Hong Kong should stop labelling refugees as 'illegal immigrants'

Aideen McLaughlin says by labelling asylum seekers 'illegal immigrants', the Hong Kong government promotes stereotyping while absolving itself from its duty of care

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 3:00pm

The language of migration is politically charged. In these days of "mixed migration", both refugees and migrants are boarding the same rickety boats and making the same life-threatening journeys across perilous waters. The former are forced to move due to a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries; the latter leave behind poverty, disease, natural disasters and lack of opportunity, and are not eligible for international protection.

In this climate, described in a report by Amnesty International this week as the "worst refugee crisis of our era", terms such as "refugees" and "migrants" become interchangeable. Commentators, journalists and the public struggle to know which to apply, confused as to who is "worthy" of their column inches and sympathy, while governments choose their words very carefully.

In Hong Kong, there has been a marked change in the government's rhetoric, with refugees seeking protection now being unequivocally categorised as "illegal immigrants". In a paper issued by the administration this month to brief legislators ahead of a Panel on Welfare Services meeting on those seeking refuge, it refers to refugees and torture claimants as "foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong, and visitors who overstayed their limit of stay". In short, they are "illegal immigrants".

It continues: "The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees has never applied to Hong Kong, and illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong are not to be treated as 'asylum seekers' or 'refugees'. For example, they will not be offered legal status to settle in Hong Kong, regardless of the result of their non-refoulement claim (which only offers them temporary suspension of removal)".

In the first three pages, it uses the term "illegal immigrants" at least seven times.

Since the introduction last year of the unified screening mechanism, the government's new system for processing protection claims, refugees who come on valid visas must overstay and become "illegal" in order to even enter the system or to access any humanitarian assistance.

At the Justice Centre, we have heard numerous reports of refugees from countries such as Egypt, Rwanda and Somalia telling immigration officers at point of entry that they don't want a visitor's visa; that they want to seek asylum. But they are given the visa regardless. When they then go to the immigration offices to try to claim for protection, they are told to return when their visa expires.

The Hong Kong government says its international obligations on non-refoulement (the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution or harm) do not kick in until there is an actual threat of someone being removed or returned. That "threat" of return does not exist if someone has a legal visa to be here. Therefore, refugees in Hong Kong must wait until they are "illegal" in order to claim the legal protection they so desperately sought in the first place.

By referring to refugees as "illegal immigrants", the Hong Kong government is suppressing the very real and complex reasons why refugees set out on these journeys in the first place. It encourages Hong Kong people to view refugees with suspicion, rather than as people in desperate need of protection. And it serves the government's political interests to use these terms, relinquishing it from the responsibility to have to do anything much at all.

But labels stick. This deliberate anti-refugee discourse chosen by the Hong Kong government is one that feeds negative media portrayal, dangerous stereotyping and intolerance.

A fundamental rethink of the refugee terminology in Hong Kong is needed. On World Refugee Day, this Saturday, the time is ripe for a new label, a new refugee language, one that seeks to protect, rather than mislead.

Aideen McLaughlin is director of external relations at Justice Centre Hong Kong, an NGO that works to protect the rights of refugees and survivors of human trafficking. www.justicecentre.org.hk