Refugees at their wits' end without status in Hong Kong
Hong Kong' refusal to accede to the UN Refugee Convention is forcing asylum seekers into an existence of suffering and despair, critics say
When security guards pushed him out of the UNHCR office and locked the glass door behind him earlier this year, Bereket said he "went crazy".
"I picked up a flower pot and threw it at the door. The broken glass hit a security guard and the police arrested me," he said.
Bereket was held in jail awaiting trial on charges of property damage and assault.
When he arrived alone in Hong Kong four years ago, he registered as an asylum seeker with the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but could not get an interview for months. Having no support, he slept behind the UNHCR office in Yau Ma Tei and at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui.
"I scavenged for food on the streets, and I ate with stray cats when people fed them. [Passers-by] pretended not to see me," said the soft-spoken 23-year-old.
He is the son of a Protestant pastor in Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa where the government systematically tortures and imprisons Protestant Christians. After his father was killed, his mother arranged for her son to flee to Hong Kong.
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has fled persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or being a member of a persecuted social group. Bereket's case was relatively straightforward and he was given refugee status within a year.
But in contrast to most developed nations and most members of the United Nations, including mainland China and Macau, which have signed the refugee convention, it has not been extended to Hong Kong. The government does not usually deport asylum seekers back to places where they might suffer persecution, but it relies on the UNHCR to determine whether asylum seekers are eligible for refugee status.
Even though there are only 132 refugees and 657 pending asylum claims in Hong Kong, refugees and asylum seekers are becoming increasingly agitated at what they see as nearly hopeless prospects of receiving protection through the UNHCR.
The acceptance rate of asylum claims in Hong Kong is only around 5 per cent, according to lawyer Mark Daly, a veteran human rights lawyer who has assisted hundreds of refugees and won landmark cases that have forced the government to improve its treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and torture claimants.
Even recognised refugees like Bereket cannot enjoy many of the rights of a refugee in Hong Kong. Instead, they must wait indefinitely for resettlement countries - usually either Canada or the US - to agree to accept them. In the meantime, they cannot work and have to survive on a HK$500 monthly allowance from the UNHCR and minimal assistance with rent, groceries and other necessities from the International Social Service, which is commissioned by the Social Welfare Department.
Refugees are deliberately kept on the brink of destitution.
A department spokeswoman said: "[Our] aim is to provide support which is considered sufficient to prevent a person from becoming destitute while at the same time not creating a magnet effect which can have serious implications on the sustainability of our current support system."
A spokeswoman for Christian Action, an NGO that provides services for refugees, said: "The HK$1,200 housing allowance per month for a single adult is insufficient in this complex housing market." While he was stuck in limbo, Bereket became underweight, and was admitted to hospital several times, as he drifted from shelters to squalid apartments. He also suffered recurrent abdominal pain, vertigo, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
His extreme frustration with what he called the UNHCR's slow and "dictatorial" procedures and inability to influence the government reached a breaking point earlier this year when he found out that the office appeared to have waited eight months before alerting him that the US had accepted his resettlement claim. Having been accepted by the US, asylum seekers have a year to complete clearance procedures including medical examinations.
But as the one-year deadline had passed for Bereket, he was forced to reapply. "That was when I understood that the Eritrean government kills by gun, but the UNHCR is killing by paper," he said.
"He is usually such a respectful, mild-mannered person, I was very surprised. But many other refugees have also been driven to acts of desperation by the UNHCR's inaction," said Cosmo Beatson, director of Vision First, an NGO that supports refugees, referring to the flower pot incident that led to Bereket's arrest.
Philip Karani, head of the UNHCR office in Hong Kong and Macau, agreed that refugees are suffering needlessly in Hong Kong, but said that some of the frustration with the UNHCR stems from a misconception about their mandate.
"We don't have the ability to force states to accept refugees and to respect their rights," said Karani, "Our role is to be a catalyst for change. We have continuously urged the Hong Kong government to sign the Refugee Convention or to at least implement its own policies to provide refugees with protection," he said.
An UNHCR officer denied withholding Bereket's acceptance letter from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. "In UNHCR's past experience, the date on the letters received from resettlement countries may not correspond with the actual date that UNHCR receives the letter because of internal processes," she said.
"I can understand their despair," said Karani. "To wait one to three years in limbo and then get rejected by a country, your whole life crumbles around you… but whether a country accepts a refugee or not is entirely out of our control."
