Refugees deserve the same rights as citizens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2005, 12:00am

Throughout history, there have been refugees - people escaping difficulties so severe that they are willing to leave their homes for an uncertain future. Their plight might be the result of war, famine, politics or, most contentiously in an age where money talks loudest, poverty.

The world's nations have found the word 'refugee' increasingly unpalatable since the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001.

At that time, the countries from which the most displaced people came from were Afghanistan and Iraq. Those nations coincidentally became the target of the US-led campaign to crush international terrorism and with the overthrow of their governments, Afghans and Iraqis were no longer seen as suffering persecution.

Despite security not being fully restored to either country, millions of people have returned home from camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That is the reason why a UN report, released for World Refugee Day today, showed the global total last year fell to 9.2 million from 9.6 million in 2003, the lowest in 25 years.

Nonetheless, the report also revealed that the number of internally displaced - those who have not crossed a border - and asylum seekers, stateless people and others 'of concern' rose by more than 2 million in the same period to 19.2 million. Much of the increase is because of conflicts in Colombia and Africa, most notably Sudan and the Democratic People's Republic of Congo.

With national self-interest high since September 11, governments are not giving sufficient funds to the UNHCR to properly house, clothe and feed those in need.

Hong Kong is no exception. There are 725 asylum seekers in the city, more than 300 of whom have arrived since January. Of those, 110 are recognised refugees. Their situation is precarious because the government is not bound by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and the $1.16 billion it is owed by the UNHCR for caring for Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s makes relations tense.

Without legal rights and denied the assistance due to refugees - shelter, food and clothing - they await resettlement to a third location either in jail or sleeping rough in a hand-to-mouth existence.

But Hong Kong is far from being the exception. Even some of the 140 countries and territories which have signed international agreements are increasingly turning their backs on their obligations. Nations like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, which once held the door open to those in need of help, have been inching their welcome mats in.

This bleak situation should not exist, given that refugees, through their hard work, were instrumental in building the developed world, Hong Kong included.

Such places, so proud of their achievements, have an obligation to treat refugees as fairly as their own citizens.