Time to sign the UN convention

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong prides itself on being a fair and caring society. We strive to provide equal opportunities for all and offer protection to those who cannot take care of themselves. But our safety net for the underprivileged and vulnerable has often been criticised as being too narrow, and the plight of refugees stranded in the city is a clear example.

The government has yet to sign the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees. But that does not stop foreign nationals in troubled regions from coming to the city to seek a better life. Yet the screening process is often slow and prone to abuse. The general ban on refugees working while waiting for overseas settlement adds to their misery.

This year the situation has been made worse by substantial cuts in material support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR cites extra funding demands from a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts last year, including flooding in Pakistan, a civil war in Ivory Coast and violent regime change resulting from the 'Arab Spring'. The refugee agency's Hong Kong Office says it is no longer in a position to continue providing adequate material assistance to recognised refugees in the city, numbering around 180.

Although the government has sought to fill the gap and extended its humanitarian assistance programme to the refugees, it is understandable that refugee groups find the cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is in the public interest that refugees, like other underprivileged groups, are given adequate support and are able to live with dignity while they wait for settlement elsewhere.

Hong Kong needs better strategies to make it a truly fair and just society. The government can play a bigger role by signing the convention on refugees. Giving them the right to work in the meantime is also an option worth exploring.