HK a ‘hard place’ for asylum seekers

Post Date: Jun 20th, 2012 | Categories: Media, Refugee Community | COMMENT

South China Morning Post – Simpson Cheung writes, Jun 20, 2012

The recognition rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is unacceptably low compared to Western countries, a local aid group said ahead of World Refugee Day today. The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees last year, without giving an exact figure. There were 149 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and a further 638 awaiting the results of their applications as of last month.

However, Cosmo Beatson, the co-ordinator of Vision First, a local volunteer organisation that provides humanitarian services to UNHCR asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, said the recognition figure was closer to 3%, and his group had pushed the Hong Kong government to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It would accord refugees in the city rights similar to those of residents while they await resettlement or local integration.

According to the UNHCR, asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong have access to government-provided humanitarian assistance including basic accommodation, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of petty cash for travelling expenses. In addition, the UNHCR provides HK$300 a month to each. However, even recognised refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and must rely on charity for many of their needs. Only refugee children under 18 can receive education, at the government’s discretion.

“The figure is about 3% and actually tells us that the system is not doing its job,” Beatson said. “The recognition rate is extremely low, to the point that it is almost a joke.” According to recent official figures, the recognition rates for refugees in Britain and Australia, where the ethnic mix of asylum seekers was similar to that of Hong Kong, were 35 per cent and 38.3 per cent. Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face a long screening process with the UNHCR or Immigration Department, which has only accepted one torture claimant since 2008. If accepted as refugees, they must resettle elsewhere, as the city has no legal obligation to grant them residency.

Beatson said that while it was true some applicants lied to authorities to buy time in Hong Kong for economic reasons, the system also screened out genuine applicants who faced torture or even death back in their home countries. Beatson suggested that Hong Kong follow the UK and most European countries and allow asylum seekers to work if their applications are pending for more than six months. A government spokesman said extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong’s developed economy and liberal visa regime.

Vision First runs Hong Kong’s only refugee shelter



  1. Polly T

    Could the manager of UNHCR Hong Kong kindly offer some clues for this 10% optimistic assumption.
    It would be greatly appreciated and perhaps stop the chuckling that is going on in many circles.
    greetings, PT

  2. 10% recognition rate in 2011?
    Let me think, either UNHCR is lying or this is a deception strategy.
    Either way, who buys it?
    HKU Student group

  3. Elmer W. Cagape

    At a rate of just 10 per cent of asylum seekers recognizing as refugees, Hong Kong is less accommodating than its Western counterparts when it comes to accepting foreigners coming to the city to escape persecution from their homeland.

    Without releasing exact figures, the ratio was released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the city where there are 638 refugee applicants as of last month.

    But according to Cosmo Beatson of Vision First, an organization which helps asylum seekers and refugees in the city the number could be much lower as his group pushes the Hong Kong government to be a signatory of UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. By doing so, refugees would be able to avail of the same benefits accorded to residents while waiting for resettlement.

    Asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong are granted HK$300 monthly allowance as well as basic accommodation and food provided by the government. Considering that people need to pay for so-called “cage” accommodation, one can imagine what might these asylum seeker accommodations would look like.

    To add to their woes, asylum seekers can only rely on charity groups for a bulk of their needs since the government forbids them from taking up work. It’s good to know that Hong Kong is home to among the most generous people on Earth, but high cost of living in the city might just force these asylum seekers into getting involved in crime such as smuggling, drug dealing and peddling of counterfeit items.

    While Hong Kong’s immigration transfer counters and transport system gets tremendous appreciation from outsiders, it’s considered a laggard in screening refugee applications whose acceptance rates are way below economies such as Britain (35%) and Australia (38.3%). Not that Hong Kong is a crowded place for recognized refugees; successful applicants must settle elsewhere since Hong Kong isn’t obliged to grant them resident status.

    The Hong Kong government may be cautious at application, with fraudulent claims mixing up with legitimate ones. I heard stories about Filipina domestic helpers getting pregnant or breaching conditions of stay and filing application as asylum seekers with some random reasons in order to buy time and avoid deportation.

