Hong Kong’s refugee shame

Hong Kong must update its refugee policy to match growing image as an international city.

Refugees arrive believing that Hong Kong will treat them with humanity and compassion in keeping with its status as a world city, writes Banu [AFP]

Hong Kong – Around 6,000 refugees in Hong Kong languish in a legal nether world, which prevents them from working, studying, or even volunteering. They live in wretched conditions, in rickety shacks or subdivided accommodations. Yet, just a few kilometres away loom the glitzy, multi-billion dollar highrise properties that define the famous Hong Kong skyline.

The refugees who do make it to Hong Kong have fled torture and persecution in conflict-ridden hotspots like the Congo, Central African Republic and Afghanistan. Sometimes they escape with their children in tow. They arrive in the belief that Hong Kong will treat them with the humanity and compassion in keeping with its status as a world city.

But once here, they find themselves churned around a legal system that one refugee group, Vision First, characterises as an “official culture of rejection“. Trapped in this administrative quicksand, it can take up to a decade for individuals to exit the system as legally recognised refugees or torture victims. In the process, their sanity, hopes and futures are crushed.

Hong Kong is flush with wealth, resources and world-class infrastructure. It has embraced financial globalisation with an impressive intensity. The presence of the headquarters of around 4,000 multinational companies has helped to stamp the city as a leading commercial hub. It’s done this on the back of immigrants, rich and poor. It can amply afford to house, clothe and give employment to the smattering of refugees already here.

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Given this, is it not time for Hong Kong to reset its policy towards refugees?

A number of Hong Kong politicians, like Emily Lau and Dennis Kwok, both members of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, agree and are using the legal system to push the boundaries of policy. In alliance with leading human rights lawyers, like Mark Daly, and non-governmental organisations (NGO) they’re building and taking cases to court in the hope that any victory will go towards reshaping policy and attitudes.

Unified Screening Mechanism

The Hong Kong government has listened to the criticism, but the steps it’s taking to remedy the situation are faltering at best. It recently introduced a Unified Screening Mechanism, which groups refugee and torture claims under one administrative umbrella. Civil liberty leaders like Aleta Miller, Executive Director of the Justice Centre Hong Kong, described the preparation phase in the run-up to the March launch as muddled. The government’s failure to consult key stakeholders – NGOs and lawyers – during this period caused huge anxiety among refugees, who were unsure what would happen to them, where they would be sent and how long their claims would take to process.

Furthermore, those that do eventually get official refugee status have to then leave the territory with the help of the UN refugee agency. This seems particularly harsh as those that are forced to depart have to also ditch what rudimentary lives they’ve been able to construct over the years.

Essentially, the new mechanism falls terribly short of what claimants need – the full recognition of their existence in Hong Kong, the right to remain long-term and work – in other words the basic entry points into society that you and I take for granted.

The fact is that Hong Kong still refuses to sign up to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, which allows the government here to oversee an insular system that will continue to receive little international scrutiny.

As refugees wait for their status to be determined, they aren’t allowed to work or volunteer, unless the government gives them a special exemption. They’re also barred from accessing tertiary education. Refugee children get to go to primary and secondary school, but their education must end there.

Moreover the meagre social welfare benefits don’t even cover the minimum accommodation one would think fit for a human being. Food benefits are in kind, not in cash. In a demoralising and time-wasting exercise, refugees are compelled to travel to the outlet supplying their food. Health benefits are minimal. Refugees complain they’re often given just Panadol for potentially serious health conditions that need diagnosing and appropriate medical care.

What it adds up to is a dehumanising treatment that renders refugees mentally distraught, hopeless and sometimes suicidal. Many have already suffered persecution, rape and other forms of torture and cruelty in the countries from which they came.

Magnet effect

Official policy towards refugees in Hong Kong partly revolves around the fear of a so-called magnet effect.

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In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people landed here, initially escaping the reunification of North and South Vietnam. Radio broadcasts warning Vietnamese refugees away and newspaper headlines such as, “5,000 on way to HK in Vietnamese armada”, instilled fear in the host and refugee communities alike. Hong Kong’s horror of being inundated was based on reality.

Most of the Vietnamese who did make it to Hong Kong were subsequently granted asylum status in a third country. They have long gone, yet there are those that cling to the belief, now complicated by the territory’s fabulous wealth, that Hong Kong remains a magnet for refugees and economic migrants. They want the barriers to immigration to stay firmly in place no matter what conflict, or poverty-ridden country sends refugees packing.

But Hong Kong of 2014 is a very different place from the city that struggled to cope with the Vietnamese influx. Since the 1980s it has produced Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing. Worth $34bn, Li himself is an immigrant from southern China. Hong Kong’s existing fiscal reserves are around $750bn in the black – a state of affairs envied by many in the region.

So, now is the time to update policy in line with Hong Kong’s growing image as an international city. It’s an appeal backed by empirical evidence. Indochina is no longer at war, refugees do not turn up by the boatload, or barely at all. In any case, refugees generally escape to the nearest safe country. The UN says Lebanon has taken in a million refugees, Turkey more than 650,000 and Jordan nearly 600,000 from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Those that go further afield generally prefer countries like the US and Australia, which have a more solid record of accepting and legally recognising asylum seekers. Despite the current controversy surrounding its refugee acceptance rate, Australia grants thousands of permanent refugee and humanitarian visas every year.

Compare this with Hong Kong which has only granted 10 torture claims since 2004 – in a city of around 7 million residents.

Globalisation is not a one-stop shop denominated only by the success of the stock exchange, the amount of square footage of billion dollar real estate and the international cuisine on offer. It should also include universal human values of decency and liberty.

Moreover, confident international cities take in all sorts – the rich and poor from across the continents. The best cities are multicultural, vibrant and welcoming, with immigrants and refugees historically taking part in their development. It’s no different in Hong Kong – where refugees also say they want to contribute to the city’s future accomplishments. At the very least Hong Kong should accept those already here, as legal entities that have the right to remain and work. There will be no second tidal wave of refugees. Never fear – history won’t repeat itself.

Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.