The recognition rate of asylum seekers in Hong Kong is unacceptably low compared to Western countries, a local aid group said ahead of World Refugee Day today.
The local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it recognised about 10 per cent of asylum seekers as refugees last year, without giving an exact figure. There were 149 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and a further 638 awaiting the results of their applications as of last month.
However, Cosmo Beatson, the co-ordinator of Vision First, a local volunteer organisation that provides humanitarian services to UNHCR asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, said the recognition figure was probably lower, and his group had pushed the Hong Kong government to sign the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It would accord refugees in the city rights similar to those of residents while they await resettlement.
According to the UNHCR, asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong have access to government-provided humanitarian assistance including basic accommodation, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of petty cash for travelling expenses. In addition, the UNHCR provides HK$300 a month to each.
However, even recognised refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work and must rely on charity for many of their needs. Only refugee children under 18 can receive education, at the government's discretion.
'The figure [of 10 per cent] actually tells us that the system is not doing its job,' Beatson said. 'The recognition rate is extremely low, to the point that it is almost a joke.'
According to recent official figures, the recognition rates for refugees in Britain and Australia, where the ethnic mix of asylum seekers was similar to that of Hong Kong, were 35 per cent and 38.3 per cent.
Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face a long screening process with the UNHCR or Immigration Department, which has only accepted one torture claimant since 2008. If accepted as refugees, they must resettle elsewhere, as the city has no legal obligation to grant them residency.
Beatson said that while it was true some applicants lied to authorities to buy time in Hong Kong for economic reasons, the system also screened out genuine applicants who faced torture or even death back in their home countries.
Beatson suggested that Hong Kong follow most European countries and allow asylum seekers to work if their applications are pending for more than six months.
A government spokesman said extending the refugee convention to the city could subject it to abuse, given Hong Kong's developed economy and liberal visa regime.
The number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong waiting for their applications to be processed, as of last month