Statistics about the number of refugees in the world tend to be mind-numbing. They do not do justice to their precarious plight. A simple example does it better, such as a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong crying poor. It informs the city’s 132 people with official refugee status that the UNHCR is cutting their monthly cash assistance from HK$500 to – nothing. The organisation blames the drain on its financial resources of events around the world, including a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria and violent regime change resulting from the “Arab Spring”.
The refugees do not have the right to work. This leaves them totally dependent on government rent assistance of HK$1,200 a month paid to landlords, groceries every 10 days and assistance with other basic necessities such as toiletries and transport to appointments with UNHCR or the government. Refugees have long ceased to pose a challenge to Hong Kong society, which was once a haven for Vietnamese fleeing political turmoil. But, for officialdom, memories of those times die hard. It is understandable that the government is wary of opening the floodgates to refugee claimants. But that seems a weak reason to leave refugee screening to the UNHCR and turn our backs on genuine cases.
Although the government has sought to fill the UN funding gap in the past by extending its humanitarian assistance programme, refugee groups understandably find the latest cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is, therefore, in the public interest that they are enabled to live with dignity while they await settlement elsewhere. It seems odd that Hong Kong is signatory to the convention against torture, which has led to hundreds of asylum claims, but not the UN convention relating to the status of refugees. We set great store by good safeguards for fundamental rights for citizens. The same spirit should prevail for those who turn to us for help.
Refugees tell Vision First they are fed up with UNHCR’s indifference and negligence
Joyce Man writes for South China Morning Post on 5 March 2013
Three African men have taken their challenge against Hong Kong’s system for vetting refugee claims to the highest court, arguing that the government must assess the applications itself rather than passing the responsibility on to the UNHCR. Lawyers for the men, who have not been identified by name, are making their case at the Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday, after previous rulings against them by lower courts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles refugee claims in Hong Kong, currently handles all refugee claims as Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and is therefore not subject to obligations under it.
But the men are arguing that Hong Kong has obligations under international law, including that it must abide by the principle of non-refoulement – that is, it must not send a person back to a place where they may be persecuted. Their lawyer, Michael Fordham QC, said in court that non-refoulement was a fundamental part of customary international law, from which no government is exempt, and that Hong Kong therefore has a duty to abide by it. The government has a duty to “make an informed and fair decision”, Fordham said and must conduct an inquiry into refugee claims to assess them. The appeal, which began on Tuesday, is scheduled to last three days.
The men – one in his 20s and two in their 30s – remain in Hong Kong. All three earlier had their applications for refugee status rejected by the UNHCR, as well as their appeals. One man comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and two from the Republic of Congo. The man from the Democratic Republic of Congo is an ethnic Tutsi who says he had been trained as an army intelligence officer. He claims he could not leave his unit, which had committed human rights abuses, without endangering his life and his family. He said he was arrested in 1998 and tortured, before fleeing to Rwanda, then Uganda, Korea and finally Hong Kong in 2004. One of the claimants from the Republic of Congo claims he had to flee the country after being pursued by a gang. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2004, after travelling to Ethiopia and Thailand. The last appellant claims he was forced to flee after distributing literature for and supporting an opposition political party in his country. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2003. The hearing continues.
Betty Cheng writes for Oriental Daily on 27 February 2013
One of the things that we existential psychologists take seriously is the existence of evil in the world. It is so painful for me when I become aware of how much evil and pain is perpetrated in the world for various reasons. The pain is such that I prefer not to think about most of the time. When I do take time to think about it, I am baffled, angry and exasperated with how much trauma and suffering is inflicted by a few upon so many, while it takes legions of heroic individuals to help just a few of these victims. It makes little sense to me. The philosophic and theological answers regarding free will provide me with limited comfort. What make some sense to me are the words of Viktor Frankl who taught us in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible. A big part of what promotes my denial and avoidance is the sense of helplessness that I feel whenever I ponder the scope of the suffering that takes place. I hate this feeling of helplessness. Yet, it is the same helplessness that lawyers at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center face on a regular basis. The unsung heroes and heroines at the HKRAC persist every day despite struggling with their own sense of helplessness. Often, they will take on refugee cases applying for asylum even though at the outset, they know that the case has virtually no chance of success. This also makes little sense economically. They invest significant amounts of time in these cases even though they know they will fail. Why? Why not? This is because they know that what they do is significant just because. They know that the meaning of what they do is not directly tied to the success of their applications. If they were solely dependent upon successful applications, then they’d all quit with despair. Even with successful applications, the journey is in many ways has just begun. In the words of one attorney, “you can’t control the outcome but you can give your client a good day.”
In addition to protecting the refugee’s legal rights and providing high quality legal advice, the staff members help to preserve their clients’ dignity. The briefs that they write are significant beyond the fact that they document the traumatic events that took place. Think of the vicarious trauma that the staff endures from hearing details of systemic torture and abuse that happen over and over again. The briefs are significant because they are a written record of the narrative of the suffering that has been endured. They are significant because otherwise, the suffering will be unheard, undocumented, and therefore invisible. They battle against the pain of insignificance. The applications may ultimately be unsuccessful, but their clients are nevertheless tremendously grateful that despite the evil that has been perpetrated upon them, there are others in the world who care enough to listen and bear witness to their suffering.
