At Vision First we welcome refugees from 42 countries, each a troubled hotspot in an embattled world, that is trying to peacefully topple leaders buttressed by troops, tanks and torture chambers. When outraged masses rally against corrupt governments, the forces of justice, backed by goodwill and Twitter, initially succumb to the forces of repression, backed by gunfire and tanks, in an unequivocal imbalance of power. That’s the inevitable first step when vampire states, often run by thieving families for decades, have no better way to legitimize their rule, than gangsters have to dominate their neighborhood. The only difference is we often see these thugs-in-suits in the news, standing smugly for photo sessions with the leaders of western democracies, the World Bank and the United Nations. With so much blood on their hands, you would imagine they would be arrested and carted off to the International Criminal Court, but we have learnt that investment agendas commonly trump national integrity.
With the Christmas season upon us, we hold in our prayers those who suffer far away from their families, those who lost loved ones this year, those who abandoned their way of life, their work, their studies and everything cherished to become refugees in Hong Kong. At Vision First, we are often reminded how privileged we are to hear first-hand the voices of opposition from Egypt and Jordan, the cries of protest from Ivory Coast and Togo, the hopes of change from Congo and Somalia. There are deep, sorrowful emotions accompany the lives of those who might never be allowed to see their homeland again. Time Magazine is celebrating the Protester as “Man of the Year, as in 2011 protesters didn’t just voice their complaints – they changed the world.” We applaud their selection, as we owe a very great debt of gratitude to those who risk their life for the core values we share – the very essence of what it means to be human. It’s thanks to the quiet heroism of each anonymous protester that a fresh wind of change is blowing across the planet today. While most outraged citizens continued the struggle in towns and cities, others were persecuted, beaten and tortured so severely they had to seek protection abroad. Having seen the photos of their murdered friends, burnt-out legal offices and ransacked homes, we understand the urgency of their escape until the time when gun muzzles stop flashing. What would we have done to save our families?
Infuriated by images of protesters dragged by their hair, stripped, beaten and kicked by troops in Tahrir Square, a bleeding student cried out “You can kill our body, but you cannot kill our spirit!” This event parallels what occurred twenty centuries ago, when power-crazed leaders failed to end a revolution still going strong today. Two thousand years ago they feared a Protester born in a manger in Bethlehem, who first escaped as a refugee to Egypt, but then returned to challenge the abusive authorities that persecute the very people they should serve. If you don’t know your history, you are doomed to repeat it. Today’s despots have learnt nothing from the failure of the Massacre of the Innocents two millennia prior, but hold fast to the delusion that butchering their people will make them cower in submission. Christmas has come again and we would do well to remember those who have nothing to celebrate, but the compassion others show for their broken lives. Christmas is a time to rejoice, so please ensure you are making somebody else’s day special, too.
“We must be grateful to those who remind us of our common bond. Pick up this book and look in the eyes of your relatives, those distant cousins you have not seen in so many years, for whom your heart ached without knowing. And know that in protecting their rights and their way of life, you protect the wellbeing of us all and the future we share together”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
My name is RM, from West Africa, and I have been a political refugee in Hong Kong for five years already. I speak for dozens of dear friends when I say that, as days turn into weeks and weeks into months, we keep asking ourselves what will happen to our lives. We cannot return home for fear of persecution and death … we cannot travel to another country and … crucially, we aren’t allowed to lead a normal, productive life here. We are living with faith and hope that the light at the end of this tunnel is a bright, unexpected solution and not an oncoming train!
My beloved mother taught me to always look on the bright side of life, but sometimes that bright side is so stained that there is nothing to see. We all believe in God and pray to him daily to make our lives here on earth and beyond better. Even as we pray to our different gods, we understand that success in anything will always equate with our effort. I often look back at the fateful time when I decided to oppose my corrupt government and, in a matter of days, security agents were hunting me down with sinister intentions. That forced me to escape, if I cared to remain alive. While I succeeded to save my life, that decision brought nothing but failure and suffering. I often wonder how things would have worked out if I didn’t care about my people’s rights and my country’s future. Maybe I would still be at home, with family, with friends and with hope for tomorrow.
We talk about life-changing-events, well, let me assure you that life can change in a matter of seconds and sometimes we hardly have time to calculate our choices critically. Time remains our biggest enemy as we cannot go back and undo the worst decisions we made in life. In a way, we are trapped in the prison of our mistakes, like jumping into a river and being carried helpless into dangerous currents. The river might carry us away from enemies, but can you hear the raging rapids ahead? Still I have hope. Still I have faith. I must move forward no matter what, as everything that happens in the world will be accounted for, if not today, then at a time beyond our knowledge.
