Many asylum seekers could be quality migrants

May 22, 2015 11:05
Many asylum seekers have extraordinary talent and can contribute to Hong Kong's economy. Photo:

Roughly three weeks ago, the Hong Kong Immigration Department introduced a pilot Admission Scheme for the Second Generation of Chinese Hong Kong permanent residents (ASSG).

The scheme includes a series of enhanced immigration policies for other immigrants that took effect May 4.

The ASSG aims to entice the second generation of Chinese Hong Kong permanent residents who have emigrated overseas to return to Hong Kong.

There is no quota, and applicants are not required to have a job offer in hand.

Also launched as part of the ASSG is a relaxation of various talent admission schemes -- the General Employment Policy, the Admission Scheme for Mainland Talents and Professionals (ASMTP) and the Quality Migrant Admission Scheme (QMAS).

Previously, under the ASMTP, a mainland resident who was able to secure a job in Hong Kong could enter the city with a one-year visa subject to renewal after one year, then two, then two and then three years. Now, mainland Chinese talent who have secured a job offer in Hong Kong are able to enter the city with a two-year visa subject to renewal under a 2+3+3 cycle.

In addition, if mainland talent admitted under the ASMTP have previously worked in Hong Kong for two years and have assessable income of HK$2 million in the previous year, they are entitled to apply for a six-year visa extension.

For foreign nationals, the QMAS has also been eased to “attract talent with excellent educational background or international work experience”.

There are also provisions to attract entrepreneurs into the city, including start-up entrepreneurs.

In addition, people who qualify as “top-tier entrants” will be eligible for a 2+6 visa renewal cycle, meaning they would not need to renew their visa again before qualifying for permanent residency.

According to the policy address by the chief executive in January, those who earn more than HK$2 million per year may qualify as “top-tier entrants”.

An Immigration Department spokesman said the new immigration policy has been launched "in view of the aging population and shrinking labor force in Hong Kong, to attract and retain talent, professionals and entrepreneurs from outside Hong Kong to support our economic development".

The spokesman said, "We welcome people with valuable skills, knowledge or experience from all over the world to work and live in Hong Kong ...”

This new immigration policy suggests the Hong Kong government is taking on the challenge of maintaining and enhancing the city’s competitiveness.

The initiative might have something to do with the rising trend among the existing immigrant communities (especially migrants from the mainland) of “fleeing” the city, amid complicated social conflict and the city’s declining identity as a multicultural cauldron tolerant of diversity.

The rationale behind the new policy sends the clear signal that Hong Kong welcomes “talent” into the territory that has an excellent educational background or international work experience.

In stark contrast with the new immigration initiatives is the policy toward asylum seekers – the overarching policy is neither to grant resident status to any refugee, asylum seeker or torture claimant nor to grant such people working visas prior to having their claim recognized (and the success rate is very low).

The policy is based on the fear of attracting “economic migrants”, because asylum seekers or torture claimants often come from less developed countries, countries with sizable impoverished populations (though not dissimilar in many respects to mainland China) and, too often, countries suffering from armed conflict.

Readers of this article might be able to better grasp the level of unfairness experienced by asylum seekers by considering a couple of legal cases the author happened to work on.

The first is an elderly female torture claimant, a grandmother, who was unlawfully detained in Hong Kong for more than 18 months pending criminal prosecution, without being convicted of any crime.

She has been charged with an immigration offence related to her entry to Hong Kong after she fled from her country, where she was a victim of persecution and torture.

The woman was constantly denied bail despite case law in Hong Kong suggesting that people with pending asylum, refugee or torture claims shall not be prosecuted pending the outcome of such protection claims, and bail should always be granted as a right, not privilege.

Furthermore, if successful in a claim for asylum, the claimant is not to be prosecuted for immigration offences, whether related to entry into Hong Kong or overstaying.

The second case is another asylum seeker, also from a country that had been enveloped in civil war, who has been charged with working illegally in Hong Kong.

The law prohibits a person from working without permission to take up employment, as a visa condition of stay.

Asylum seekers possess no visa and thus no conditions of stay, but simply a recognizance form.

Hong Kong law expressly prohibits holders of a recognizance form from taking up any employment.

As a matter of policy, the Immigration Department does not grant an employment visa to any asylum seeker, refugee or torture claimant regardless of whether the claim is granted or rejected, except under “extraordinary circumstances”.

And the only case where the department granted an employment visa is when the claimant suffered from serious mental illness for not being able to work and being unable to support his family, and brought this matter to the court.

If caught and convicted, asylum seekers face serious legal consequences -- imprisonment of 22 months or, upon a guilty plea, 15 months -- for taking up employment.

The intention of deterring asylum seekers (viewed as economic migrants in the guise of refugees) from entering and remaining in Hong Kong is thus obvious, because other visitors to Hong Kong who take up illegal employment face only two months in prison upon conviction.

The policy of deterrence toward asylum seekers inevitably throws them into desperate situations, because they are caught on the horns of a dilemma: either take the huge risk of accepting illegal employment, or try to get by with meager livelihood assistance.

The stark contrast between the treatment of “talent” welcomed by the Hong Kong government and the treatment of refugees by the same government reinforces the long-held stereotype that Hong Kong is destined to be a place only for the affluent.

In fact, many stereotypes imposed on asylum seekers need to be redefined.

Rather than incompetent but greedy people migrating to Hong Kong seeking to prey on the city’s economic benefits, many asylum seekers held in limbo in Hong Kong have extraordinary talent, including bankers, artists, craftsmen, athletes, coaches, religious leaders, teachers, management professionals, and so on.

Presented with more tolerant and friendly policies and a willingness to integrate them into society, they, too, could bring invaluable talent to Hong Kong and contribute to its competitiveness.

The government has yet to acknowledge that care for the destitute and respect for the social and economic well-being of the underclass has any connection with the city’s competitiveness.

However, the treatment of and attitudes toward the city’s most marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable social and ethnic groups exposes the degree of tolerance, humanity and general atmosphere of cultural integration, which certainly carries some weight when international talent decides where to settle down.

Narrow-mindedness, indifference and inequality are human and societal weaknesses that are simply incompatible with the universally celebrated values of tolerance, empathy and equality fundamental to creating a competitive yet sustainable society.

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