The attorneys not only document, but they create worth. Carl Rogers taught us that empathy dissolves alienation. Carl Jung said that schizophrenics cease to be schizophrenic when they meet other persons with whom they feel understood. Through the staffs’ patient listening and the attorneys’ attentive sifting through the stories of trauma, the briefs written are Books of Life. When successfully recognized, they provide a new chance at life. Regardless of the application result, the briefs helps to recreate meaningful existence for people whose lives have been ravaged by evil. And the amazing thing is, these highly qualified staff commit to this beautiful work for pitiful wages while living in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world. This blog is my tribute to them and my efforts to bear witness and honor the beautiful work that they do. Despite the pitifully low wages, there are deeply meaningful rewards. The staff shared one such reward with me recently when they recalled the jubilation of one of their few successful applicants. The applicant came into the office and exclaimed, “Stand Up, Now We Hug!” I imagine this being said with a heavy African accent. After years of struggle, what else can we say but “Stand Up, Now We Hug!” – Mark Yang
By Alison Gerard, Charles Sturt University and Francesco Vecchio, Monash University
You wouldn’t know it by listening to Question Time, but Australia is not the only country experiencing asylum seekers arriving by boat. Italy and Malta find themselves on the frontline of policing external EU borders against unauthorised arrivals across the Mediterranean. Malta receives the highest number of applicants for asylum per head of population in the EU. In Asia, tiny Hong Kong has been taken as a preferred destination by thousands crossing the narrow strip of sea between the former British colony and mainland China. Unauthorised border-crossing is a global phenomenon. Its varying causes however, are rarely tackled in Australian and international debates on asylum. We note the recent Houston report is almost silent on the country conditions of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. Countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka were either at war until recently or their people suffer generalised, daily violence.
Interviewing refugees who arrived by boat in Malta and Hong Kong, we found that many asylum seekers are aware of the dangers their journey will present but choose to travel anyway. In the words of one Somali refugee, “We run away from our country because any day you could die in Somalia. But you do not know when you are going to die if you travel. There is more trouble in our countries.” But this reason alone does not explain why wealthier countries witness increased numbers of people risking death as the only pathway to migration and a chance of a better life. The increase in asylum seekers arriving on Malta and Hong Kong’s shores is the result of visa requirements targeted at citizens of those countries producing higher numbers of asylum seekers, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia. If refugees are enabled to seek asylum only when outside their country of origin, but no safe haven grants them documents to safely travel to their destination, the only remaining option is to embark on unseaworthy boats.
In this light, Australia’s plans to outsource refugee obligations to countries with less geo-political muscle in the region are no solution. Refugees impeded from travelling to Australia do not stay put in their country of origin. They travel to, or end up in, alternative destinations where provisions for international protection may be lacking or weakly implemented, resulting in the increased vulnerability of asylum seekers. European states utilise “safe third country” and the Dublin II Regulation to evade their refugee protection obligations, leaving countries along EU external borders to cope with the influx. Malta houses refugees in conditions criticised by numerous human rights groups as unhygienic, isolating and over-crowded. Conditions in Greece have been characterised as tantamount to torture for returning asylum seekers. In Asia, countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and China are increasingly major destinations for asylum seekers. Extensive human rights violations against illegal populations in these countries have been documented.
Internationally, Australia’s insistence on offshore processing provides disgraceful leadership. The UK has been calling for offshore processing for some time under the auspices of “safe havens”. These would enable the UK to deport asylum seekers to an external processing site to await the restoration of stability in their country of origin. These plans set a time limit of six months. Current arrangements before Parliament have as yet no time limit. This is a paltry commitment to the Refugee Convention, particularly when Australia receives 2.5% of asylum applicants compared to other industrialised countries. Offshore processing will lead to legal uncertainty for populations of people easily identifiable as vulnerable. This impact is felt physically and mentally. Our research revealed that asylum seekers generally arrive in relatively good health. Their health rapidly deteriorates once they enter detention or are left on the verge of destitution in wealthy, industrialised nations, enduring protracted delays whilst refugee processing takes place. They are denied the freedom they aimed for, and that the 145 signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention claim to provide.
As human beings we may well understand the desire by many refugees to be reunited with family members. Unfortunately this right is in jeopardy across the globe. In Hong Kong there is no such right while the EU has introduced diluted forms of refugee protection for asylum seekers which do not include family reunion. The expert panel appear to be calling for a similar system with their recommendations to review refugee status determination in Australia. This impact can also be measured in deteriorating health, and in criminal justice prosecutions as people try to reunite with family using false documents or other means. Refugee arrivals will not stop. With these expert panel recommendations however, asylum seekers will continue to be construed as defying our rules, increasing calls for a tougher stance disguised as being humane.
