Labeled without cause

Post Date: Jul 22nd, 2012 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

We often read comments describing asylum-seekers and refugees as pitiful individuals who need our help to make a decent living. Sadly this polarizes opinions about who is responsible to look after those seeking international protection or whether harsh policies are justified to safeguard prosperity. While this discussion is important, it pivots disturbingly on the distinction between ‘genuine’ political refugees and ‘abusive’ economic migrants, the latter supposedly exploiting the asylum process for personal gains. However, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wisely said, “Let us remember that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal, and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one.”

Currently there are 5800 claimants from South Asia and Africa who have declared they would face persecution were they returned to their country. Hong Kong Government screens these applications under the Convention against Torture and has recognized one single case since 2004 when screening started. On the other hand, UNHCR is presently considering about 800 asylum cases under the Refugee Convention, with a dismally low acceptance rate. Taken at face value, such low recognition rates suggest that most asylum-seekers are not genuine claimants. It is argued that if the majority of claimants are rejected, and many are working illegally, then these people are not escaping persecution, but entered under false pretenses to make a quick buck. This certainly is the impression we get talking to people who read less informed articles and view refugees’ motivations with suspicion. Claimants are portrayed as abusers even before their cases are assessed, further muddying the waters of stereotypes and intolerance.

Such widespread inclination to disapprove encourages Hong Kong Government to stick to tough polices, such as prohibiting employment, restricting education and, in our opinion, fast-tracking decision. This leads to asylum-seekers being barely tolerated by society and remaining confined in a state of precariousness. It is true Hong Kong Government provides them with minimal aid ($1200 rent assistance, emergency health care and monthly food rations), but it is hardly sufficient to meet basic needs. Hence money is desperately needed to buy clothes, shoes, calling cards, water and tissue. Asylum-seekers often have families back home who need their husbands and brothers to help financially. Also, the costs incurred for the journey can be extortionately high and need to be refunded if borrowed. For these reasons, some are understandably forced to work. We are told, ‘my wife calls me and speaks about the children. They need money and I need to work’. Unfortunately, to seek illegal employment is associated with having dishonest intentions. A common misconception is that if claimants work illegally, they are not afraid of arrest, consequently proving they were not refugees in the first place.

To challenge this culture of suspicion, asylum seekers must prove their genuineness not only with evidence, but also with their behaviour, despite the absence of a comprehensive safety net to protect from destitution. Further, most applicants do not have the knowledge to formulate an effective refugee claim. When interviewed by authorities they might candidly confess they came to work because ultimately, as bread-winners, they are responsible for their family. We should acknowledge that behind their suffering is a complex current of political, religious, social and economic adversity that propels them overseas. There are numerous cases in which economic deprivation is either inflicted or condoned by states unwilling to prevent it, which itself constitutes torture and inhuman treatment. However, asylum seekers often fail to distinguish economic hardship from its systemic causes. This certainly affects their claim, further lowering recognition rates.

Considering both refugees (149 recognized by UNHCR) and torture victims (1 recognized by HKSAR), is it possible that a global city like Hong Kong is home to only 150? Leaving politics and humanitarianism aside, what are the mathematical odds that with thousands of people seeking protection there are so few successes? We marvel at the mathematical improbability of Hong Kong Government recognizing one case in eight years of torture screening, while Western countries average 30% in refugee protection. Do low recognition rates truly confirm asylum-seekers beat a path to our door with fake stories, evidence and scars to cheat the system? In our opinion, what is probably lacking is political will. As long as refuge policies are founded on incomplete information and a primacy to shield wealth, we slip away from the spirit of asylum into the clutches of protectionism and nationalism. There is no image sadder than that of the rich man bolted down in his treasury, blind to the suffering of those knocking on the door seeking refuge.

Emergency shelter
Our emergency shelter, HK’s only, runs at full capacity 365 days a year