    Given Hong Kong’s entry system that offers visa-free access by visitors from many countries, it has a reason to hesitate extending refugee extension so as to prevent abuse. But that also leaves a big question mark to the fate asylum seekers who left families back home to evade death threats and violence, hoping Hong Kong can offer hope of a better future

  4. Masood

    UNHCR should awaken to the fact we are living in the information age. People can gather information. People will share information. People can learn and react from information. When you dish out rubbish, you must expect to be treated like rubbish. What we witness with UNHCR PR SPIN is a lame attempt to manipulate an audience who knows full well what the reality is. We shall not stop accusing UNHCR until they prove their honesty and integrity. Personally I doubt this date will ever come. Masood

  5. Where do we go from here? Nobody should accept any UNHCR figures that are not substantiated by data and chronology. 10% means nothing if the calculation is a ratio between number of recognitions and number of “closed cases”, for example. As the banking crisis proved to the world: numbers can be massaged to say anything! What we know as a fact is that maybe a total of 15 refugees were recognized in 2011 and here in Chung King Mansion we already have all their names. What games is the UNHCR playing? Who do they think the are fooling? Lies upon lies is all we are going to hear from them. Thank you Vision First for providing this website to voice our thoughts. Signed: by the Anti-UNHCR Refugee Group.

  6. Paul W

    The great failure of UNHCR is their inability to ensure refugees enjoy the rights they have in other industrialized countries. Left to the mercy of the government of HKSAR, one should expect nothing more than what the reality is today. In essence, the head of UNHCR has failed to project the power of that office and has demonstrated through spineless passivity they are *not* the champions of refugees, but self-serving bureaucrats. Until the day comes when the head of UNHCR locks horns with the government to secure what refugees rightfully expect, that office remains shadowed in shame. Paul W

  7. ThumbMAN

    Hongkong government must know that they also have HK citizens somewhere in EU, Africa, America and other parts of the world. So if they drink water let them look side by side. So if you treat an asylum seeker in a bad way and you send that person he/she to his/her country he/she will meet HK or Chinese people. Then what is going to happen to that HKs or Chinese? They must think very very well before they take their decisions other then that those people living will suffer a lot especially in any AFRICAN countries. Thank you VISION FIRST. A WORD TO A WISE IS ENOUGH!

  8. Leng-leng

    These comments are calling for UNHCR to publish their numbers and explain how they reach 10%
    We must insist that statistics are published at least yearly on their website.
    Anything short of that means they are fuzzing the numbers and they better know people are watching.
    Thank you for this opportunity Vision First. God bless.

  9. Looking at the maths by Mathman, we should also consider why UNHCR applications have plummeted in recent years while CAT claims remain fairly high. If UNHCR claims they have a 10% recognition rate, while CAT recognition rate is essentially 0%, wouldn’t it be wiser to apply for asylum at the UNHCR rather than Immigration Department? It would make perfect sense! In reality, the impression is that if you are not from Somalia or the Middle East your chances to get refugee status are rather slim, if nonexistent at all. This is why many persecuted people prefer going through the CAT screening process. It guarantees some basic life and release from detention, rather than wasting time at the UNHCR without any practical returns. In the end, it all comes to down to survival and these figures reveal the TRUTH!

  10. Interesting calculations. The picture that emerges shows the UNHCR is still struggling with transparency dealing with the Hongkong public. Maybe they think people are idiots or simply not smart enough to understand their calculations or the reasons behind their policies. Throwing out “recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers” without backing this with relevant details is ludicrously pathetic. Cheers LBT

  11. Mathman

    Working with refugees I see UNHCR registration numbers on the monthly sign-in slips. I reviewed past yeas and found out the following based on the highest number on hand (UNHCR adopts a sequential numbering system starting with 20xx – 0001 at the beginning of the year):

    – 2006 registrations 2200
    – 2007 registrations 1700
    – 2008 registrations 700
    – 2009 registrations 750
    – 2010 registrations 700
    – 2011 registrations 760
    – 2012 registrations 350 (half-year)

    UNHCR stated for this article the recognition rate is about 10%. They do not specify period, method, type of cases included (registration, withdrawn, dropped out, deported, etc.) which makes statistics rather pointless and frankly self-serving. Anyway, considering these numbers, which are minimum confirmed figures (could be higher by several hundred), there were a total of 7,160 asylum cases in six and half years.

    With a 10% recognition rate, UNHCR would have accepted 716 refugees since 2006.
    We would need to add those refugees recognized prior to 2006, but let’s skip them here.
    Considering a generous resettlement of 30 individual yearly (more likely to be 20), let us deduct 30 x 6.5 = 195
    The result is 521 refugees and not just 149 as UNHCR stated for May 2012 … what’s wrong with this picture?

