Pregnant asylum seeker arrested on ward

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

A pregnant asylum seeker was arrested and detained with her family after receiving emergency treatment at a public hospital.

Devi, whose real name cannot be revealed for security reasons, said she had been receiving regular free check-ups at Queen Elizabeth Hospital with a letter from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees until last month, when it suddenly refused to treat her.

When she felt severe pain in her abdomen and back the weekend before last, she called an ambulance and was taken to the hospital and admitted for three days. She was then presented with a $10,000 bill.

'My husband showed them the UNHCR papers, but when he walked back to the ward, the nurse called the police,' said Devi, who is seven months pregnant. 'The police came to the ward and told me to quickly change my clothes. They took me, my child and my husband, whom they put in handcuffs, to the Yau Ma Tei police station.'

Devi, 28, her husband and five-year-old child were detained overnight on suspicion of overstaying.

The next day they were taken to Castle Peak Immigration Centre, where they showed officers the same UNHCR papers and were released on recognisance with the help of a guarantor.

'I don't know if, when I have to go into labour, they will also ask me to pay more than $10,000 and if my baby can get check-ups after birth,' said Devi, who lives with her family on a $2,800 monthly allowance from the UNHCR.

'The UNHCR said this is a new government policy and they cannot help.'

Calls to various government departments highlighted confusion over a policy change, with the Security Bureau saying hospitals were not instructed to call police when patients could not present valid identity documents, but the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau saying they were required to do so.

With no laws in Hong Kong governing the status of asylum seekers, they are dealt with by each government department separately at each officer's discretion. Human rights lawyers have long called for a standard policy. Asylum seekers' right to stay in Hong Kong remains in limbo.

The family say that they fled Sri Lanka after Devi's husband, 33, a driver and bodyguard for a government minister, was beaten up because his boss switched his allegiance from the United National Party to the People's Alliance last year.

She says the family has no intention of settling in Hong Kong. They initially went to Bangkok but were advised to come here, where the UNHCR could help them.

'My son has no school, my husband cannot work, our place is so small and hot that my husband often sleeps outside by the lift.'

The Society for Community Organisation's Annie Lin, who assisted the family when they were in custody, said she was told unofficially by a medical social worker that they had a duty to report asylum seekers to the police.

'We feel of course that everybody has the right to health, and asylum seekers, particularly a woman with child, should not be detained while their cases are being considered by the UNHCR,' she said.

A Security Bureau spokeswoman denied that the Immigration Department required medical staff to call the police if asylum seekers sought treatment.

But Queen Elizabeth Hospital said that when presented with patients unable to show a 'legal and valid identity document to prove their identity as Hong Kong residents, the hospital would inform the police or immigration', although they would be given any emergency medical treatment required.

A spokesman for the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau confirmed that this was standard procedure.

'For patients who have a delivery in a public hospital, a minimum rate of $20,000 will be charged,' he said. 'However, if an asylum seeker holds a referral letter from the UNHCR, the Hospital Authority would consider waiving the applicable medical charges on a discretionary basis.'