South China Morning Post – 21 June 2012
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo last Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi imagined a world without refugees and said, “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” She said each and every one of us was capable of making a contribution towards such peace.
The reality is that the world is far adrift from this vision. In 2010 alone, there were 42 million displaced people in the world and 15 million of those sought protection outside their own countries. Hong Kong has an estimated total of just 6,000 asylum seekers and refugees, or less than 0.1 per cent of the population, coming mostly from African and South Asian countries where there is severe political disruption and unrest. You might think then that the city’s contribution towards making this corner of the world “a true sanctuary” for the refugees we already have would be comparatively painless. But far from it.
In fact, refugees are very unwelcome guests and Hong Kong is definitely not a sanctuary. This is starkly illustrated by the case of four long-term refugees whose bona fide status has been well established by the UNHCR and who cannot be resettled elsewhere for various reasons. As a result of government policy not to accept refugees and also to make life difficult for those who are here, they face the prospect of living in the city for the rest of their lives as refugees, not residents. That means they have to sign a permit every few months to remain; have no right to work; live under the threat of deportation; are unable to travel freely to and from Hong Kong; have no right to education for them or their families; no right to health care or welfare; and are only provided with subsistence-level rent allowance and food allocation. This is a miserable and miserly existence.
Despite government concessions to allow easing of some restrictions, they have not been removed. Some might say it is better than being sent back to face persecution or torture in their home countries, but is this really refuge and protection, or just another form of punishment? It is a passive and grudging acceptance at best and downright hostility at worst. The government will argue that it also has the discretion to review particular cases and circumstances to ensure there is no undue hardship and ease suffering where it is proven. While this might seem like a reasonable safety mechanism, remember that it is at the sole discretion of the Director of Immigration who has a much more important stated policy of discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Hong Kong. Doesn’t this sound like a conflict of interest?
Hong Kong has built a very successful, civilised society in less than 70 years from what was largely a poor, marginalised and displaced group. Our heritage is a refugee population. Yet now we seem to lack compassion for other races. We should remember with gratitude our heritage and the help we received by showing compassion to asylum seekers and refugees. We have the chance to make a contribution, however small, to Suu Kyi’s vision and show we are a caring society, whatever government policy might be.
Tony Read is a pastor and justice advocate for The Vine Church in Wan Chai, which has been assisting asylum seekers and refugees for more than seven years