Hong Kong is a natural draw for people seeking a better life. A healthy, free-wheeling economy, easy access from most parts of the world and a liberal visa regime make an appealing mix for people from all walks of life, their intentions legitimate, lawful or otherwise. Among the millions who arrive each year are a small number fleeing persecution because of who they are, what they are, or their beliefs. In keeping with our strong rule of law and good human rights record, the government should be making the job of distinguishing those with genuine claims straightforward.
This has not been done. Hong Kong has still not signed the UN convention on refugees, contending that doing so would make our city vulnerable to abuses. That leaves the 6,740 people seeking asylum and the 2,000 or so more who arrive each year marginalised. While their claims are being heard, they should have the same rights as other foreign residents; instead, they live hand-to-mouth existences with their lives uncertain and to all intents and purposes wasted during what is invariably a shamefully slow, years-long process.
They cannot work and will be arrested and jailed if caught doing so. Their only means of survival are a HK$1,000 rent allowance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the goodwill of charitable groups and friends. That leaves most living in pitiful conditions and at risk of falling prey to criminal gangs.
Over the past two weeks, this newspaper has told of the lives, good and bad, that asylum seekers lead. There was Samim, 28, one of 50 Bangladeshi torture claimants living near Fan Ling, whose life has been on hold for five years awaiting a decision on his case. We revealed that South Asian asylum seekers have apparently been recruited to sell cocaine around the bars and nightclubs of Central and Wan Chai. And there was the rare success story of Duvalld Ndilou, 21, from the Republic of Congo. He was unable to speak English when he arrived six years ago but has graduated from a scholarship programme at the English Schools Foundation's Renaissance College and has been accepted by an Australian university to study nursing.
Even though the government last year bowed to criticism and a court ruling, ensuring that claimants finally receive legal aid and a duty lawyer and can appeal, the screening process remains painfully slow. At the present rate, it will take 31 years to clear the backlog. International rights have to be upheld and cases handled fairly. But the grindingly slow process is sending the wrong message to those wishing to take advantage. We have to sign and ratify the convention and ensure a ruthlessly efficient and fast system. This way it will be plain the world over that only genuine asylum seekers need apply.