New UNHCR head urges Hong Kong to protect refugees and asylum seekers
Commissioner calls on city to do more, but authorities balk at possible risk of system abuse
The new head of the UNHCR in Hong Kong has made an unusually forceful call for the government to take responsibility for protecting refugees in the city.
"There is no doubt that Hong Kong has the capacity and resources to do more than it's doing at the moment," Philip Karani said in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Morning Post.
Karani replaced Choosin Ngaotheppitak as head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in June.
While China is a signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention, its writ has not been extended to Hong Kong - though it has to Macau. Instead Hong Kong relies on the UNHCR to determine whether asylum seekers are granted refugee status and to resettle refugees in other countries.
The government says if the convention's provisions were applied to Hong Kong, they would be open to abuse given the city's liberal visa rules and status as an international air transport hub.
"We encourage the government to sign the  Refugee Convention, which China and Macau have already signed, and to enact laws and regulations to entrench rights of refugees and asylums seekers, such as the right to work," Karani said.
Technically Hong Kong cannot sign the convention as it is not a sovereign nation, but those who call for it to do so mean they want it to agree to Beijing applying its provisions to Hong Kong.
Experts welcomed Karani's call and said he had shown far more presence than his more cautious predecessor.
"I hope this could be a positive new chapter," said Mark Daly, a veteran human rights lawyer.
Still, while Karani made reference to Hong Kong's resources, the city has for years been demanding the UNHCR repay a debt of HK$1.16 billion Hong Kong ran up as it coped with the flood of Vietnamese boatpeople, refugees from the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, which began in the late 1970s.
The last payment, HK$3.9 million, was made in 1998.
The UNHCR says it cannot afford to pay, and wants the debt forgiven.
Hong Kong coped with more than 220,000 boatpeople, of whom the majority was resettled overseas and 60,000 repatriated. In all, the city spent an estimated HK$8.7 billion.
Refugees and asylum seekers in the city are increasingly frustrated by their status. A group of 300 protested outside government offices in October, demanding protection under the UN Convention Against Torture, which Hong Kong has signed.
An Immigration Department spokesman said: "Our unique situation, set against the backdrop of our relative economic prosperity in the region and liberal visa regime, makes us vulnerable to possible abuses if the Refugee Convention were to be extended to Hong Kong. We thus have a firm and long-established policy of not granting asylum and we do not admit individuals seeking refugee status.
"We trust that the UNHCR will continue to be in a better position … to undertake a fair and efficient refugee status determination."
But Kelley Loper, director of the human rights law programme at the University of Hong Kong, said the government was better equipped than the UNHCR to process claims.
"The UN just doesn't have the capacity. It makes practical sense for the government to take over and adopt an integrated system. 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."