SCMP on Sep 27, 2011
Protection of fundamental rights and adherence to the rule of law are core values. We strive to ensure everyone in society is treated fairly, regardless of status, race or nationality. To do so, robust institutional safeguards have been made – and there are appeal channels for the aggrieved who want to seek redress. That said, there is no room for complacency. The screening arrangement being put in place for asylum seekers is a case in point. The process remains so shamefully slow that some may feel helpless and are therefore tempted to exhaust different ways in the hope of getting their cases noticed. Last week, this paper reported that five inmates in an immigration detention centre have been refusing food for more than a month. The hunger strike came after some were allegedly beaten. They were all believed to be asylum seekers, some of whom having stayed in the city for up to two years already.
The situation does little credit to a city that prides itself on being a tolerant and humane society. It highlights the urgent need for an effective mechanism that could guard against abuses while being able to help those with genuine needs. It is a pity that the inmates have chosen to seek attention by hurting themselves. Four of the five, weak and vulnerable, were staying at the centre’s medical bay. They need not have resorted to such extreme action to make their point. Others discontented with the delay should not be encouraged to follow suit. Thanks to a series of court rulings that effectively struck down the previous regime, the government is finally pushing ahead with a law seeking to back up the safeguards under a so-called enhanced mechanism for torture claimants adopted since late 2009. But the outlook remains gloomy, with only 1,200 torture claims handled in the following 18 months. Of these, decisions were made on only some 500. Hopefully, the blueprint tabled to Legco in July can be enacted no later than next summer to help clear some 6,700 outstanding torture claims. Otherwise, the bill will lapse and the legislative process will have to start over again in the new term beginning in October next year.
Clearing the backlog of torture claims is only part of the challenge. Hong Kong has still not signed the UN Convention on Refugees, arguing that abuses may follow if we do so. The separate queue for screening asylum seekers by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has unnecessarily complicated the matter. The government’s reluctance to take on refugee screening is understandable. The ordeal in handling tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers in the 1980s has made officials wary of taking any steps that might see another influx. But fears about being swarmed by bogus claimants are not reasons to shut out the valid ones. We must have a system in place which ensures claims are processed quickly and fairly.