The government has earmarked HK$450 million this year to sponsor torture claimants and asylum seekers stranded in Hong Kong, partly due to a "broken" screening system.
Critics say public money could have been saved if the city had introduced a more efficient system to avoid cases piling up.
Under the present system, people seeking refuge may apply to the Immigration Department to make a claim that they face torture if returned home, or to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee status. Some apply for both.
The government plans to expand the torture claims assessment mechanism to cover refugee claims by the end of the year.
The move follows a Court of Final Appeal ruling in March that said the government must not rely on the UN agency to determine a person's refugee status.
"It has taken a long time for the government to set up this unified system. This is long overdue," human rights lawyer Mark Daly said. "People have been taking advantage of the broken system."
As claimants can make applications to both the department and the UN, it delays a conclusion on their fate.
Though the number of new applicants had decreased in the past few years, the cases had piled up, Daly said.
About 4,000 torture claims are pending. Since 2009, seven claims have been substantiated, 3,355 rejected and 3,458 withdrawn. Daly said the time required to process applications made it difficult for genuine claimants while attracting others with different purposes, such as those who wanted to work illegally in the city.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok told the Legislative Council security panel yesterday that the government planned to spend HK$450 million on the claimants in the 2013-14 financial year.
The help would include legal and financial assistance for them as they were not allowed to work in the city, Lai said.
Legal assistance, provided for applicants in the existing scheme, will be extended to the unified scheme.
Legal-sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang raised concern that the four-day training for lawyers in the current scheme was insufficient, and that further training was needed. Lai said further training would be conducted, but did not give details.
There is already a law for screening torture claims, but not for two other categories - persecution and cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or punishment - which will be included in the unified scheme.
Lai said an administrative screening mechanism would be introduced for the latter two before a law was passed.
Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun said the lack of a law for the two categories might open the floodgates to litigation. Lai said the government had to gain experience before drafting a law.