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Asylum seekers in Asia

Hong Kong needs change of heart on asylum seekers, says refugee from Congo based in South Korea

Yiombi Thona points to low acceptance rate of claims made by asylum seekers in Hong Kong, saying screening mechanism must be improved

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 9:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 9:01am

It’s about time that Hong Kong changes its perception on asylum seekers and improves its screening mechanism, says Yiombi Thona, 48, a political refugee from Congo and professor in the liberal arts division at Gwangju University in South Korea.

“Today, the problem is Syria, tomorrow we don’t know ... Don’t be selfish ... You might think that you are the number one country or the number one city, but that might change,” he said.

Thona is guest speaker for a lunch talk on the theme “What role do East Asian countries have to play in the global refugee crisis? Comparing the protection systems in South Korea and Hong Kong”. It will take place on Monday at the Hong Kong Club Building under the auspices of local NGO Justice Centre.

Thona worked as a national intelligence officer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but was forced to flee persecution in 2002. He was recognised as a political refugee in South Korea six years later, becoming a professor and a well-known human rights activist in the country.

“Hong Kong should give space to refugees to breath as human beings and be self-reliant,” Thona, who is also deputy chairman of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said in an interview with the Sunday Morning Post .

“I think the Hong Kong system must change or be improved. The acceptance rate is very low ... It’s

an opaque system, and I don’t understand why,” he said.

As of June this year, there were 11,169 outstanding claimants in the city, with most coming from Vietnam, India and Pakistan.

Between 2009 and June, only 55 people had their claims recognised. Hong Kong’s current acceptance rate stands at 0.6 per cent, whereas internationally it is around 30 per cent.

“In East Asia, officials think that if they keep people in limbo, they will go away. But that’s wrong,” he said.

“If they see a person on a boat, they feel sorry for him,” Thona said, referring to photos of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. “But if they come here they will call them migrant workers.”

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not allowed to work, although some take up illegal jobs. They receive small allowances for housing, food and transport.

Thona said it was up to the government to change people’s perceptions on asylum seekers.

Instead of making them look like a burden on taxpayers’ pockets, they should be allowed to contribute to society, he said. “Let them work – they will work and they will also create jobs,” he said, noting that there were many educated asylum seekers.

Thona asked local people to bear in mind that “Hong Kong also has problems and needs international support”.

Last month, the Sunday Morning Post reported that the number of Hong Kong residents claiming asylum elsewhere was increasing. There were 33 refugees from Hong Kong and 79 people were seeking protection abroad, according to UN statistics.

“We shouldn’t think just about economic cooperation; humanitarian cooperation should also exist,” Thona said.