Refugees in Hong Kong worry most about two issues: protection and welfare. Over the years the Immigration Department has done little to allay suspicions that the effective zero-percent acceptance rate is a poor assessment of the asylum community. Welfare issues are equally troubling with policies that deliberately entrap refugees below the poverty line without employment rights.
On a scale of importance, Vision First is primarily concerned about the failure of the Unified Screening Mechanism to generate protection. In the interest of accountability and transparency, Immigration ought to publish monthly results to inform interested parties about its accomplishments in the asylum sphere. This would undoubtedly better inform opinions.
After Hong Kong’s top court denied the right to work in February 2014 to mandated refugees and successful torture claimants, it became disappointingly clear that the authorities are years away from granting employment rights to asylum seekers condemned, by policy and design, to a protracted state of emotional and economic destitution with deterrence aims.
A combination of questionable policies force refugees to run the gauntlet between insufficient welfare and imprisonment for working illegally. Such arrangements strike offenders heavily with arrests and imprisonment that are hardly avoidable when money must be regularly raised to meet necessary expenses, such as rent surpluses, utilities, food and clothing.
Instigated by superficial media reporting, common perception assumes that refugees should receive less welfare than impoverished residents. This is shamefully reflected in the welfare disparity between citizens and refugees, despite the former being allowed to work and the latter jailed up to 22 months for breaking the law in a hostile, and arguably unjust environment.
On 22 April 2015, Vision First and the Refugee Union met with the Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung to strategize on increasing welfare levels that are unrealistically low (HK$ 1500 for rent and HK$ 1200 for food) and have fallen behind inflection, particularly in the rental market. A first batch of 300 complaint forms were submitted to the Legislative Council’s Redress System to trigger a discussion by the Panel on Welfare that advises the government on such matters.
Questions will be raised about the adequacy of the current assistance which fail to meet the basic needs of a growing refugee population. Deterrence objectives and criminalization of vulnerable foreigners should not overshadow welfare considerations when men, women and children are suffering in our community. As long as work rights are denied, the authorities have a legal and moral obligation to increase welfare to realistic levels consistent with human right laws.