Four refugees and a successful torture claimant who are demanding they be allowed to work in Hong Kong brought their fight to the Court of Appeal yesterday, after being stranded in the city for years.
The five complainants, who have been jobless for between seven and 12 years, are challenging what they say is the unlawful blanket policy of the Immigration Department prohibiting recognised refugees and torture claimants from working in the city. The department said it exercised such control under the Immigration Ordinance.
The appellants said they had been relying on welfare and charity, and had little hope of resettling in another country. Some of them became depressed and suffered from other mental illnesses.
The refugee status of the two Pakistanis, a Burundian and a Sri Lankan was mandated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Another Sri Lankan is so far the only torture claimant recognised by the Immigration Department.
Michael Fordham QC, for the appellants, said: "They are trapped in the sense that they cannot engage in any economic activities. They cannot engage in employment and there is no assurance they can go to another country."
Ruling on their case last year, the Court of First Instance said the government did not have an obligation to permit them to work. Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung said the Director of Immigration had full discretion to grant them permission on a case-by-case basis.
But the five complainants said their right to work was enshrined in the Basic Law, Hong Kong Bill of Rights, and UN pacts such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Mr Justice Frank Stock, of the three-judge panel, speculated yesterday whether the Immigration Department could let a person enter the city on the condition that he could not work, so as to protect the labour market.
The government has a firm policy of not granting refuge and asylum because Hong Kong is small and densely populated, and vulnerable to abuses of such claims. China has been a signatory to the refugee convention since 1982.
The court heard that 15 others remained stranded in Hong Kong five years after their refugee or torture claimant status was recognised.