Outreach work is full of surprises and always rewarding. By hitting the road and visiting distant villages, we learn how refugees struggle against a culture of rejection that wishes they had never arrived. Leaving behind bustling Kowloon and a heavy downpour, we met sunshine and welcoming villagers in the Pat Heung hills, outside Kam Tin. On a carpeted floor in a specious second-floor apartment, it felt unexpectedly as if we were in the Pakistani tribal lands. First one, then two dozen, then over thirty torture claimants came to hear the news Vision First brought. It was the first time anyone present had met refugee workers other than ISS case-officers. These folk don’t go to Kowloon. They don’t visit other NGOs. And they sure don’t seek church support. It was only men, but we were told there are mothers and children too, who had stayed home because of the rain. The news of the March of Protection had reached their community and we were invited to speak to these representatives of a couple hundred torture claimants. We sat on the carpet and introduced Vision First, warming up to these total strangers. It isn’t hard to explain to a Pakistani audience why we demonstrate against a zero-percent acceptance rate of torture claimants.
Since 1992, out of 13,000 claimants, of which they probably are a majority, not a single Pakistani has been recognized as victim of torture. How can that be possible? Compare this 0% protection of Pakistanis with Australia’s 74% in 2012 (Asylum Statistics 2012, p. 10) In other words, forty-percent of Pakistani who claimed asylum in Australia last year were considered deserving of international protection. They didn’t have to appeal, nor seek judicial reviews that would still end up in rejection in Hong Kong. Are they different refugees, more honest, more credible, more deserving than those who reach our city? Their nationals are regrettably labelled as economic migrants and fortune seekers. They are hastily dismissed with a comment like, “These people are not real refugees!” After hearing this often enough, even they might start believing it. On the contrary, there are at least seven legal grounds for them to raise a claim that engages Hong Kong’s protection obligations. You can start counting: 1. Basic Law, 2. Bill of Rights, 3. Statute Law, 4. Common Law, 5. Customary International Law, 6. Torture Convention and 7. ICCPR – each of these legal instruments guarantees the right not to be subject to torture or cruel, inhuman treatment. Make your pick!
We have to reserve our judgement. It is not up to us to determine whom the government should protect and whom they should remove. We cannot say who has substantial reasons to fear torture and who is simply paranoid. We cannot homogenize their identity and reasons to seek asylum without studying their cases. We must resist the facile temptation to label in wilful ignorance. The truth is that we have been conditions so deeply by government propaganda, cultural bias and sheer misinformation, that resisting judgement takes more than a slight effort. Vision First is of the view that every torture claimant must be considered a victim – entitled to non-refoulement protection – until excluded by an informed, fair, effective and efficient screening mechanism. Think of it this way. If a system fails to identify bona-fide refugees – despite having enhanced the process over a decade – then would you like to be subject to its investigation? History teaches many interesting lesson to those who care to learn. For example, how is this torture screening different from the Spanish Inquisition? That witch hunt probably had a zero-percent protection rate, once inquisitors were set on purging society from those unwelcome for reasons other than those for which the investigation was established. Hong Kong government’s propensity to reject isn’t very different. It doesn’t matter the evidence, thirteen-thousand torture claimants have been condemned to the stake. Organizing resistance to this institutional injustice is the reason why Vision First is being called, “the watchdog of refugee rights”.
Thirty Pakistani torture claimants learn about refugee rights