Asylum seekers deserve humane treatment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2005, 12:00am

Hong Kong prides itself on being a tolerant and humane society - a place that ensures fair and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of their status, race or nationality.

Sadly, these standards are not always met. The ordeal of a pregnant asylum seeker, which we report today, is one such occasion. The Sri Lankan woman received treatment at a public hospital after suffering abdominal pains. But she and her family, including a young child, ended up spending a night in police detention. This occurred because her right to remain in Hong Kong is unclear. She - and others like her - are in legal limbo. The Immigration Department has now allowed her to stay until her claim for refugee status has been completed. But there should not have been a need for the family to have such an unpleasant experience.

The incident points to a wider problem - the lack of clear rules on how such cases are to be handled. The government's difficulties in dealing with tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees during the 1980s and 1990s has, understandably, made it reluctant to take steps that might encourage another influx. But this has had unfortunate consequences. Hong Kong has effectively washed its hands of the responsibility and has left the cash-starved United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to shoulder the task.

While the UNHCR is investigating asylum claims - a process that can take months or sometimes years - claimants can do little but wait. Under Hong Kong law, they cannot work and the meagre allowance given by the UN barely covers essentials. Families are given accommodation, but limited UNHCR resources mean it is often a small, squalid room. Throughout the process, asylum seekers live outside Hong Kong society, unable to be part of it and made to feel unwelcome by it as they sleep rough in its midst.

The woman's husband was doubtless unaware of this situation when he brought her and their young son here this year from Sri Lanka to escape what he claimed was political persecution. She found she was pregnant shortly afterwards. The woman sought treatment at a public hospital this month. She was seven months pregnant. The hospital called police because she had no identity card. She was arrested and held overnight, along with her husband and son.

Pregnancy is a difficult enough experience without having the added stress of being in a city where the welcome mat is not out, having an uncertain future and authorities who are unsure how to treat you because there are no rules to guide them. Such a situation should not be allowed to continue.

A clear mechanism needs to be put in place, backed by law, for processing asylum claims - and ensuring the basic needs of claimants are met while they wait for an outcome. Fair and dignified treatment is a tenet of any civilised society. It is one that Hong Kong should embrace.


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