Many people in Hong Kong are not even aware of the presence here of refugees. However, some humanitarian principles should equally apply.

In Hong Kong, we must open our eyes to the refugees in our midst

Tony Read calls for a better response to the suffering of refugees at our doorstep before it overwhelms us


People in Hong Kong may be forgiven for thinking that many thousands of miles safely separates them from the refugee crisis in Europe and that at least the city is not on these people's list of places to get to. As European Union nations struggle to cope with an increasing influx, it is worth noting the dilemmas that governments and nations are facing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that the EU is founded on humanitarian principles and therefore should be united in a positive response to those seeking refuge from war, devastation and poverty. However, it is increasingly obvious that the union's response is fragmented and that many of the humanitarian principles it has adopted are being severely strained.

The death by drowning of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, has turned the tide of public opinion. The horrors of the Mediterranean Sea crossing have brought the public to its feet in sympathy and protest, after a photograph of his little body lying on the seashore went viral on social media.

This outpouring of sympathy and support was in sharp contrast to some governments' measured responses so far, particularly the UK government's. Other EU counties have tried to resist the onslaught with barbed wire fences and some form of regulated processing.

It is not good enough to think it has no relevance to us because it is happening elsewhere

The scale of the problem does seem overwhelming. The UN estimates that over 310,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year already - a 40 per cent increase over the whole of last year. Among the number this year, some 2,500 have died or gone missing. Add to that the 3.5 million Syrian migrants housed in refugee camps across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and one can see why EU governments are worried.

And so they have been debating the difference between economic migrants and refugees; traffickers and people smugglers; and push and pull factors; and how all of these might affect an appropriate response.

However, when an emergency is at your doorstep, it is hardly the right time for this type of discussion. The EU needs an emergency response plan appropriate for the situation, and the humanitarian response of its people who have been moved as human beings to offer help is the right solution.

Here in Hong Kong, there are a number of important lessons we can take from this crisis. It is not good enough to think it has no relevance to us because it is happening elsewhere.

Only around 10,000 people are seeking refuge here, which is a small part of the total population. Indeed, the scale of any "refugee issue" here is minuscule, compared to that unfolding in Europe. Many people in Hong Kong are not even aware of their presence. However, some humanitarian principles should equally apply.

The Hong Kong government values its stringent policy of not accepting refugees permanently within its borders. While it does conduct a screening of those seeking protection from being returned to their country of origin, it relies on the UN refugee agency to resettle those who qualify for such protection to other, more accommodating, places.

The European experience has demonstrated that when there is a large enough refugee explosion, no borders or policies are robust enough to deal with the influx. It is not simply a matter of numbers but also of will and determination to escape from an oppressive situation, no matter the cost.

Hong Kong's response to those seeking protection has been to provide minimal resources and maximum inconvenience in an attempt to deter would-be asylum seekers and avoid any pull factors.

This is an ineffective strategy because the push factors are so strong for those whose lives are in real danger in their home country. In such cases, only acknowledging the issues and accepting our humanitarian responsibilities with a positive strategy will have any impact.

Two girls from a refugee family are greeted with presents as they arrived at the train station in Munich, southern Germany. Photo: AFP

One other issue is the remarkable response of the European people themselves. Despite the procrastination and wavering of their governments, there has been an amazing outpouring of support and offers of help from the general public, who have caught hold of the real human drama being played out on their doorstep and taken action.

In their minds, the humanitarian aspect of the emergency has taken precedence over the security and economic issues surrounding any refugee policy. Their philosophy seems to be "act now in compassion and sort out the policy problems later".

The core humanitarian values of their culture have driven them to express solidarity with those who are innocent victims of injustice, despite any possible cost to themselves.

In Hong Kong, there seems at present to be very little public sympathy for our own refugee cause. This has allowed the government to pursue its own negative policy largely unchecked by public opinion. However, when such policies begin to cause human suffering and grief to the degree now witnessed in Europe, it will not take much to arouse public sympathy and bring a strong reality check to any official policy.

One of Hong Kong's deeply rooted values that is now beginning to surface, in its younger generation particularly, is a desire for social justice. We can expect this to play an important role in forming public opinion in the future.

Like Europe, Hong Kong needs to start thinking more deeply about appropriate humanitarian responses to some of the issues it faces before it is overwhelmed by a situation beyond its control.

Refugees are people, too, and the world is only just coming to terms with the fact that this is not just a matter of national policy and border control. It is a global issue which deserves a global response.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Face the reality