Fairer refugee processing would benefit Hong Kong

Kerry Kennedy says a fairer, more effective way of processing refugee and torture claims is only a step away, if the government is willing to act

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 5:21am

Whether it is stories of refugee children unable to attend school, families unable to pay rent, complaints about the slow processing of asylum-seeker status or the seemingly inadequate government support provided, Hong Kong's refugees often find their way into the media. Refugees are now a permanent feature of our multicultural landscape.

The scale of the refugee issue in Hong Kong is small by international standards, although the actual number of refugees is disputed. The website of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that there are some 750 refugees residing in Hong Kong. Vision First, a refugee-initiated advocacy group, puts the number at 666. Yet Christian Action, a local NGO, estimates the number to be around 8,000, between April 2010 and March 2012.

The Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, another non-governmental organisation, gave over 300 refugees free legal advice in 2011. These families had diverse backgrounds, coming from Egypt, India and Somalia, among other places, and over 40 per cent were reported to be torture claimants. Refugees and torture claimants - what's the difference?

According to a Legislative Council report last year, 5,800 torture claimants were awaiting assessment by the Immigration Department. These figures would not be accounted for by the UNHCR that only has responsibility for refugee assessment. This dual-track assessment process probably accounts for the different figures.

Even when refugee numbers are conflated with torture claimant numbers, they are relatively small. Yet this has not always been the case in Hong Kong. Well over 30 years ago, some 200,000 refugees from Vietnam came to Hong Kong, often as "boat people". The majority - around 70 per cent - were resettled to other countries while a much smaller number returned to Vietnam. Some 1,400 Vietnamese were eventually given right of abode here.

This was a 25-year process here. It included the establishment of both "closed" and "open" refugee camps - the last of which ceased operation in 2000. A local newspaper recently reported on calls for the re-establishment of such camps for torture claimants, since community integration, the apparent propensity of some to turn to crime and their inability to become self-sustaining appear to be causing real community problems. Camps are not the answer. But how should Hong Kong respond?

The government provides financial support either directly to refugees and torture claimants or to NGOs that support them. It is often claimed that it is not enough, but it does represent a commitment by the government. The processing of claims is a key issue.

The government currently takes no responsibility for the processing of refugees because it is not a signatory to the relevant international covenant. Yet it does process the much more voluminous torture claims. If the government became a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it could merge torture claims and refugee claims into a single process. That would be the first step towards eliminating bogus claims and dealing more fairly with bona fide claims.

It would be a small administrative measure, with potentially great social gains.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is co-director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education