Better screening system urged for asylum seekers kept in limbo

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

The government should provide a more efficient mechanism for screening asylum seekers - not just for their benefit, but also to ease the burden on taxpayers, a charity organisation said yesterday.

The comments follow a Court of First Instance ruling yesterday that the government had no obligation to screen asylum seekers.

At present, the Hong Kong office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for screening people seeking refugee status in the city. There are about 2,000 such cases pending, many of which have been in the works for years. During this time, the government provides for their accommodation and living.

Dablo, an African who arrived in the city in 2003 to avoid political persecution in his home country, said that what he thought was the beginning of a new life turned out to be a torture of infinite waiting.

'I have been waiting for so long. Every day I sleep and I eat, there is nothing else I can do. I don't know how much longer I have to wait, but I also can't go back. I feel like I am nothing,' he said.

The 39-year-old professional applied to the Hong Kong office of the UNHCR in 2003 for refugee status, but after a year of assessment he received a letter informing him that his application had failed. 'No reason was given. They just tell you, 'You are not credible, we can't accept your application',' Dablo said.

He then filed claims of non-repatriation to the Immigration Department based on the grounds that he is a victim of torture. That application is still pending.

Annie Lin, of the Society for Community Organisation who has been helping asylum seekers, said such cases were not unique.

'The assessment can take years, but the reasons given often contain nothing more than a few lines and it is difficult for the claimants to lodge appeals,' she said.

Even if they seek to appeal, their cases are not heard by a court but by a separate UN committee.

'If the government sets up a formal assessment mechanism, the real refugees would not have to be stuck in the city for long and fake applicants who abuse the system could also be repatriated sooner.'

According to Immigration Department statistics, the number of asylum seekers claiming torture increased from 514 in 2006 to 1,583 last year, with the majority from South Asian and African countries. Many of them lodged their claims only after having been arrested or notified of their removal.