The roll-out of a new system to screen refugees is mired in confusion and a lack of transparency, says a report out today.
More than half of 260 protection seekers canvassed say they urgently need clarification on how to file a claim, according to Justice Centre Hong Kong, formerly the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.
"No one knows how the new system works and we're so afraid about our futures," asylum seeker Ansaari, from Somalia, said. "My first priority was to survive so I ran here, but now all I can do is wait and worry."
The government introduced the Unified Screening Mechanism in March after it was ordered by the Court of Final Appeal last year to identify genuine refugees from the United Nations' refugee agency office in Hong Kong.
The new system brought under one process claims based on risk of a returnee facing persecution, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It covers about 6,000 cases.
But the report says there is no dedicated website or phone number to provide information about the process, while the information that is available is too technical for many claimants to understand. The government also has not clarified whether successful claimants will be allowed to settle in Hong Kong or will be resettled elsewhere.
"This is a shambles," Justice Centre's executive director, Aleta Miller, said. "It seems this is a deliberate ploy to make it as difficult as possible for people seeking protection to access it."
Hong Kong's screening process has in the past invited abuse by some protection seekers, who filed claims with the government and the UN as a way to stay in the city and work illegally, sometimes for a decade or longer, as the applications wound through the parallel systems..
Report author Victoria Wisniewski Otero said: "It's in everyone's interest that the system is not crippled from the start by a backlog. People with genuine need have been waiting for so long, and while processing cases quickly should be a priority, it is important that a high standard of fairness is not sacrificed. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death."
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said he was concerned that the legal community, lawmakers and others were not consulted in setting up the new system.
"There's been such a long backlog of cases and delay that even starting the system now is 10 years too late. The duty lawyer service, government and Bar Association need to do a better job of providing details on where claimants can get advice so they know how difficult the battle is."
A Security Bureau spokesman said the Immigration Department had given claimants a letter referring them to a notice on its website for more details, and reminding them to seek advice from their duty lawyer or legal representative.
Additional reporting by Christy Choi