Since resettlement to another country is the only option for refugees in Hong Kong, and the UNHCR cannot force other countries to accept them, there is no guarantee that the refugees in Hong Kong will ever be able to leave, said Karani. But the UNHCR office is doing its best under a severe funding shortage, he said. Hong Kong is not a high priority because of its low number of refugees and location in a wealthy, secure city. The office received just US$2 million last year to fund its 2012 programme and maintain a staff of 11.
In the face of growing hopelessness and fury among refugees amid debilitating budget cuts, the UNHCR is calling for the government to take over refugee status determination duties and sign the Refugee Convention.
"This is an issue we constantly bring up with them, but the government has made the position clear at this point that their concern is with Hong Kong's own size and ability to deal with asylum seekers," said Karani.
"We continue to encourage them to understand that signing the convention would not lead to an influx of asylum seekers."
Mounting frustrations have led refugees and asylum seekers to organise and lobby the government themselves instead of rely on the UNHCR's diplomacy. In October, 300 people protested outside government offices in Wan Chai and Admiralty. The march was organised by Vision First and members of the newly formed Refugee Protection Group, which is made up of refugees advocating for refugees' rights. It plans to hold more demonstrations.
Bereket became a sort of role model for the Refugee Protection Group, who nicknamed him "The Eritrean Lion". One refugee said: "It doesn't matter how strong you are, it doesn't matter how big you are, real courage comes from inside your heart - look at Bereket!"
"We are not asking for pity," said Raymond, a 30-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. "We want to be able to work to make money and support ourselves. We want to be able to control our own lives."
Muhammad Mohi-us Sunnah, a protection officer for the UNHCR, said he supports refugees' lobbying for the right to work. "Many have talents that are not in use at the moment. To have the chance to live a dignified life is better than getting government assistance."
In the next year, he estimates that there will be 900,000 refugees who will need to be resettled worldwide, but there will only be enough resettlement slots for 80,000 of them.
Facing those odds, more and more potential asylum seekers are opting instead to apply for protection from the Hong Kong government through another UN human rights covenant.
In 1992, Hong Kong signed the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), under which the government agreed not to deport anyone back to a country where they might be tortured. There are now 5,200 torture claim cases pending assessment at the Immigration Department.
"As UNHCR application numbers have decreased, [torture claims] have increased," said Monash University doctoral researcher Francesco Vecchio. "Many [torture claimants] have told me they think it is useless to apply to the UNHCR."
The number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong has dropped dramatically in recent years. Some 2,481 people applied for refugee status through the UNHCR in 2006, but last year there were only 790 new cases.
Vecchio says the main reason refugees come to the city is because they think there is a secure rule of law and because Hong Kong is well connected thanks to its airport. Refugees sometimes get stuck in Hong Kong trying to transit to another country.
Karani said the government's ability to process torture claims shows that it has the capacity to serve refugees, too.
"I have no doubt that the government has all the necessary resources and knowledge to take on refugee status determination and other roles," he said. "The small population of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong will not put a strain on the system." There are 140 immigration officers who perform CAT screening in the Immigration Department, compared to only three officers who determine refugee status at the UNHCR.
The Immigration Department says signing the convention would leave the city open to abuse, due to its relative prosperity and liberal visa regime.
Karani disagreed, saying: "It's more about proximity to crisis zones. If you look at countries with a lot of refugees, like Pakistan, they haven't signed the convention. But because it borders Afghanistan, refugees will move to the nearest destination. China and Macau and Japan have signed the convention, and they haven't had many refugees. The convention only provides the framework for effective refugee status determination."
Kelley Loper, director of the human rights law programme at Hong Kong University, said an integrated system where the government processes both asylum and torture claims would better serve the government's interests.
"In a more efficient system, where the courts will be able to monitor the process to make sure it is fair, there might actually be fewer asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong because the system would process claims more quickly," Loper said.
Daly said: "There is a lack of political will to push the government to make this happen. The public tends to have a negative view of refugees. They may not know what a refugee is, or be affected by the government propaganda that tells people that refugees are illegal migrants who come to Hong Kong to work illegally."
Last week, Daly's law firm lost a case in the Court of Appeal that might have given refugees the right to work. "It was a big blow. This leaves refugees and torture claimants forced to keep begging on the streets ," he said.
Bereket agreed in court to be bound over for good behaviour and the charges against him were dropped.
He has now made it to the US state of North Carolina, having left Hong Kong on November 15 after the UNHCR finally arranged his resettlement.
On his last night in Hong Kong, Bereket said: "I would've been happy to leave, but not like this. I wanted a chance to expose the injustices I have experienced in Hong Kong in court. I don't want to leave my friends suffering this way."