The government has finally tabled a proposed law to assess asylum-seekers' claims of torture, but is reluctant to include other types of refugee-seekers in the procedure.
Hong Kong has long been criticised for its lack of a coherent law regulating refugees and torture claimants. After years of foot-dragging, the administration presented the Immigration (Amendment) bill in the Legislative Council yesterday.
Security Secretary Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong said it aimed to set up a screening framework that complied with the relevant United Nations convention.
'We have to ensure every torture claimant is dealt with in a fair and cautious manner through this legislation. We also have to ensure that the screening mechanism will not be abused,' he said.
At present, the immigration department is responsible for screening torture claimants under an administrative guideline. There is no formal legislation to dictate the process. The government has a backlog of 6,700 appeals for asylum after a landmark Court of Final Appeal ruling in June 2004 that states people landing here claiming to be victims of torture must be individually assessed before the government can repatriate them.
As the number of claimants keeps rising, Hong Kong needs comprehensive legislation to ensure the cases were handled fairly and in accordance with international conventions, Lee said. Under the new proposal - which will be debated in Legco next year - a Torture Claim Appeal Board will be set up to hear appeals from claimants against the immigration department's decision. A claimant rejected by the immigration service must appeal within 14 days.
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly described the legislation as long overdue.
'For the torture claimants, they have been waiting for a long time over such a legal framework. The government should have started the legislation almost 10 years ago,' he said.
Annie Lin, of the Society for Community Organisation, agreed but was disappointed that, under the proposed law, claimants would not be allowed to work while waiting for the government to process their applications. In fact, even a qualified torture claimant will not be granted residency and will be allowed to work only at the discretion of the immigration director.