  12. ah ming

    Hongkongers are not hateful people. We are not insensitive and uncaring. The government is not representing the people wishes by condemning asylum-seekers to years of misery in squalid conditions. Through volunteering at Crossroads I have met many wonderful ‘seekers’ who have clearly escaped hell and politely ask for nothing more than a chance to make a decent living by contributing to society while caring for their family. They have traveled thousands of miles to find a safe place and it’s impossible that everyone is abusing the system. It seems to me the problem is with the screening process that fails selection. Changes are needed from step one in the process. Thank you.

  13. T-bone

    Refugees do not want to be labeled as lazy, good-for-nothing, living off Hong Kong’s generosity. We want to prove ourselves. We want to earn our place in the society and give back to the city that has protected us for years. Being granted refugee protection and told “You cannot work” is absurd and inhuman. It is equivalent to granting freedom, but throwing one into a different kind of prison. It’s not rocket science. These inhuman policies reveal an agenda other than respecting refugee rights. Obviously the powers-that-be are keen to look good by appearing to do the right thing, while actually smothering refugees with a slow death.

  14. Why should the public fork out millions to subsidize their lives, if they could work for minimum wage in jobs that need to be done and citizens do not want to undertake? It’s not a matter of allowing refugees to take plum jobs away from us, but directing their energy towards what are known as the 3D jobs: dirty, dangerous and demeaning. There are plenty of opening my son and his friends would never consider taking. Why not allow refugees to prove their gratitude? Thank you. KK

  15. KK1979

    It is unacceptable and unjust that asylum-seekers, who have escaped horrors, are denied access to opportunities that are nothing more than the chance to live with some measure of dignity until their cases are processes. Nothing else needs to be said. How about those who object considering living in their shoes for a week. Period.

  16. RBCL_man

    Thank you Vision First for your outspoken service for the refugee community!
    You always say what is right and you give a strong voice to our feelings and suffering.

  17. Balchy

    I second that – the Shortage Occupation List is a brilliant idea! Nobody could reasonably object to it as it ensures jobs are not stolen from locals and claimants get to work where Hongkong needs them most. In my mind it’s a no-brainer. Let’s hope the administration picks it up. Thank you VF for your inspiring work.

  18. Tom_Shatin

    Duncan added an important point. A SHORTAGE OCCUPATION LIST catches two birds with one stone. On the one hand, citizens are relieved of jobs they don’t want, perhaps the menial, unpleasant and dirty ones they turn their nose on. On the other hand, asylum-seekers can get down to work and earn minimum wage (29$ an hour), with the satisfaction of helping the host-city that is considering their refuge claim. This is a WIN-WIN situation that in a certain way is already implemented when these people collect garbage for recycling or are employed in yards where our youth would never consider working. Even the government must have tough jobs they struggle to cover.

  19. Jim Raynor

    For all things the refugees’ been through, they deserve a dignified new life. Hong Kong needs more NGOs like Vision First who fight for their live and their rights. Why don’t allow the refugees to make their own living but letting them scramble for every single cent in one of the richest cities? They deserves to determine their own life but what the HK govt does are just discouraging them. Luckily we have still got NGOs like VF!

  20. Tantra

    now it start good work for people who really need to work. You cannot be a beggar for many years. While we are waiting for our claims to be screened we can do the jobs that Chinese do not want to do, to help the community. The UNHCR cannot give us job in HK, they cannot fight for this, only Vision First is doing it. They are the people who are helping to explain our situation. There are many things to do, many jobs the locals do not want to do. The fish the Chinese keep in their aquarium can stay there for many years but after a while they will eat them or they will die. We feel that we are like these fish that are trapped in a small place. Of course when asylum-seekers are offered a bad job they will accept it, there is no other way for them to survive.

  21. I’m surprised to see Vision First fight for us, to let people know our situation in Hong Kong because we think something must change as it is very difficult for us to stay in this situation. Hopefully the fight Vision First do for us will be successful in the future and can make HK authority to understand how hard life is to be asylum-seeker in Hong Kong.

  22. “extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong’s developed economy and liberal visa regime.” HK government is taking lead to label the refugees as economic migrants (“fortune seeker” is the worse way to put it), how could the public be aware of the issues faced by the most deprived in our city when the government is taking the lead ignoring them?

