The government has been reluctant to even screen refugee applicants for genuine cases since the ordeal of handling tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers in the 1980s. They fear that to do so might reopen the floodgates. The job is left to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, from whose decisions there is no appeal, and which has limited resources. As a result, resettlements do not keep up with the annual influx of about 2,000 claimants. Thousands now live in limbo, forbidden to work legally and are dependent on charity.
Refugee rights activists are understandably excited about a ruling by the top court that the government cannot rely on a UN agency to decide whether someone is a bona-fide refugee, and not simply someone seeking a better life, and must assess the cases fairly and independently.
Allowing a challenge by three African men, the court also said decisions on whether to deport refugee claimants must be subject to judicial review. The screening system is now expected to be revised, although officials say the ruling will not affect the policy of not giving asylum to anyone. Instead, people granted refugee status in Hong Kong are resettled elsewhere.
Nonetheless, as refugee advocates say, the ruling brings justice and hope to those seeking asylum here.
That should prompt the administration to reflect on its stand. The post-Vietnam-war experience may dictate caution. Indeed, while Hong Kong is a signatory of the international convention against torture, it is not a signatory on the status of refugees. But that is no reason to turn away genuine cases. We are an affluent society with the capacity and resources to do more for them. As a community we have a well-earned reputation for generosity such as disaster relief in times of dire human need.
We rightly take pride also in being a humane society with safeguards for human rights. It is time to be a little more flexible and less mean-spirited to others who turn to us for help.