Statistics about the number of refugees in the world tend to be mind-numbing. They do not do justice to their precarious plight. A simple example does it better, such as a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong crying poor. It informs the city's 132 people with official refugee status that the UNHCR is cutting their monthly cash assistance from HK$500 to - nothing. The organisation blames the drain on its financial resources of events around the world, including a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria and violent regime change resulting from the "Arab Spring".
The refugees do not have the right to work. This leaves them totally dependent on government rent assistance of HK$1,200 a month paid to landlords, groceries every 10 days and assistance with other basic necessities such as toiletries and transport to appointments with UNHCR or the government.
Refugees have long ceased to pose a challenge to Hong Kong society, which was once a haven for Vietnamese fleeing political turmoil. But, for officialdom, memories of those times die hard. It is understandable that the government is wary of opening the floodgates to refugee claimants. But that seems a weak reason to leave refugee screening to the UNHCR and turn our backs on genuine cases.
Although the government has sought to fill the UN funding gap in the past by extending its humanitarian assistance programme, refugee groups understandably find the latest cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is, therefore, in the public interest that they are enabled to live with dignity while they await settlement elsewhere. It seems odd that Hong Kong is signatory to the convention against torture, which has led to hundreds of asylum claims, but not the UN convention relating to the status of refugees. We set great store by good safeguards for fundamental rights for citizens. The same spirit should prevail for those who turn to us for help.