Refugees and asylum seekers have long been part of the development and social changes of Hong Kong. Historically, three waves of refugees have hit Hong Kong in the past century.
The first wave of refugees flooded in the city after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. These refugees brought with them skills and capitals, contributing significantly to Hong Kong’s economic development. During the 60s and 70s, the second wave of young male refugees arrived from the mainland and provided the much-needed labour for Hong Kong’s booming manufacturing industry. Later, the turmoil in Vietnam between the 70s and 90s led to the third wave of refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. The Vietnam War brought over 200,000 Vietnamese refugees. While around 150,000 were resettled in third countries, over 60,000 were deported back to Vietnam. Only very few were granted permission to reside in Hong Kong.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, clearly defines what is refugee and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The Refugee Convention builds on International Law, which states that refugees shall not be forcibly returned or refouled to the country they have fled from. Nevertheless, Hong Kong is not a signatory of the Convention, and therefore, the Hong Kong government is not obliged to this responsibility.
Regardless of that, Hong Kong went into the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture (the UNCAT Convention) in 1992. According to the Convention, asylum seekers can apply for torture claim through the Immigration Department. If the claim is substantiated on grounds of persecution, the claimant will be referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement in a third country. If not, the claimant will be refouled. Asylum seekers are also permitted to claim non-refoulement protection by invoking Article 3 of Section 8 of Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance.
In the past, while the UNHCR in Hong Kong carried the main responsibility for refugee status determination and assistance to asylum-seekers and refugees, the Immigration Department only had to ensure that failed claimants were removed or deported legally. In 2009, the Immigration Department started to take up the responsibility for refugee status determination. On 3rd March 2014, the Hong Kong government launched a Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), which is the process used to screen all claims lodged by persons who fear such harm upon return to their country of origin. Upon the commencement of the USM, the UNHCR ceased refugee status determination procedures in Hong Kong.
Currently, there are nearly 10,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, but the rate of success torture claims hardly reached 1%. Compare to the acceptance rate in other countries, Hong Kong’s figure is among the lowest in the developed world and great concerned has been expressed by human rights groups and lawyers over this issue.
In 2016, inaccurate and irresponsible comments were made regarding the refugee issue in Hong Kong by the media. Asylum seekers were labelled as “fake refugees” or “economic refugees” coming to Hong Kong for illegal employment and were often associated with criminal activities.
Human rights groups and pan-democratic lawmakers are blaming the media for fueling a climate of fear and hostility towards refugees. Concern groups have been holding press conferences and giving interviews to explain that Hong Kong does not have “fake refugees”. They remark that before claims are substantiated, these refugees are to be known as “asylum seekers” or “non-refoulment claimants”. Meanwhile, the government provides a rental subsidy of $1,500 and food coupons of $1,200 every month to each asylum seeker who is not allowed to work in the city.
Many asylum seekers have been stranded in Hong Kong for over a decade without their claims being determined by the government. A court interpreter said that very few of the claims that had been screened were substantiated. This reveals the fact that measures the government adopts have made most refugees non-legible claimants.
Indeed, these refugees are the forgotten ones. They are being discriminated against and marginalised in the society, living in fear and trepidation. It is essential for the community to show more sensitivity and empathy towards asylum seekers, give them dignity and respect as well as opportunities to contribute to this temporary home.
Cover photo credit: South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd.
Special thanks to The Hong Kong Society for Asylum-seekers and Refugees.