Don't misunderstand the needs of the most vulnerable in society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am

Fears are mounting about the global economic crisis, and the most vulnerable segment of the Hong Kong community, refugees, has become the latest scapegoat.

I refer to two articles: 'Reopen refugee camps, say S Asians' and 'Reasons to be thankful for ruling on paid work', March 8. The former suggested that asylum seekers should all be put in 'camps', and the latter that all these people have bogus claims.

Let's be clear who we are talking about. 'Asylum seeker' and 'illegal immigrant' are not synonyms. An illegal immigrant is someone who has entered or stayed in Hong Kong without approval; an asylum seeker is someone who seeks international protection based on a fear of persecution.

Quotes from the articles would have us believe that asylum seekers are all illegal immigrants simply here to make money and take our jobs: 'Business was down 60 per cent since last year and ... much of the decline was due to asylum seekers working.'

The Hong Kong community is being asked to believe that we should round up 1,000 to 3,000 men, women and children, many of whom have been tortured, raped, permanently disabled and forcibly removed or chased out of their country, and put them in a camp for fear that they will take our jobs.

A recent court ruling would not provide illegal immigrants with a right to work; it would provide asylum seekers with the right to work while their claim is pending. The process of securing refugee protection is difficult and complicated. The social assistance provided is piecemeal, with gaps and overlapping services. The livelihood of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is not sustainable.

The courage and resilience of refugees in the face of desperate odds is often heart-rending and humbling, yet always inspiring. Their resilience should be a lesson to the rest of us, whose lives are privileged in comparison. My faith in humanity and the role of international law is renewed every time a refugee gains asylum. The damage that vilifying refugees or disseminating misleading information may have done leaves me in shock. It is my hope that this response can undo some of that damage.

Brian Barbour, executive director, Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre Limited