HK must do more to protect the vulnerable

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong is eager to portray itself as a forward-looking city with a global outlook. It certainly has such a reputation when it comes to financial and business matters, but falters in international eyes where the world's most vulnerable people are concerned.

These are refugees and asylum seekers, people fleeing from the countries in which they were born or live for a host of reasons - ethnicity, religion, politics and war among them. There are at least 20 million such people in the world. But as far as Hong Kong is concerned, they do not exist.

That position was damagingly amplified by a High Court judicial review yesterday rejecting a call by six people for the government to set up its own system for assessing refugee claims. The ruling, on the grounds that Hong Kong is not bound by international law to do so, leaves the task in the hands of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Hong Kong is one of the few among developed societies not to have signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol. This is despite China and Macau being signatories. As such, asylum seekers are accorded minimum standards of treatment here. The government is understandably concerned that because of our city's standing as a wealthy financial centre, many economic migrants might try to come here by making bogus claims for asylum. There is without doubt an element of truth in this assertion, especially because many asylum seekers put in their claims when their visas are about to expire. But this is an argument for tightening visa rules, not one for not having a screening mechanism to determine who face genuine fears of persecution.

Regardless of whether the convention and its protocol have been signed, Hong Kong does, after all, still have obligations under international law regarding the treatment of refugees. On principle, they should not be returned to countries where their lives would potentially be in danger, while their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights must be protected, as provided by international treaties to which Hong Kong is a party.

Yet they are treated the same as other arrivals under the Immigration Ordinance and left to fend for themselves - some have complained that they were not even directed to the UNHCR. Authorities here do not entirely turn a blind eye to such people. While the UNHCR is assessing their claims, asylum seekers are provided with the basic necessities. Those who fail to be granted refugee status are sent home, while the 10 per cent of cases that prove successful are, given Hong Kong's position, sent to a third country.

Such a system is unbecoming for a city such as ours. Prosperity alone should mark us as being able to welcome those fleeing persecution elsewhere in the world. This is regardless of the fact that we pride ourselves on being a tolerant, humane society, no matter what status, race or nationality.

Yesterday's ruling is likely to be subject to appeal to higher courts. Irrespective of the final outcome, the government should set up a refugee screening procedure based on international standards to ensure no one is sent back to a location where they face persecution. The concerns that arose when Hong Kong was flooded by refugees from Vietnam have passed. Through a mechanism to assess asylum and refugee claims, we can show how much a part of the wider world we truly are.