Last week the Liberal Party swung its political machinery into action by petitioning the Security Bureau to tighten visa requirements against South Asian countries to prevent an influx of ‘bogus refugees’. The protest followed the arrival at the end of May of 13 Indians on two non-direct flights, who raised asylum claims with the assistance of the same lawyer, an event reported in the press as suspicious.
Media and official commentary asserted that the arrival of these “13 Indians” was indicative of asylum abuse, rejecting them a priori and without due process, as if refugees fleeing overseas in group was an extraordinary occurrence. Instead was this group stereotyped into suspicious and bogus claimants through the juxtaposition of security, legal and immigration interest that expediently branded them as unwanted and potentially dangerous travelers?
The local media focused on selective information: 1) Immigration is processing over 9000 asylum claims; 2) in 2014 over 4000 new claims were lodged; 3) the top three countries of origin are India, Bangladesh and Pakistan; 4) whereby India accounts for 1760 claimants; 5) visa-free entry from Bangladesh and Pakistan was cancelled three and seven years ago; 6) Indians enjoy visa free entry for periods not exceeding 14 days.
Immigration supported the media coverage ‘admitting that many people abused’ the Unified Screening Mechanism launched in March 2014 following court requirements that cruelty and persecution claims be assessed as well as torture. Immigration produced this data in support of asylum abuse: 1) 166 claimants were arrested in 2014 for working illegally ‘because work is more lucrative than in their countries’; 2) 738 claimants were arrested for theft, assault, drugs and other offenses in 2014; 3) Indian asylum claims rose from 26 a month in 2013 to 75 in 2014; 4) the average asylum claim takes 2.7 years with the longest taking 11 years; 5) asylum claims have risen almost 3 times in the past four years.
An extensive analysis of newspaper article is beyond this blog, though three notable issues deserve being drawn into focus. First, these commentaries say nothing about the unsatisfactiory evolution of asylum policies since 1992 which generated confusion without establishing credible, transparent and expert-driven determinations that truly met high standards of fairness. Over the years, four landmark court rulings caused seismic policy shifts and significant delays which might be worsened by impending “Right to Life” claims under Art. 2 of the Bill of Rights.If past performance is an indication of future results, targeted exploitation of a porous system should not be surprising.
Second, the agency of refugees has been seriously undermined by the administration wrongly, but perhaps intentionally, homogenizing their motivation to escape life-threatening situations with that of irregular migrants primarily motivated by voluntary economic imperatives. In the public discourse an overlap exists between the legal status of asylum seekers, treated primarily as overstayers, and illegal immigrants, a confusion that blurs the boundaries normally defining these two categories.
Third, reflective consideration should be given to the laws, administrative policies and social norms that construct the exclusion spaces in which refugees are compelled to make a living without work rights or adequate welfare assistance. Within this optic, it is neither arduous nor commendable for law enforcement to intercept refugees in construction sites, illegal workshops, underground factories and recycling yards where they scrape an unenviable existence. Should 10,000 claimants abide strictly to laws and policies by panhandling on Hong Kong streets?
This highlights the need for an analysis of the reason why refugees expect to earn a living, in part as a way to regain a sense of self-respect lost during flight. Refugees hope to assume a productive role in society and thereby to improve their wellbeing and social and economic status. As one African refugee remarked, “In Hong Kong I have safety, but I don’t have a good life, because a good life is when you work on your own.”
Are refugees a genuine treat to Hong Kong’s security, stability and prosperity, or does the administration need to reconsider and reformulate a questionable asylum process?