All in all – no matter the suffering endured – we have to be thankful to be alive, even if life itself is the only blessing that remains. In the darkness of my desolate existence, I want to remain positive. I accomplish this by making a difference for those around me. That’s why I volunteer at charities to help my brothers and sisters who walk hopefully at my side. No effort is wasted, no matter how insignificant it might appear to our anguished mind. I am determined to survive, so that one day I can look back with a smile and say, “Life was nothing like what I expected, but I spent my time well. I don’t regret the decision I made, as along the way I learnt to help others and I met some wonderful people. Failure is not being knocked down, but not rising up again. God knows I keep doing my best!”
Now I would like to dedicate this letter to my refugee friends, reminding them to be proud of being survivors. Perhaps these words describe you best: “The most beautiful people we have know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen, they struggle into being.” I cannot offer you my picture, but this poor tree captures the essence of my being: it too was tragically trapped on the stairway of life – with no way up and no way down!
“Oh I am so so happy for your good letter! And thank you for encouragement. Let’s meet once and talk, yes, my friend, I am happy also to get brothers here in Hong Kong. There is a proverb in our language, let me try to translate in my bad English, “A neighbour or friend who is close to you is more good than a brother who is so far from you”. So my friend Vision First, stay strong! One time we will find a smile and light, because now we have survived. Even if we are not yet stable, but one time we will be okay. I believe in GOD!” – a VF shelter member
Austin Chiu writes in SCMP, December 15, 2011
Three Africans claiming refugee status won permission to mount a challenge in the top court yesterday. They will fight a ruling that the government is not bound by an international principle that a person should not be returned to a place where his safety might be in peril. The three also want to overturn a court ruling, affirmed by the Court of Appeal last year, that the government has no obligation to screen claims for refugee status and can instead pass them to an international institution. The claimants were among six seeking refugee status who lost a 2008 judicial review into whether or not the government had followed the universally accepted practice under international law of not expelling people who have a well-founded fear of persecution. Their case was that it had not.
The Court of Appeal yesterday granted the three permission to argue the case in the Court of Final Appeal on the grounds of its great public importance. The top court will have to clarify whether the principle of non-refoulement, or non-return, is a compelling international law or norm and whether it has been excluded from Hong Kong law. The Court of Appeal last year upheld arguments that the Director of Immigration had full discretion to decide whether to expel a claimant to refugee status. It ruled that Hong Kong, which is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, was not bound by the principle of non-refoulement. If the top court rules the principle is not excluded from domestic law, the judges will also answer the question of whether the government is obliged to conduct its own inquiries into claims for refugee status.
At present, the Director of Immigration refers such claims to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If the commissioner accepts a claim is genuine, the government gives the applicant temporary refuge in Hong Kong until he or she is accepted for resettlement overseas. If the claim is rejected by the commissioner, the director will deport the claimant, although he may exercise his discretion not to expel an applicant for humanitarian reasons. The application was made before Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung, Madam Justice Maria Yuen Ka-ning and Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon. The government has a firm policy of not granting refuge and asylum because Hong Kong is small and densely populated and vulnerable to abuses of such claims. China has been a signatory to the refugee convention since 1982.
VF: Historically, Hong Kong is a city built by refugees, most of whom arrived from China in the decades of unrest that followed World War 2. Hong Kong citizens have always accepted asylum seekers, from the Mainland and from the rest of the world, as many know first-hand what it means to be an exile in a foreign country. Consider the ‘brain drain’ that followed the the Tiananmen crack-down in 1989, when tens of thousands fled the city for the perceived safety of Canada, States, Australia and New Zealand.
Today it is high time for the HKSAR government to step up and take its responsability to protect those who seek refuge in our city. Nothing less than a comprehensive, integrated policy towards asylum-seekers and refugees is required to secure the lives of thousands who suffer in penniless neglect, through no fault of their own. Support Vision First to support refugees – thank you!
