylum seekers receive food assistance every ten days, and they are given a $1,000 subsidy for accommodation. (To put the amount into context, keep in mind that a partitioned room in Sham Shui Po now costs more than $2,000 per month.) They are also not allowed to work; technically, it is even illegal for them to perform any form of volunteer work in the city.
Charities such as Christian Action offer extra help, but their efforts can do little to counteract the problems of a group stripped of its independence and empowerment. “A lot of them arrive and show signs of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” says Paul Bottrill, Manager of Christian Action’s Humanitarian Services department. “The longer they stay here, you usually start to see signs of depression because they are bored, they can’t earn money and there’s nothing to do.”
Refugees are extremely vulnerable, and they deserve a new beginning. But why does it take so long for them to be resettled in other countries and to start a new life? Hong Kong operates a confusing and ineffective two-pronged system for handling refugees. When asylum seekers land in Hong Kong, they can either go to the Immigration Department or to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to verify their status as refugees. “They feel that they are completely at the mercy of the government and the UNHCR,” Botrill says.
Hong Kong did not sign the UNHCR’s Refugee Convention, a legal document that defines who a refugee is, their rights and the obligations of states. (Interestingly, China and Macau have signed on.) Hong Kong, though, is a signatory of another UN document, the Convention against Torture, so it has a responsibility to ensure that refugees are not sent back to a place where they were being tortured.
After asylum seekers file an application to the Hong Kong government stating that they have escaped torture, immigration officers conduct interviews and determine whether the petitioner is a genuine torture claimant.
According to the Security Bureau, there are about 6,730 pending torture claims. And so far, there has been only one successful case—an astonishingly low figure. Even if authorities do believe an applicant has fled to Hong Kong because of torture, the SAR doesn’t offer citizenship to refugees, and the Immigration Department doesn’t always have the necessary connections with other countries to actually get people resettled elsewhere. That means you are likely to get stuck in Hong Kong as a verified torture claimant who has nowhere else to go.
Then there’s the UNHCR channel. According to the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, which provides legal counsel for refugees while they apply to the UNHCR, only one in 10 applicants are formally recognized as refugees. The UNHCR’s determination process also attracts criticism. “We say that UNHCR is procedurally more unfair than the present torture claimant system,” said Mark Daly, a human rights lawyer who has filed a number of judicial reviews to force the government to change its refugee policies. “It doesn’t have a system where you automatically get a lawyer to assist you; it does not have an independent appeal procedure; it doesn’t even give you access to your files. This is just ludicrous.” As an agency of the United Nations agency, the UNHCR enjoys diplomatic immunity, which means that no one can take it to court for unfair practices.
While it might be easy to shift the blame to the United Nations’ agency, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre Brian Barbour cautions against it. The UNHCR is not meant to shoulder the responsibility of screening and verifying the status of refugees, he says.
“Refugee status determination is the state’s responsibility. Hong Kong is supposed to be doing it, but it is not. The only reason that the UNHCR is doing this is because the government has not taken up its state responsibility to protect refugees,” Barbour says. “It’s important also to remember that the UNHCR is not a government, so it doesn’t have a judiciary. They are just one organization with one office. It is never going to be as good as having an independent judiciary.”
Hong Kong’s two-pronged system also invites abuses. Illegal immigrants, who arrive in Hong Kong for other reasons and haven’t suffered from torture, could file a fake application to the Immigration Department or the UNHCR. By doing so, they would be issued temporary permits that allow them to stay in Hong Kong. After a certain period of time (we are talking about years here) their applications would be rejected—but they could then file another application to the other agency. Abusers could take advantage of the loopholes of the system, work illegally and gain money—while genuine refugees, who may have been tortured, gang-raped or witness to the execution of family members—are unjustly associated with the free riders.
The larger issue underlying these difficulties is Hong Kong’s respect for human rights. “I don’t think our government respects human rights,” says Annie Lin of the Society for Community Organization (SoCO). “At least from what we see in the media, officials stereotype refugees and mix up the terms ‘refugees,’ ‘asylum seekers,’ ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘overstayers.’ They say that these people only come to Hong Kong for jobs.”
Shouldn’t a developed place like Hong Kong embrace a more humanitarian attitude toward protecting refugees? Even if the SAR doesn’t start doling out working visas indiscriminately, it could at least improve the system of refugee identification and resettlement. Genuine refugees have had their share of suffering—and our messy system shouldn’t be piling any more burdens upon their shoulders