UN body to cease aid for asylum seekers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am

Reeling from lack of funds, UNHCR urges HK to take over the task

The UN's refugee agency will cease funding asylum seekers in Hong Kong from May.

Monique Sokhan, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong, said yesterday that worldwide cuts had forced the agency to discontinue all financial support for asylum seekers in the city.

The UNHCR supports 80 of the 1,300 asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their refugee status application.

The money they receive is usually equivalent to the welfare payments poor people in the city receive.

The agency would continue to fund refugees in Hong Kong, Ms Sokhan said. It now provides financial assistance to 120 refugees.

'We don't have enough money to continue to give assistance to everybody. We are focusing now on assisting refugees,' she said.

She said donor fatigue worldwide had cut the agency's funding, leading to cuts in UNHCR operations around the globe.

Among the 80 assisted by the UNHCR are those deemed the most vulnerable, including single mothers and children, and people suffering from medical and psychiatric conditions.

The cuts will also affect asylum seekers arriving in Hong Kong in the future.

Ms Sokhan said the government had been informed of the UNHCR's intentions and an official announcement was planned for tomorrow following a meeting with government officers.

She said increasing numbers of people seeking asylum were entering Hong Kong, putting additional pressure on the agency's already stretched budget, but the government had repeatedly refused to assist with funding because it had not ratified the UN's convention on refugees.

'This is now the time when not only the government but also NGOs must step up to share the burden. It should not just be the UNHCR shouldering all the responsibility.'

She said that since there were many children among those arriving in Hong Kong looking for a safe haven, the government had an obligation to protect them.

The cut in funding will affect housing and food allowances for asylum seekers, but they will continue to be provided with money for medical care, refugee status applications and counselling.

The UNHCR said it costs 100 times more to fund asylum seekers in Hong Kong than in Africa. 'Hong Kong is considered rich compared to other cities and countries. I can no longer justify running an operation where the country has the means to care for asylum seekers and refugees but chooses not to,' Ms Sokhan said.

The Security Bureau said last night the government would not comment until the UNHCR had made an official announcement.