A fair hearing for torture claimants

Post Date: Jul 17th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

SCMP Opinion – July 17, 2011

Version Française: Une audience équitable pour les demandeurs d’asile pour torture

Nearly 20 years after adopting the United Nations Convention against Torture, Hong Kong still lacks a legal framework for screening asylum seekers who invoke its protection. Meanwhile, an administrative system for assessing their claims has accumulated a backlog of 6,700 appeals; about 170 new cases are added a month. That invites abuse by bogus claimants and is unfair to genuine ones. It is therefore a blot on the city’s reputation for upholding human rights and the rule of law. Thankfully the government has finally addressed this problem by tabling legislation to regulate the assessment of torture claims. The bill should become law next year. It includes a review panel that will hear appeals against refusals by the Immigation Department to recognise asylum seekers’ claims that they face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment if repatriated.

The government’s hand was forced by a court judgment in 2009 that found the administrative screening system to be unfair, opaque and stacked against claimants. It made the belated but welcome acknowledgment of a duty to give asylum seekers a fair chance to prove that they risk torture in their home nations. The initial response – a pilot scheme involving lawyers to process applications for recognition – was a significant improvement, but questions remain about applicants’ legal status. Either claimants are genuine and cannot be deported to their country of origin, or they are economic migrants who should be screened out as quickly as possible with due process under the law.

Security Secretary Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong rightly says we should ensure every torture claimant gets a fair hearing but that caution needs exercising so that the screening mechanism is not abused. Hong Kong’s way of life and transport links make it an attractive destination for the persecuted, and people who have nothing to lose. The new system should strike a balance between compassion and the integrity of our borders.