21 September 2019
UNHCR Hong Kong last month held its 8th Refugee Film Festival at Broadway Cinema, where movies such as The Good Lie were shown. Photo: AP/Alcon Entertainment
UNHCR Hong Kong last month held its 8th Refugee Film Festival at Broadway Cinema, where movies such as The Good Lie were shown. Photo: AP/Alcon Entertainment

HK involvement in refugee protection: a work in progress

Last month the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Hong Kong held its 8th Refugee Film Festival at Broadway Cinema.

With the theme “Get to Know the Story of A Refugee”, the film festival sought to encourage Hong Kong people to know more about the topic of refugee protection and their city’s role in the global effort to protect people who have been displaced by war, famine, persecution and other natural or man-made calamities, and help them stand on their own.

Hong Kong has long been actively involved in the protection of refugees. 

It has provided safe haven for South Asian and African political dissidents while most western nations tightened their visa policies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

In 2009, the outstanding number of refugees in the territory soared to more than 6,000 from 1,600 three years earlier. At the same time, the Hong Kong government started providing assistance allotments in kind worth HK$1,900 to asylum seekers.

Last year, when the number of refugees in the city reached over 8,000, the assistance amount was raised to HK$2,700, including HK$1,500 in shelter expenses and HK$1,200 in food subsidies. 

However, Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), and as such it has no legal framework governing the granting of asylum.

In 1952, the UNHCR opened an office in Hong Kong to tackle the influx of millions of Chinese escaping the civil war on the mainland and the Maoist political campaigns in the then British colony. That was just a year after the UNHCR set up its global coordination body in Geneva.

Forty years later, in 1992, the departing British rectified the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), aiming to lock international human rights standard into the post-handover Hong Kong.

All these initiatives form part of Hong Kong’s protection claiming framework today.

Under this umbrella, non-Chinese nationals seeking asylum in Hong Kong must either apply to the UNHCR for refugee status on the ground of its mandate under the Refugee Convention or to the SAR government for torture claims under its commitment as a CAT signatory.

This dual structure — though most refugees seek protection by applying through both channels — began to change when the Court of Final Appeal ruled in favor of the asylum seekers in March 2013.

The ruling ordered the Immigration Department to review its own mechanism for non-refoulement claims before executing removal or deportation of those whose refugee applications with the UNHCR in Hong Kong are rejected. (Non-refoulement is a principle of international law which forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.)

A year later, in March 2014, the Immigration Department introduced a Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), under which the screening of refugee claims were to be carried out by local bureaucrats to replace the previous dual structure of UNHCR and government CAT parallels.

The Immigration Department declared that it will make reference to the Refugee Convention for terming prosecution, as well as to the CAT which it had already signed and its own human rights laws. Individuals substantiated will be referred to the UNHCR for recognition as refugees.

On June 19, the eve of this year’s World Refugee Day, three East African asylum seekers shared their stories in an event organized by Amnesty International’s Hong Kong chapter.

One of them said she had no knowledge of the “one country, two systems” political arrangement before coming to Hong Kong; she was told to go to the city just a day before departure from East Africa.

All three of them, currently awaiting the results of their claims applications, have different reasons for liking Hong Kong, including woman rights protection, rule of law and efficient transportation system.

They also had a few negative impressions, though, like local residents looking at them with disdain.

Hong Kong’s Justice Centre advocacy officer Victoria Wisniewski Otero plans to testify in the form of reports to the UN Human Rights Committee hearing in Geneva this December. She said asylum seekers should be granted the right to work in Hong Kong freely.

At present, only a few asylum seekers have been allowed to work in Hong Kong due to strict approval procedures as employers’ pre-consent is required for such a temporary work permit to be considered, according to Otero.

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A Hong Kong-based trader; author of Grameen in Kosovo