HK needs to rethink policy on asylum seekers

May 09, 2016 14:14
As asylum seekers are not allowed to work, they can be seen loitering around in parks and on streets in places such as Yuen Long. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong needs to rethink its policy towards asylum seekers. People waiting for refugee status recognition for more than six months should be allowed to work, for the good of both the government and asylum seekers.

The current situation is unsustainable, and the problem could get worse amid calls to create a refugee camp off Shenzhen. If there’s a lesson that Hong Kong can learn from Europe, it is how not to treat people fleeing a conflict. Holding them at the border and trying to push them back will not only not work, it will also be morally unacceptable.

Although Hong Kong hasn't signed the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, it wouldn't be necessary to ratify that for the region to change the attitude towards refugees.

What kind of society thinks that it's a solution to confine people fleeing war or torture in a closed camp? Shouldn’t Hong Kong take note of the barbaric and unsustainable situation in Europe with thousands of refugees stranded at its borders?

As if asylum seekers didn’t have enough problems with the long wait for screening and the inability to work to sustain themselves, now some legislators want to build detention camps to prevent fraudulent asylum-seeking claims.

Although it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, Hong Kong still has obligations under international law. As Kelley Loper, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, says, the principle of non-refoulment has to be respected.

The principle means that countries that receive refugees can't send them back to places where they are going to be persecuted. Asylum seekers are entitled to stay in Hong Kong until they are interviewed and are either granted refugee status or rejected. This process is called unified screening mechanism and can take years.

Many things are wrong with the screening system. The mechanism was designed to screen and offer protection and access to minimal humanitarian welfare assistance to persons fleeing torture, persecution, war, genocide and other severe violations of human rights. But as of now, the process is inefficient.

Virginie Goethals works for a non-profit organization that seeks to empower refugees and help them get physical activity. She says the screening system lacks transparency, fairness and effectiveness.

"A 'lucky' refugee will wait around three to four years, but it is not uncommon for some to wait for almost eight to nine years, surviving in inhumane circumstances in the meantime," Goethals said in an email.

During that period of time, wouldn't it make more sense for the asylum seekers to work and provide for themselves, instead of living off charity and a slim monthly allowance from the government?

If they are allowed to work, it would not only mean less expense for the government, it will help the society in other ways. Many refugees and asylum seekers are qualified professionals. They would be contributing to the economy and bringing diversity to the table, a key feature for any society that wants to grow and remain open.

Currently, refugees are not allowed to work or volunteer. The only option they have is to wait and hope for swift processing of their claims. Asylum seekers must survive on HK$40 per day, and are not even allowed to freely choose the food they want to buy with the allowance.

"Their housing allowance is also very limited for one of the most expensive cities in the world - HK$1,500 a month - and forces them into poverty and isolation," Goethals said.

These people are fleeing torture and persecution in their home countries. Most of them only want to feel safe, forget their past and move on. Eventually they will be resettled in another country, but how can they keep a normal life and contribute to the society that temporarily hosts them if they aren’t even allowed to volunteer?

In Loper’s view, it makes sense to allow them to work.

"It would be less expensive for Hong Kong government," she says. "People could work after they have spent a certain period of time in Hong Kong. Then they would support themselves. It’s better for them."

The issues a person faces when not being able to work are pretty serious.

"The living conditions, the unfairness and uncertainty that the claimants and refugees who participate in our programs face in Hong Kong only exacerbate the past traumatic experiences, and enhances depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleeplessness," Goethals said.

Refugees are being put under the political spotlight for the wrong reasons while there are issues that require our full attention, namely the territory's relationship with mainland China.

The number of claimants hasn’t increased. "The reason the number may look higher is because there is a backlog. Eleven thousand refugees is a very small number compared within the Hong Kong population," said Loper.

She notes that most countries have a 30 to 40 percent rate of acceptance of refugees. "In Hong Kong that number is less than one percent," said Loper.

If the numbers in the SAR are in stark contrast with those of the other countries, how can we be sure that there are so many so-called fake claimants? The lack of transparency in the whole process means that we don't really know the criteria being used to arrive at so many rejections.

Obscure processes only raise doubts among the people. The data showing such a low success rate would make anybody think that there must be something wrong with the system. If we can’t meet the quotas of other countries perhaps the system is flawed.

These inefficiencies will trigger more problems. Long waiting periods may encourage dubious candidates to apply because they know they will be kept in limbo for many years.

If the government fixes the process instead of making the people wait for long time, false claims would be reduced. People won't present a claim for risk of being rejected immediately. Once fixed, if the process will still take a couple of years, then for everybody’s sake, let them work.

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EJ Insight contributor