I’m Anamika from Sri Lanka, Hello! Everyone of you might have heard that some asylum seekers were detained recently for working illegally in warehouses. This is also a story of such an asylum seeker whom I visited recently in prison. He is 29 years old, he came Hong Kong 6 years ago, he left his country because he faced problems from terrorists. When I went to Lai Chi Kok Detention Centre, I asked him, “Why did you gone for work? Are you not aware that asylum seekers can’t work here? Aren’t you aware you might be jailed for up to three years and nobody will take care of your wife and child?” He replied me, “I know that very well but my situation forced me to go for work.” So I asked him what kind of situation forced him to go for work then he told me his long story:
“I came to Hong Kong 6 years ago in order save my life as the government wanted to kill my father and family for supporting the opposition parties. My family can’t afford for all of us to come so they managed at least to send me here. I have 2 younger brothers and a younger sister. My father was the backbone for my family recently he was kidnapped by the terrorist and shot to death, after savagely torturing him. All my family burden has come to my shoulders a my mother is very old and sick from illness and worries. Though I came here to safeguard my life, now I have the responsibility to take care my family as well. Now my brothers are in high school, my sister is growing older as well. If I only save my life here then who would feed them? What would happen to my old mother and my brothers and sisters? What about their future? I’ve been waiting these 6 years for a response from UNHCR, but I didn’t hear anything until now. There are many Sri Lankans who have been waiting much longer than me. Even if I want to call anyone I need money for buy telephone card, can ISS provide that money? What about my daily needs? Do I have to beg for every single dollar for another 6 years? No and never. So I decided to go for work and earn money to help my family. Anyway it’s not work, it is slave work, for 12 hours from morning till night in dangerous places for only 250$. And sometimes the boss find reason not to pay us even that! Why does this HK government thinks only food and some rent help is enough for an asylum seeker? Then who would take care his family back in his country? There was a meeting at UNHCR last week and most refugees admitted they had to work here and there to survive in the city where everything is very expensive. My life is so painful here.”
When he was saying these I observed his arms, those were full of injuries . By seeing those injuries, I can understand how hard he has been working those days. One thing everyone have to remember that asylum seekers came here to save their life, but their situation forcing them to work. So what is the solution for this? It is only in the hands of HK government that should know refugee protection starts with food and rent, but ends with a durable solutions for those it MUST protect here. Thank you!
On November 12, 2011 the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network will bring together key actors from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Macau and Taiwan to identify gaps, collaborative solutions, debate key issues and challenge misconceptions about the most vulnerable population in Asia: refugees.
Over half of the world’s refugees are found in the Asia Pacific Region, yet few countries in the region have developed any law or policy to address refugee issues. East Asia has the potential to lead positive developments in the field of refugee protection in the Asia Pacific region: Japan and Korea are amongst the few countries in Asia to sign on to the Refugee Convention, and although it is not yet a state-party to the Convention, Hong Kong has a strong civil society and rule of law that has led to several alternative systems of protection. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRR”) believes that East Asia has both the capacity and the responsibility to establish a better refugee protection system and to support other countries in Asia to adopt protection mechanisms.
The East Asia Working Group of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network holds yearly symposium to bring relevant parties together and discuss key strategies and persistent issues. In 2010, a symposium was held in Seoul, Korea under the theme “Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees”. The symposium created a unique space for dialogue between governments and civil society about refugee protections systems in their own countries. In June 2000 the “International Symposium on Refugee Protection in the New Era and Civil Society” held in Japan focused on Japan’s pilot resettlement programme of Burmese starting in 2010. In 2011 it was Hong Kong’s turn to host the East Asia symposium. Hong Kong civil society recognizes that unless all levels of the community are actively engaged to bring about change, any progress will be slow, piecemeal and temporary, and as such is striving for broad collaboration among civil society leaders to contribute to solutions.
The symposium will be spread into 4 different panels with each of them addressing a different thematic focus. Key note speeches will be delivered by Brian Barbour (Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network & Japan Association for Refugees), Giuseppe de Vincentiis (UNHCR) and Ruby Puni (Consulate General of Canada). The first panel will discuss innovative ideas and solutions to common challenges around the region. This will be followed by a more in-depth discussion on key legislative and policy changes relating to refugees – this panel also provides an opportunity to discuss policy or lack of policy and its direct impact on refugee livelihoods. The afternoon panel takes a closer look at the practical needs of the refugee population in East Asia, and the consequences of social exclusion and the toll that a life in limbo can take. In particular the right to work will be discussed and how governments can find long-term solutions for successful integration. The symposium will conclude with a unique panel under the theme “Nothing About Us Without Us”, where 3 refugees will present their story and the enormous challenges they are facing in their daily survival.
