The Standard – Eddie Luk writes on May 25, 2012
Building refugee camps is among extreme suggestions being put forward as a way to handle a challenging group of asylum-seekers. It comes from a New Territories politician who says some of the 5,900 asylum-seekers – mostly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia – who claim to face torture in their countries mean trouble around his Yuen Long district, where many stay. Others recoil at the very idea of rolling back the years even in a limited way by creating camps like the ones that long blighted districts and islands – and society in general. For the days of Hong Kong handling refugees with a strong arm and behind walls and wire are a recent memory. The last of about a dozen camps that started to be set up for boat people in 1975 closed in 2000 after 143,000 mostly Vietnamese were resettled elsewhere, while 67,000 were repatriated and several thousands stayed here in a community largely created by refugee waves. Today, the United Nations goes about handling “standard” refugees who land here, while those claiming to face torture are handled separately by the Immigration Department.
A crunch is coming, however, for people in the torture-claim category even if it’s not the regimented life in a camp for them and, perhaps, their families. Trying to soften any new blows, claimants and the people who support them with food and shelter say it’s already a case of backs to the wall because they are forbidden to work. And with the 5,900 living from day today as cases are processed, they say, it’s no surprise a few are linked to crimes and illegal employment – topics that have become a minor clamor recently. The trouble is that claimants can drag out the screening process beyond reasonable time and thus delay final decisions. And few can await final decisions with confidence. Only one person has had a story of facing torture back home accepted by immigration checkers. Officers have booked 11,647 torture-fear cases in recent years. Among them, 1,716 were rejected, and we know 5,900 are pending. Of the other 4,030 cases, it’s likely some withdrew claims and moved on by choice.
At present, an official says, “it takes an average of nine weeks to process a case after the receipt of questionnaires and supporting documents from a torture claimant until a decision is made by the Immigration Department.” On the longest time that’s been spent checking, the official says only that “the length of time required to process torture claims varies, depending on individual circumstances.” But that nine weeks is a smokescreen. For there are tried and true time- wasting tricks used on officers. Even the director of Unison, a non- governmental organization that helps South Asians, admits claimants can look to stay for more than three years by using various stalling tactics. “Some fraudulent claimants can stay in Hong Kong for as long as 10 years,” says Wong Wai-fun. “It seems the government has been avoiding the problem as thousands of claims are pending. The government must speed up the process of identifying claimants who are genuine.” Procedures for handling cases certainly offer loopholes. Under the present screening system, claimants must within 28 days of having their cases accepted substantiate their fears by providing all “relevant information” and filling out a questionnaire.
The deadline can be extended if claimants provide reasons to delay, and they do. Likewise, interviews are fixed once officers have received material, but these sessions can lead to requests for clarification or expansion of a claim. Lawyers can keep the speed of the process in check as legal representatives are allowed to accompany claimants to interviews. Common delaying tactics include withholding information, absences from interviews and closing a claim and than reinstating it. And as officers pick through paperwork, claimants could be out and about seeking illegal jobs. The administration is now moving to amend the Immigration Ordinance. There would be leeway for officers to check “whether there is a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights in the torture- risk state” and “whether there is any region within the torture-risk state in which the claimant would not be in danger.” That’s not nearly enough closing of loopholes, says Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin. “Some claimants can still say they have lost documents such as passports so that Immigration Department officials find difficulties and lengthy procedures to confirm identities with home nations. They can also cite sickness and avoid screening interviews repeatedly.”
Another problem, Wong says, is people making torture claims after failing to secure papers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong. A member of the legislative panel that will scrutinize proposed changes to the Immigration Ordinance, Wong also says “the Immigration Department has been relatively passive in its role of screening claimants.” For some South Asians, he adds, the claims appear to be a tactic to allow them to work here illegally. So more needs to be done to prevent them sneaking into Hong Kong and filing false claims. Wong says that will require tougher action to counter illegal work, including measures to deter employers from hiring these asylum-seekers, usually on construction sites or in recycling plants. “If fraudulent claimants can’t find jobs here they will definitely leave,” he argues, and there’s support for that view in the fact the Immigration Department last year booked 1,432 torture claims, down 20.8 percent on 2010. That was surely connected by a new ban on torture claimants taking even part-time jobs. Wong says too that punishments for bosses who hire asylum-seekers are not tough enough. Maximum penalties are three years in prison and fines up to HK$350,000.