Articles published in the Chinese “Oriental Daily” on 4 August 2012 – translated by Kashu Li
Interesting classes encourage inclusion into local life
It is only survival refugees asking for in Hong Kong, but now UNHCR and some NGOs could only provide limited support to them. A NGO which exclusively provide services for refugees has set up a shelter and organize interest classes and language lessons so that they could adapt to local lives, so that time is not wasted during their wait.
Vision First is the first local NGO which only focuses on serving refugees in Hong Kong. It’s shelter is located in Sai Ying Pun with more than 12 beds, facilities and furnishing are simple, but hygiene and tidy. Director Danielle Stutterd mentioned, most of the refugees are having a hard life and could not even support their own basic needs. For them, it is already very fortunate to get a place to stay at the shelter. Therefore, every one of them is disciplined. They take turns to clean up. It has been one year since the establishment of the shelter (August 2011) and there are never fights or theft. In order to foster social inclusion for the refugees, the NGO offers free interest and language classes. Susan joined a Cantonese class and has acquired basic Cantonese greetings, hoping to get along well with Hong Kongers. She even said “Leng Nui” (pretty lady) in Cantonese to reporters on scene!
Professor Gordon Mathews in the New York Time
Refugee status applications to UNHCR offices worldwide declined to 96,800 in 2010, after topping 114,000 in 2009. The decline roughly followed a global trend, with applications to government-run RSD systems also dropping in 2010. UNHCR accounted for around 11 percent of all RSD applications worldwide, down from 13 percent in 2009. But UNHCR continues to be one of the two largest RSD decision-makers.
The largest RSD decision-maker continues to be the government of South Africa, which received 180,637 asylum applicants. The United States had the next largest government RSD system with an estimated 54,300 applicants, far less than UNHCR.
The recognition rate in UNHCR RSD remained high at around 83 percent, compared to less than 35 percent for government-run RSD. UNHCR’s global recognition rate has remained consistently over 75 percent each year since 2005. Every UNHCR office that decided 1000 or more cases in 2010 posted a recognition rate of at least 57 percent. UNHCR offices reached decision in only 57,832 new applications, and faced a global RSD backlog of more than 116,000 cases at year’s end.
“The importance of these procedures cannot be overemphasized.
A wrong decision might cost the person’s life or liberty.”
UNHCR training manual
South China Morning Post – 21 June 2012
In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo last Saturday, Aung San Suu Kyi imagined a world without refugees and said, “Ultimately our aim should be to create a world free from the displaced, the homeless and the hopeless, a world of which each and every corner is a true sanctuary where the inhabitants will have the freedom and the capacity to live in peace.” She said each and every one of us was capable of making a contribution towards such peace.
The reality is that the world is far adrift from this vision. In 2010 alone, there were 42 million displaced people in the world and 15 million of those sought protection outside their own countries. Hong Kong has an estimated total of just 6,000 asylum seekers and refugees, or less than 0.1 per cent of the population, coming mostly from African and South Asian countries where there is severe political disruption and unrest. You might think then that the city’s contribution towards making this corner of the world “a true sanctuary” for the refugees we already have would be comparatively painless. But far from it.
In fact, refugees are very unwelcome guests and Hong Kong is definitely not a sanctuary. This is starkly illustrated by the case of four long-term refugees whose bona fide status has been well established by the UNHCR and who cannot be resettled elsewhere for various reasons. As a result of government policy not to accept refugees and also to make life difficult for those who are here, they face the prospect of living in the city for the rest of their lives as refugees, not residents. That means they have to sign a permit every few months to remain; have no right to work; live under the threat of deportation; are unable to travel freely to and from Hong Kong; have no right to education for them or their families; no right to health care or welfare; and are only provided with subsistence-level rent allowance and food allocation. This is a miserable and miserly existence.
Despite government concessions to allow easing of some restrictions, they have not been removed. Some might say it is better than being sent back to face persecution or torture in their home countries, but is this really refuge and protection, or just another form of punishment? It is a passive and grudging acceptance at best and downright hostility at worst. The government will argue that it also has the discretion to review particular cases and circumstances to ensure there is no undue hardship and ease suffering where it is proven. While this might seem like a reasonable safety mechanism, remember that it is at the sole discretion of the Director of Immigration who has a much more important stated policy of discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Hong Kong. Doesn’t this sound like a conflict of interest?
Hong Kong has built a very successful, civilised society in less than 70 years from what was largely a poor, marginalised and displaced group. Our heritage is a refugee population. Yet now we seem to lack compassion for other races. We should remember with gratitude our heritage and the help we received by showing compassion to asylum seekers and refugees. We have the chance to make a contribution, however small, to Suu Kyi’s vision and show we are a caring society, whatever government policy might be.
Tony Read is a pastor and justice advocate for The Vine Church in Wan Chai, which has been assisting asylum seekers and refugees for more than seven years