Expose frustration refugees have with the UNHCR's work in Hong Kong. Photo: David Wong

Hong Kong's do-little policy on refugees must end

Tony Read says the government must stop offloading responsibility to the UNHCR


The government's obdurate refusal to grant any concessions in its treatment of a very small number of legitimate refugees has become a festering wound in its desire for Hong Kong to live up to its "developed nation" status.

It is remarkable that a city that prides itself on its civilised society, that vigorously promotes itself as a centre of business excellence and financial security, that speaks confidently of the independence of its judiciary and the rule of law, and that is clinging to the promise of universal suffrage, should so flagrantly violate human rights considerations in dealing with this most vulnerable minority.

The truth is the government doesn't even admit that these people who have been here, in some cases, for over five years are its concern at all. To officials, they are illegal immigrants who are tolerated only until they can be dispatched elsewhere. They have no status and so have no protection under the law or any human rights legislation.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the call by Philip Karani, the new head of the UNHCR in Hong Kong, for the city to live up to its reputation of having a caring and enlightened government and extend the UN Refugee Convention to Hong Kong is met with a well-rehearsed yawn. This is, of course, accompanied by the tired old rhetoric of "Hong Kong's special circumstances" and fear of "opening the floodgates" that is used as a scaremongering tactic to keep the public prejudiced against asylum seekers.

Recently, commentator Victor Fung Keung exceeded even the government's propaganda by speaking of the "magnet effect" destabilising Hong Kong and of us all "sinking into Victoria Harbour and drowning" under the onslaught of asylum seekers. The public are not stupid, and they deserve a better analysis of the issue, and better solutions.

When is someone going to put forward new ideas for a comprehensive policy which will retain Hong Kong's welcome as a tourist destination, strengthen its border security, put in place a first-stage screening procedure to deter economic migrants, provide a professional refugee status determination, and then give refugees the protection they deserve? This is not an unreasonable task and it is the government's responsibility to deal with it, not the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The government cannot go on forever pushing the responsibility for refugee status determination and resettlement onto the UNHCR while maintaining its policy of doing little.

The health of a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. It's time for some care and attention.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: HK has to step up and start caring for refugees