The symposium will bring together key refugee rights advocates, practitioners, service providers, researchers and refugees themselves from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Macau. Prior to the symposium the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network is organizing a Refugee Mental Health Training to equip service providers with the tools and knowledge to deal with the mental health needs of refugees. The symposium is being coordinated by the East Asia Working Group of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and is jointly organized by: Vision First, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Society for Community Organization (SoCO), NANCEN, Japan Association for Refugees (JAR), International Social Services (ISS), Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (HKRAC), Christian Action Chungking Mansions Service Centre, Centre for Comparative and Public Law at HKU, and Barnes and Daly Solicitors.
Date: Saturday, 12 November 2011
Time: 9am – 6pm
Venue: University of Hong Kong, Council Chambers
2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a treaty that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in its relatively short existence since World War II. Over half of the world’s refugees are found in the Asia Pacific Region, yet few countries in the region have developed any law or policy to address refugee issues.
East Asia has the potential to lead positive developments in the field of refugee protection in the Asia Pacific region: Japan and Korea are amongst the few countries in Asia to sign on to the Refugee Convention, and although it is not yet a state-party of the Convention, Hong Kong has a strong civil society and rule of law that has led to several alternative systems to provide partial protection to refugees. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) believes that East Asia has both the capacity and the responsibility to establish a better refugee protection system and to support other countries in Asia to adopt protection mechanisms.
This Symposium brings key actors from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macau and Taiwan together to identify gaps and solutions, debate the key issues, and challenge misconceptions about the most vulnerable population in Asia: refugees.
The detailed programme can now be downloaded here: East Asia Symposium Programme
The members of the Congolese community in Hong Kong are very concerned about the situation of high human insecurity in the whole Congo DRC. New events make it clear that the circumstances in our home country are very precarious and are getting worse by the day. Any deportation from Hong Kong would put every Congolese woman in grave danger, not only political activists or humanitarian/NGO workers, but also ordinary citizens. We therefore appeal to the UN to reassess the general situation, which forces peoples to live under very dangerous, undignified and inhuman conditions.
Recent events involving mass rapes, killing and abduction perpetrated by governmental entities and security forces, such as the ANR (Agence Nationale de Renseignements), Praetorian Guard of Joseph Kabila and members of the PPRD (Le Parti du people pour la reconstruction et la démoncratie) highlight the grave circumstances in the Congo DRC. The Congolese government is neither willing nor able to protect its citizens, since it tolerates and is responsible for:
1) Arbitrarily detaining (up to 5 years), beating and torturing returned asylum seekers.
2) Toleration the rape of 48 women per hour (based on official statistics).
3) Arresting, torturing and murdering human rights and political activists, as well as journalists, radio hosts and pastors.
4) Violent crackdown on protester and mourners.
These acts of violence and severe repression conducted by security forces under the command of Joseph Kabila, strengthen the general concern that the nationwide situation could very well escalate to the extent of a civil war especially due to the up-coming election on the 28th of November 2011. The final report of the fact finding missions of the United Nations Joint Human Right Office considers the mass rapes and other human rights violations perpetrated in the Congo DRC as crimes against humanity. We invoke the Hong Kong Immigration Department to stop returning asylum seeker to a county, which is ruled by a highly authoritarian regime that orders human rights violations on a daily basis and tolerates crimes against humanity conducted by armed groups within its own borders.
Based on all of these facts, we earnestly demand the International Community to increase their efforts in order to stop this absolute madness and invoke the UNHCR to recognize and the HKSAR to stop deporting Congolese refugees.
A concerned Congolese mother
Sitting in at the Vision First centre as an intern for a week I learnt a lot about the refugee situation in Hong Kong. Being able to sit in and watch the comings and goings of the centre I saw how a lot of refugees handled their lives in Hong Kong, and a lot of the problems that they face. Everyday I would see different people coming into the office for appointments with their case-workers, and at first I was shocked by the amount of people coming in, I guess personally I had never really been aware of how prominent refugee issues were and how many people were affected. Watching people walk in and out of the centre I was able to see the many needs of refugees in Hong Kong; sometimes people came in for money, sometimes clothes, food, advice or just company.
