There was a time when almost 30 per cent of Hong Kong's inhabitants were classified as refugees. Among those who fled their homeland to take refuge in the territory were Sun Yat-sen and the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Refugees began arriving as early as 1850, during the Taiping Rebellion, and continued in the 1950s in the aftermath of the communist victory on the mainland. Rich refugees from the mainland set up businesses in Hong Kong and built new lives for themselves here. For a city that was built largely by refugees, it is ironic that today there are no laws even acknowledging the presence of asylum seekers. The United Nations Refugee Convention never has, and if it is left to the current administration, never will apply to Hong Kong because of fears of an influx of asylum seekers. Today is World Refugee Day, marked by the UN to salute the courage of the 17.1 million people who are asylum seekers, refugees and others of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including internally displaced and stateless persons in more than 150 countries. Head of the Office of the UNHCR in Hong Kong, Monique Sokhan, said many people seemed to have forgotten the territory's history. 'Hong Kong was one of the first UNHCR operations in Asia,' she said. 'The UN secretary-general asked the UNHCR to fund-raise to help refugees coming from mainland China to Hong Kong, to help set up housing projects. The UNHCR office has stayed since and offered substantial help to non-governmental organisations here.' Ms Sokhan said the government should keep in mind the contribution of the UNHCR, both financial and in services, before it issued its annual reminder to the office to repay a $1.16 billion 'debt' that the UNHCR owes for the support of Vietnamese asylum seekers in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. 'We cannot afford to pay such a large amount to the government because we rely on contributions from states,' she said. 'It is a little unfair for them to ask, as we did fund-raise for Hong Kong when it was in need, and many of the rich and famous in Hong Kong now were probably assisted by the UN when they arrived as refugees.' Ms Sokhan said the UN body could only assist people who had successfully gone through its refugee determination process and were the most vulnerable asylum seekers. 'Hong Kong is expensive and even to assist one person in terms of food, shelter, money, transport and medical care is a lot,' she said. 'The solution is a burden-sharing solution, sharing the burden not only with NGOs but the government as well.' But because there are no legal procedures to deal with asylum seekers in Hong Kong, such people are in limbo. They have no official legal status in Hong Kong, and can only have their visas renewed periodically with a letter from the UNHCR. They have no right to work or medical care, they may be detained at any time, and their children have no right to education during the often year-long wait for refugee status to be determined. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said the situation for asylum seekers in Hong Kong was worse than that of animals. 'For dogs and cats, you at least have governing legislation, an appeal to an independent board and judicial review,' he said. 'On the detention issue you have specific provisions on detention and an appeal on the merits. None of this is available for asylum seekers.' He said the 'whole area of law is a mess that is procedurally unfair from a legal standpoint and creates severe hardship for the asylum seekers and torture claimants who are simply trying to exercise their fundamental rights'. The lack of an official policy to deal with asylum seekers and those claiming they were tortured in their home country has been severely criticised by the UN Committee Against Torture and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Mr Daly described the criticism as 'embarrassing'. Bruce Van Voorhis of the Asian Human Rights Commission said there was a great deal of frustration and despair in the small community of asylum seekers in Hong Kong because even meeting basic needs could be a struggle. 'Housing is especially a problem - asylum seekers often tell me that they sleep on the streets,' he said. 'We know there is a great deal of compassion for people who are suffering and are in need in Hong Kong, but asylum seekers are largely invisible in the community, and thus, there is little being done.' Mr Van Voorhis said some church-based groups and other NGOs were trying to help, but it was expensive to fully support an asylum seeker for the year or more that it took to determine refugee status. 'They cannot work and they often do not receive any financial assistance from UNHCR,' he said. Ms Sokhan suggested allowing refugees to work temporarily, pending their resettlement to other countries. 'If they could have some temporary work, it would help a lot,' she said. 'If asylum seekers not yet recognised as refugees could be authorised to do some type of activity, it would decrease the difficulties in surviving every day and limit the possibility of crimes being committed and them working illegally.' Rights activists also take issue with the government's detention of some asylum seekers pending their refugee status ruling by the UNHCR. Mr Van Voorhis said asylum seekers who took letters from the UNHCR to have their visas renewed were sometimes detained in Victoria Prison in Central until there was a decision on their case. 'Consequently, I understand that not many asylum seekers now take their UNHCR letters to immigration because they do not want to be detained,' he said. 'The police also are now picking asylum seekers with UNHCR cases off the street and detaining them. But these are people who have not committed any crime, except they claim they were persecuted in their own country - many were detained and tortured. 'Now, when they flee and seek a safe place to live, they find themselves in prison again in Hong Kong.' The UNHCR has repeatedly requested that the government not detain asylum seekers. 'You are re-traumatising them after whatever trauma they have fled,' Ms Sokhan said. Another issue of contention is the lack of education for children of asylum seekers who come to Hong Kong. Ms Sokhan said there had recently been more cases of unaccompanied minors claiming asylum. The UNHCR provides basic assistance to these children, but she said the government had an obligation to help. 'There are certain obligations on the government in terms of identifying guardians for them, but they basically just let us do it,' she said. Bar Association chairman and public lawyer Philip Dykes SC said it was wrong to punish children by depriving them of education because their parents uprooted the family. He said it was essential to have a definite structure in the immigration law dealing with refugees. 'They should have ascertained legal rights and their cases should be dealt with in such a framework,' he said. 'The government will argue this will take up resources, but at least it will lead to quicker disposal of cases and efficient and accountable decision-making.' Mr Daly said that since a landmark case in June last year in the Court of Final Appeal - where the court declared the Hong Kong government had an obligation to assess torture claims and could not rely on the UNHCR in such matters - the government had introduced procedures to screen torture claims. 'However, the procedures are non-statutory, there is no provision for independent legal assistance and despite the lengthy process, the SAR apparently thinks it is satisfactory for claimants to either beg for food and a place to stay or starve on the streets while trying to exercise their legitimate rights,' he said. A spokesman for the Security Bureau said the SAR government 'has a firm policy of not granting asylum to individuals seeking refugee status' under the Refugee Convention. 'There is no legal obligation on the part of [the government] to support financially or otherwise a person's living during his stay in Hong Kong while his refugee claim or torture claim is being assessed,' he said. 'However, where strong compassionate and humanitarian grounds exist, the [government] may, on a case by case basis, offer assistance in kind during the person's stay in Hong Kong in appropriate circumstances.' The spokesman added that schooling requests of children of torture claimants were considered on an individual basis and four such requests had received 'no objection'. Mr Dykes said if the government was refusing to enact refugee laws to discourage asylum seekers, the policy obviously had not worked, as there had been a rise in the number of applications. According to the UNHCR, there are 725 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, including more than 300 new arrivals since January. There are also 105 recognised refugees. 'There is an increase - so the policy of having no policy has not worked,' he said. 'They might as well face it and tackle it as I suggested, with devoting legal resources.' Legislators James To Kun-sun and Emily Lau Wai-hing, who were present at the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights meeting in Geneva in April when Hong Kong was chastised for lacking a refugee policy, have said they would bring up the issue in the Legislative Council.