New screening process for asylum seekers must be fair and open

Aleta Miller says many issues still unresolved ahead of new system launch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 7:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 1:54am

It has long been Hong Kong's shame that it is one of the only wealthy, developed jurisdictions in the world that does not offer long-term protection to people fleeing from human rights abuses.

With the introduction of the Unified Screening Mechanism, the government's new system for dealing with protection claims, announced last Friday and due to be rolled out next month, it so far appears to be business as usual.

The mechanism brings under one process refugee claims together with claims against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These are now collectively known as "non-refoulement" claims. The government did not choose to implement this system; it was forced to do so by a Court of Final Appeal ruling last March.

Late as it is, it is positive that the mechanism will soon be operational. But we, other non-governmental organisations and the protection claimants themselves are sorely disappointed that there has been no consultation with civil society about the establishment of the new system, especially in its consideration of the most vulnerable people, like the 2,000 refugees we have assisted at our centre over the past six years.

These are men, women and children who have experienced unspeakable traumas like rape, torture and war. The people we support are the survivors, those who have managed to escape to Hong Kong looking for protection, often to be doubted because what they have suffered is so unbelievable in the context of our own sheltered lives.

We have spent years working intensively with these survivors to enable them to give voice to the most traumatic events upon which the determination of their case may hang, and to ensure they have a fair hearing and are not mistakenly rejected and returned to face potential torture, persecution or even death. There must be better provisions built into the mechanism to meet their needs. Many questions remain unanswered about what happens to claimants at the end of the process. If someone has a successful claim with the government, they will then be sent to the UN refugee agency to see if they meet the definition of a refugee, as defined by the Refugee Convention. If they do, the UNHCR will assist them with potential resettlement to a third country.

But this can take years. What do they do in the meantime? Will they languish in limbo in Hong Kong, as current refugees do?

Hong Kong continues to refuse to see local integration as a long-term option, and declines to grant the right to work or simply to volunteer even to recognised refugees and protection claimants. With the government now assuming responsibility for making decisions, officials need to get real about the durable outcomes for those people.

To try to fill some of these gaps, we are using our experience to launch new, tailored, independent information sessions for claimants. We believe access to high-quality information is a right and we will continue to support these vulnerable people to ensure their needs are met.

Yet again, civil society will be filling the holes left by a government lacking the political will to care for some of our city's most vulnerable people.

The decisions the government will make under the mechanism could mean the difference between life and death for the people we work with. As the primary duty-bearer for human rights, the government has a critical window of opportunity to consult and co-ordinate with NGOs, to improve its decision-making and to create a fair, transparent and efficient process to ensure people seeking protection are not returned to places where they may face harm.

The pressure is on for the government to finally get it right.

Aleta Miller is executive director of Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.