Working in at the office I saw that there was a strong refugee community in Hong Kong, and I saw that there had to be, refugees and asylum seekers face a lot of pressure in Hong Kong, with no legal right to work, further their education, buy medication on top of the additional tension of discrimination from Hong Kong people there has to be a place where people can go to get support and help. During my time as an intern I was set tasks to research refugee related articles. From all this I learnt what was lacking in Hong Kong policy towards refugees; Hong Kong does not have its own official protocol towards determining refugee status making the process of being officially recognized as a refugee long and arduous. Watching people walking in and out of the centre I saw some of the effects of the legal restrictions placed on refugees. One of the major problems is boredom, a result of not being allowed to work combined with the long wait for refugee status there’s not really much to look forward to and it can be difficult to find things to do to keep occupied. Vision First provides activities to help refugees relieve their boredom and is welcomes facilitators to conduct activities such as I.T. training and art which can be both therapeutic and educational for members, especially those with PTSD and depression.
As an intern in the centre I learned a lot about how the organization itself was managed. I learnt a lot about the different programs and how they string together to support and strengthen the organization as a whole. At my school, charity work is very important, however we only concentrate on the fundraising side, at the centre I was able to see concerns on how the money was distributed and the different considerations in how and where it would be distributed. Although my time at Vision First was only a short week, I felt that I learnt a lot about the refugee situation in Hong Kong and was able to experience, watch and learn a lot from being at the centre
Tien, 17 - Chinese International School
There are currently about 6000 open CAT cases filed with the Immigration Dept (ImmD). Following past court rulings, the CAT screening process needed to be revised in accordance with the new mechanism, i.e. provision of lawyers, interview and report to be conducted by the same officer, timing guidelines, submission requirement, etc. The screening interviews were only resumed in December 2009, as the ImmD needed to train more lawyers (not all lawyers were familiar with torture claim), set up of the Duty Lawyer CAT office and hire staff for the Torture Claim Assessment Section which was expanded from 8 to over 100 staff. Only approximately 600 cases have been completed in the past twelve months, however now the ImmD is moving very quick. Most of the CAT screenings are completed in 3-6 months, unless claimant intentionally delayed the case, which is held against them and will soon be considered an offense. The success rate is 0% and every case heard so far this year has been refused!
The procedures will be as follows:
- When you raise your torture claim, the case is passed to Shatin Torture Claim Assessment Section (TCAS) for processing. They will only entertain your request if you have overstayed in HK. If you still have a valid visa, they will not consider your application. Some lawyers have taken this point to the Court, but lost already.
- TCAS will pass the instructions to Duty Lawyer Service CAT Office. Staff of DLS-CAT office will call you for a meeting.
- DLS-CAT will ask you whether you want a lawyer to represent you. You can nominate your own lawyer or pick one from their list. You may call Mr. Kenneth Chan of DLS-CAT office for a list, (5/F., Siu Lek Yuen Operational Base, 25-27 Yuen Shun Circuit, Siu Lek Yuen, Shatin, Tel. 2646 8211, Fax. 2646 5615)
- DLS-CAT staff will help you fill in the 72 Questions (not 66Q anymore) and submit it to the TCAS within 28 days.
- Usually the 28 days deadline cannot be met, so your Duty Lawyer will ask for an extension.
- Once 72Q is returned, TCAS will give you a screening interview very quick, say within 1 – 2 months.
- Usually after 1-2 interviews the TCAS officer will write a report within 2 months. Sometimes very quick, within 1 month.
- Currently 100% of CAT cases have been rejected. Once rejected, the TCAS report will be passed to your Duty lawyer.
- Duty Lawyer will advising you to appeal with 14 days to the CAT Petition Bureau by way of Petition.
- If your Duty Lawyer thinks that you have grounds to appeal, he will advise the Duty Lawyer Office to continue your appeal case; if not you have to handle the appeal by yourself.
- The appeal will normally be rejected by the Petition Bureau within 1 or 2 months.
- ImmD will detain you when you report to Ma Tau Kok and send you to CIC Tuen Mun - pending deportation.
- You still have a last chance to appeal by way of Judicial Review to the High Court. You can either do it by yourself or apply for Legal Aid, which can take several months during which you will be held in CIC detention.
- Legal aid will be refused unless you have a very strong ground, in which case you will have to hire your own lawyer.
- ImmD will not normally agree to release you from CIC, even though you intend to apply for a judicial review.
- ImmD are now handling new cases first (those from 2010 and 2011). For old case they are proceeding with 2008 and 2009 already.
- Old cases will receive a letter from TCAS requesting you to go to Shatin TCAS, or to report to Ma Tau Kok office.
- In order to avoid the abuse of process (registering with UNHCR after CAT failure), the government is going to pronounce a bill that has passed its second reading in Legco.
- Note that once CAT claims are withdrawn or cancelled, they may not be re-opened again.