The plight of asylum seekers was laid out in the legislature yesterday amid fresh calls to grant them access to work, educational opportunities and more government help.
Lawmakers heard how thousands of refugees languished in a city of affluence because current regulations prevented them from being self-sufficient.
The Social Welfare Department said there was room to improve policies, but that the city also needed to prevent a "magnet" effect that would draw in more asylum seekers.
Non-governmental organisations, lawyers, religious figures and refugees spoke up for their cause in front of the Legislative Council panel on welfare services.
"Malaysia, like Hong Kong, is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, but they are preparing to allow asylum seekers to work and will train them as well," said Professor Simon Young Ngai-man, former director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong.
China has ratified the convention but has not extended the ratification to the city.
Julee Allen, manager of Christian Action's humanitarian services department, said refugees lived "on a razor's edge between destitution and not destitution".
Young and Allen, along with representatives from the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, Vision First, The Vine Church, human rights-focused law practice Barnes & Daly, and the Hong Kong Refugee Concern Network, appealed for the government to meet the basic needs of asylum seekers according to international standards.
They cited best practices in other countries and slammed policies in Hong Kong as inadequate and illegal.
The International Social Service (ISS), an NGO commissioned by the department that has been found wanting by civil society organisations, said its hands were tied by decisions made by the department and Security Bureau.
The ISS provides each asylum seeker with HK$1,200 in housing allowance, HK$1,000 worth of groceries a month and a small travel allowance. The department said the service was supposed to help asylum seekers find housing.
Most refugees who testified at the meeting said they often found themselves unable to rent proper accommodation as the ISS did not provide a loan to pay initial rental deposits required by landlords.
"We are sacrificing the mental health and well-being of 5,000 people in order for seven million of us to keep our wealth," Pastor Tony Reed of The Vine Church said. "We must reject such a morally bankrupt policy."
Outside the Legco building, Labour Party lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said to more than 100 asylum seekers: "As a signatory of the UN treaty [on human rights], we are obligated to provide the basic needs of those who face persecution and come to Hong Kong as a transition. Your situation is totally unacceptable and unbearable."
Cheung is tabling a motion to undertake a thorough review of the welfare system for asylum seekers.