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Asylum seekers in Asia

Treating vulnerable migrants as criminals only leads to more exploitation, in Hong Kong and elsewhere

Jade Anderson says governments are failing victims of human trafficking and forced labour, as they try to adopt a tougher stance on asylum seekers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 12:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2016, 7:48pm

Damning reports leaked to The Guardian about the offshore processing centre the Australian government has supported in Nauru have not made much of a splash in Hong Kong. The reports lay bare the effects of indefinite detention on asylum seekers and refugees, in what are described as offshore immigration detention facilities. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse are widespread and systemic.

Australia criticised over ‘severe abuse, inhumane treatment’ of asylum seekers in Nauru

In the UK, a group of workers in a burger chain was asked to attend a training session which was actually a cover for an immigration raid. Migrants among them were taken aside and reportedly interrogated, some for hours. Some were deported the same day. This raid was one of several across London in which 35 workers were arrested because of their immigration status.

Both stories are examples of how governments are trying to show they can control migration by using criminal sanctions against certain types of migrants. Around the world, there is “rising public anxiety about migration” and “eroding public trust in the ability of government to manage it”, as migrant numbers are perceived to be growing and governments to be doing little to stop or control these “flows”.

Protesters free cockroaches at UK burger chain, enraged that it helped get its illegal workers arrested

Much of the Australian government’s response to asylum seekers has been framed as a response to the perceived dangers of the increasing numbers attempting to enter the country by boat and to show that it is intent on controlling and managing migration.

Victims of trafficking or forced labour are unlikely to come forward when they are afraid of being treated like criminals

In the UK, similarly, much of the response to migration, and migrant workers, has been framed as the need to control borders. Indeed, much of the Brexit campaign was fought around migration control. In response, we are seeing “the use of criminal justice systems or penalties to manage or control migration”.

This is also the case in Hong Kong, where there is growing unease among some about particular migrants. This year has seen a dramatic increase in the number of press releases from the Hong Kong government mentioning migrants. While in 2014 there were 24, there have been 50 in the first half of this year alone. In recent months, the government has publicised a series of operations to “combat illegal employment activities”, all involving migrants of some form.

Hong Kong Immigration Department crackdown nets 17 illegal workers and 8 employers

For example, this month, the government revealed that operation “Windsand” has led to the arrest of 2,921 migrants since September 2012, with 231 prosecuted for breach of conditions of stay and the rest repatriated. Other press releases this month announced three “illegal workers” from Vietnam had been jailed after another “anti-illegal-employment” operation, while “two Pakistani illegal workers” were jailed in yet another. The press releases reveal little other than the nationalities of those involved and the reason for their illegality. Some are “illegal” because they are in Hong Kong and some are “illegal” because they are working, but all of them are migrants and all are working.

The focus on their “crimes” means that we are not looking for anything else. They are simply criminals. And because we don’t examine the circumstances of their movement into Hong Kong or of their working here, we don’t know if they might be victims of human trafficking or forced labour. In ignoring the potential for exploitation, we expose them (and those who come after them) to even greater vulnerability.

Police broke up human-smuggling ring that brought more than 200 illegal Vietnamese workers to Hong Kong

Individuals and groups involved in the movement and employment of “illegal workers” will use the treatment of some as criminals to further exploit others, using the fear of prosecution to coerce and deceive. Also, victims of trafficking or forced labour are unlikely to come forward when they are afraid of being treated like criminals. Policies designed to “clamp down”, “smash syndicates”, and “tighten” borders might address the perceived needs of particular stakeholders but they criminalise the most vulnerable workers and increase the vulnerability of all migrants.

Some of Hong Kong’s large and vibrant community of migrants are extremely vulnerable, especially to exploitation through trafficking or forced labour. Treating migrants like criminals only heightens this vulnerability and makes it harder for us to identify victims. We should be exploring ways to protect them and learning to recognise and accept responsibility for the welfare of victims of trafficking and forced labour.

Jade Anderson is the anti-human-trafficking coordinator at the Justice Centre Hong Kong