    As an “international city” the HK government is letting in 150 mainland Chinese in everyday, and now only a few thousand asylum seekers staying temporarily it suddenly became a heavy burden, threatening our safety and stealing our jobs! Actually most of the asylum seekers here are well-educated and speaks English better than many of the locals.

    Vision First is doing a good job in letting Hong Kong know who they really are, not as the general public feels and not even as what the HK government had claimed. Keep it on Vision First!

  23. Shelli

    We can always do more. And we should try. Alleviating suffering should be everyone’s concern.

  24. These are important issues that need to be publicly discussed to let the government know there are alternatives to their current directives. How about promoting this declaration?

    “I urge the Government to give asylum seekers permission to work if they have been waiting for more than six months for their cases to be concluded or if they have been refused asylum but temporarily cannot be returned to their country of origin through no fault of their own.

    This will prevent vulnerable people being left in a state of limbo for prolonged periods of time, will reduce the burden on the taxpayer and allow a small number of asylum seekers to support themselves and their families while contributing to the economy.”

  25. facebook365

    Minni you are spot on! The government tries to paint all claimants as “fortune seekers” as an expedient way to degrade their motivations. Gradually we have lost the true, respectable meaning of “asylum seeker” as these individuals are labelled as invaders who want to steal Hong Kong jobs. Any asylum policy that is tainted by the notion of labor protection is clearly something else than a refugee policy.

  26. Asylum seekers escape unimaginable horrors. They have been persecuted, often been physically tortured, have seen family members murdered, have had their homes destroyed. They come to Hong Kong looking for a safe place to rebuild their lives, as any of us would. They are not beggars. They are not opportunists or fortune seekers. Most expect to work to support themselves but the government won’t let them. We call the government to change the rules so that asylum seekers can use their skills to support themselves and their families.

  27. VF friend

    I cannot imagine escaping to a foreign country, running out of cash and being forced to be for survival not one day, not one week, not one month, not one year but year upon year upon year. That’s dreadful! Isn’t this further proof that those who will endure such despair are in genuine need of protection? Thank you Vision First for your outspoken advocacy.

  28. Duncan Lewis

    The rights of asylum seekers concerning working in the UK have changed recently because of an EU directive, which was unsuccessfully challenged by the UK Government in the Supreme Court. The directive lets asylum seekers in the UK search for work as long as their claim for asylum has not been processed in the space of a year. The Government took the view that this directive did not apply to asylum seekers who had already submitted an application that had been rejected, and were submitting a second one, but the Supreme Court ruled against this.

    Asylum seekers, when submitting their first claim for asylum, are not allowed to work in the UK. However, if the initial claim for asylum has still not been processed after a year has passed since its first submission then the asylum seekers are allowed to work here. This is because the UK signed up to the European Council’s Reception Directive in 2003, which allows this to happen. In 2010, judges in the Supreme Court ruled that the same situation applies not only to new asylum seekers but to those submitting a second claim after the first one has been rejected.

    Fresh asylum claims, following an initial rejected one, are based usually on new evidence such as a change in personal circumstances or the conditions in the country that they have left. Following rejection of the second claim for asylum, their right to work in the UK will also end and they will have to return to their country of origin. The asylum seekers who are eligible to work in the UK are often restricted to certain types of jobs. The Government has drawn up a shortage occupation list and asylum seekers are often restricted to jobs on that list.

    When asylum seekers have come to the end of the appeals process, they are prohibited from working for payment, and this is the case even when the Home Office has accepted reasons given for being unable to exit the UK, such as the incapacity to return to their own country by a safe route. An asylum seeker in this temporary state in the UK will receive accommodation and a number of vouchers to cover basic needs and food while remaining in the UK.

    One of the reasons that the government is averse to allowing asylum seekers to undertake paid employment, and consistently challenges EU directives such as the Reception Directive of 2003, is that it sees such rights as a ‘pull factor’ that would encourage more people across the world to head for the UK and claim asylum here. Many asylum seekers are highly skilled, and the new changes to the law mean that they can contribute to this country and support themselves to some extent in certain types of job if their first or second claims for asylum are taking longer to process than expected.

  29. CY Leung

    It is every citizen’s duty to ensure the government is treating people seeking sanctuary with respect and responsibility. This is not limited to fair screening, but must include the right to live with dignity while awaiting asylum decisions. Anything short of this truly amounts to cruel and inhuman treatment, which by the way is covered by the Torture Convention.