UN accused of depriving refugees of their rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 July, 2006, 12:00am

Human rights group says agency mishandles asylum claims, denying many a fair hearing

People seeking asylum in Hong Kong have been deprived of their right to have claims fairly assessed because of maladministration at the UN office in charge of refugees, it was claimed yesterday.

A human rights group criticised the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for breaching its own guidelines on handling asylum cases. The Society for Community Organisation also called on the government to formulate an asylum policy.

The calls came after a seven-month study into the cases of 100 asylum seekers who had approached the local UNHCR office for assistance.

According to the society, 91 said they had not been allowed to be accompanied by a lawyer during interviews, almost all said they had not been given a copy of interview transcripts, and 72 said the interviewers were hostile towards them.

The allegations would breach the Procedure Standards for Refugee Status Determination under the UNHCR Mandate.

Society director Ho Hei-wah said yesterday he had been told by workers at the UN office that a shortage of staff and funding had forced them to work under extremely difficult conditions.

In March, the UNHCR said it could not afford to support asylum seekers in Hong Kong while their claims were pending.

'We appreciate the difficulties the office is facing. But that is not an excuse for condemning asylum seekers to a miserable state,' said Mr Ho, also chairman of the Hong Kong Human Rights Commission. 'The UN office is supposed to protect, not abuse human rights.'

Mr Ho demanded the office immediately rectify its practices and said he would write to complain to the UNHCR in New York.

According to the society, there are 1,535 people in Hong Kong seeking asylum under the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Three-quarters are from Asian countries.

Under Hong Kong law, a foreigner's claim for refugee status cannot be recognised under the Immigration Ordinance.

In a statement last night, a spokesman said the government did not have an obligation to admit individuals seeking refugee status under the convention.

'The government has a firm policy of not granting asylum to individuals seeking refugee status,' said the spokesman.

It was widely believed the British colonial government deliberately kept the system ambiguous so it could handle cases of asylum seekers from the mainland behind closed doors to avoid causing tension with Beijing.

Britain had refused to apply the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol to Hong Kong. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing did not extend the convention to the territory.

The UNHCR has assumed the primary responsibility to assess and protect asylum seekers.