Yuen Long district councillor Chow Wing-kan backs Wong in a call for tougher action as he watches torture claimants moving into villages in his area because rents are too high elsewhere. He claims they have been linked to stealing, with some even associating with triads. But Chow thinks quite a lot more needs to be done than just speeding up screening and cutting off jobs. He’s the man who wants officials to study the option of open refugee camps, which he claims is a suggestion geared to helping asylum-seekers. “Setting up open camps run by non- governmental organizations can help improve torture claimants’ living environment,” he believes. “Inside a camp there would be provision of food and basic health-care services, and children can receive education. “I don’t see that such a move would violate against human rights as claimants would enjoy the freedom of being able to go where they want. They just sleep inside the camp at night time.” That was a system that worked previously, of course, but a Vietnamese asylum seeker could walk through the gates to go to work. Open camps were also bolt holes for bad guys and grim living for families. Among those who cringe at the thought of a return to camps is Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a member of the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission.
Seeing camps as “similar to detention centers in nature,” he says any move to open one “would be aimed at containing those torture claimants and allow the government to better control them.”Recalling Hong Kong’s previous experience with camps for Vietnamese, Tsoi said widespread problems were associated with them. Any attempt today to “adopt segregation tactics to contain these asylum- seekers,” he forecast, would be “doomed to failure.” Mabel Au Mei-po, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, says that instead of camps “the government should consider allocating decent hostels for torture claimants. The government should allow claimants to choose whether they will live in hostels or get funding from non-governmental organizations to rent flats.” On easing the strain on torture claimants who rely on food handouts provided by NGOs, Au says, the government should consider allowing them to take work part-time jobs when they are still waiting for the department’s decisions on their cases. That wouldn’t affect the labor market jobs, says Au, who also calls for speeding up the screening process. Chow, naturally, wouldn’t want people leaving a camp to go to a job. He says that freedom would encourage more fraudulent claims from people who sneak into Hong Kong to find work.
Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, suggests government officials consider unifying the processing of torture claims and refugee status under the Immigration Department to streamline procedures. Currently, asylum-seekers either seek refugee status from the UNHCR in Hong Kong or apply to the Immigration Department for classification as people in danger of being tortured. This separation has been criticized for years, with Law noting that Hong Kong is among the few places in the world to have adopted a dual-track system. “Such a system has lengthened the time for handling claims,” Law says. “Sometimes you can’t distinguish clearly whether applicants should be regarded as refugees or torture claimants.” Western nations, Law says, have combined the processing of torture claims and refugee status and saved time and money. “When people are labeled refugees, the UNHCR can help them settle in other nations,” he adds. But the Security Bureau indicates it’s unlikely to broaden its role in asylum seeker-refugee matters. It points to a “firm policy of not granting asylum” and the fact a UN convention on refugees has never applied here. Hong Kong’s prosperity, it states, “makes us vulnerable to possible abuses if the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is extended to Hong Kong.”
Mark Daly, a prominent rights lawyer here, says Hong Kong has responsibilities and obligations to improve its screening to speed up torture- fear claims. Officials can only blame themselves for the backlog of cases, he adds, and the answer is more resources and manpower. Yet independent lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun doesn’t want a speedier process taking hold if that could mean thousands of claims are moved along smartly and among them someone with a genuine claim is rejected. The FTU’s Wong, taking lines that others are likely to follow, balances such reasonableness against burdens on welfare, health and education services if the number of torture claimants increases. And indicating that there will indeed be a hard push to clear cases from the books and cut the number of losing claimants who might be thinking of another way to stick around, Wong says immediate deportation must follow a finding that a fear of torture is not real.