Stark realities for asylum seekers in Hong Kong are alien to Edward Snowden

Cosmo Beatson and Francesco Vecchio say the reality of how asylum seekers in Hong Kong are routinely denied their rights belies Edward Snowden's stated trust in the rule of law here

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 June, 2013, 12:41am

The world is wondering why Edward Snowden chose Hong Kong in his darkest hour. Was this the safest bet? Will he seek asylum? How will this espionage thriller develop? Although Hong Kong is widely credited for its rule of law, there is a rampant divergence between jurisprudence and reality.

To illustrate this dislocation, imagine an alien from outer space researching refugee rights here. He would learn about laws that offer protection and would probably admire the justice and human rights enshrined in such legislation. "Here is a place that welcomes refugees!" he would exclaim. Our alien wouldn't realise that asylum seekers are actually treated no differently than illegal immigrants, endure chronic poverty and are marginalised without adequate social provision.

Thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong

Lo and behold, an alien has landed and his name is Edward Snowden.

Would alien Snowden's experience be different from that of thousands of others who wait years for a decision on their asylum claim? Would Hong Kong roll out the red asylum carpet? Perhaps Snowden could peruse newspaper stories for a glimpse of reality.

A recent article on refugees' appalling living conditions in Ping Che was railed at by readers who overlooked such dreadful, government-sanctioned slums, because they label refugees as economic migrants. Regrettably, they also blame organisations like Vision First for advancing refugees' rights and humanitarian needs.

It's hard to predict what Snowden's next move might be. If he seeks asylum, he probably won't be accused of fabricating or exaggerating fears of persecution. Few are as famous, resourceful and articulate. And nobody has unleashed a media storm like this one before. By contrast, the stark reality couldn't be more different for thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong.

The truth is that Snowden is a privileged American, while asylum seekers generally flee developing countries, are penniless and must work illegally to make ends meet. While presumably he has money to pay hotel bills, less celebrated asylum seekers sleep in slum-like conditions - if not homeless at the Star Ferry.

Vision First advocates the principle that every asylum claim is genuine until all legal remedies are exhausted. In the interim, asylum seekers should benefit from the rights and privileges enjoyed by all citizens, because economic expectations are hardly incompatible with seeking asylum.

Alien Snowden would be dismayed to learn how asylum seekers are trapped in a socio-legal space where their constitutional rights are negated by repressive policies designed to encourage "voluntary" departures.

Afforded only minimal assistance, claimants are forced to work illegally, fostering the perception they are criminals rather than victims, untrustworthy rather than credible. Such unjustified misconceptions underplay cases of merit and undermine survival strategies compelled by the lack of legal access to labour markets.

Asylum seekers survive with monthly assistance worth HK$1,000 to HK$1,200 for rent and HK$900 for groceries - amounts that haven't been adjusted with inflation since 2006. For their daily needs, they dejectedly rely on the generosity of friends, but even the kindest supporter will eventually tire of helping the same people year after year. Soon, they figure out that wages earned in the informal economy are the only viable solution.

It's unreasonable to expect asylum seekers to beg when it could take 10 years for their case to be determined. There are flaws in a system that purports to meet legal obligations, while upholding policies that appear aimed at discouraging asylum. Is Snowden ready to endure a process that accepted only four of 12,500 torture claims in two decades?

We should be concerned about policies that collude with a despicable charade in which the trappings of justice are meticulously observed, while rights are systematically violated.

Further, it is wholly unreasonable how the hardship of refugees is exacerbated by draconian prison sentences for working illegally. Punitive laws catch in one dragnet refugees who struggle to keep a roof over their head - often in a slum.

The risk of eviction for failing to pay rent and utilities is as real for refugees as it is for everyone else confronted by spiralling costs. Chronic deprivation, however, is more devastating for refugees unable to survive with neither adequate support nor employment rights. Would policymakers please demonstrate how they are expected to survive? Would Snowden care to blow this whistle too?

Hong Kong refugees are both demonised as illegal immigrants and criminalised for eking out a miserable existence. Sandwiched between an effective zero acceptance rate and inhuman living conditions, this gross injustice will eventually shatter Snowden's illusion that the rule of law still governs the Fragrant Harbour.

Cosmo Beatson is co-founder and executive director of Vision First. Francesco Vecchio serves as a Vision First board director.