Refugee crisis requires a global response, and Asia's powerhouses must reach out to the needy

Piya Muqit says the whole world must help refugees fleeing persecution, including wealthy Asian nations

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 4:34pm

In one day, the photograph of a drowned Syrian child washed up on Europe's shores went viral and provoked discussion on the Syrian crisis in corners of the world that previously gave little coverage to this ongoing conflict. What we are seeing unfold is not a "European" or "migrant" crisis; it is about refugees - people fleeing from persecution who are in desperate need of protection - and it requires a global response, including from wealthy countries here in Asia.

For the first time in my 15-year career as a lawyer and policy expert in the UK asylum field, I have both been surprised and encouraged by the response from the British public. People from all walks of life have been moved by the recent crisis in the Mediterranean and have mobilised to show an outpouring of support in the past couple of weeks.

This is not unique to the UK. From Austria to Spain, citizens are standing in solidarity with refugees and have even been at the very frontline to receive them and directly offer humanitarian aid.

European governments are starting to take note. While the commitment that the UK will take only 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years is woefully inadequate, 1.4 million citizens have signed a petition to Prime Minister David Cameron calling for more to be done to help refugees. When the government of Iceland initially stated it would offer a paltry quota of 50 Syrian refugees, 10,000 Icelanders offered to open their homes in response.

This kind of humanitarian spirit does not seem to be translating into policies and laws at home towards people seeking asylum in Asia

Germany is taking in thousands of refugees and Chancellor Angela Merkel has already committed €6 billion (HK$52.5 billion) for support services in 2016. France is calling for EU member states to make a greater collective effort ahead of an emergency meeting scheduled in Brussels next week. On Wednesday, the European Union proposed a plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees across the region. After all, this is Europe's worst refugee crisis since the second world war. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted that "Europe today is an island of hope for the people in the Middle East fleeing war and oppression. This is something to be proud of, not something to fear."

What is missing from these discussions is how other wealthy economies around the world can share responsibility. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was ironically founded to assist displaced Europeans after the second world war, is calling for global leadership on not only the refugee crisis in Europe but on the matter of the 50 million people displaced across the world. According to the agency, in 2014, global displacement was at an "all-time high", pointing out that developing countries hosted 86 per cent of the world's refugees and 25 per cent are in the least developed ones.

What this shows is an increasing urgency for countries around the world to take action and offer protection to these people, including wealthy economies here in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, or here in Hong Kong. However, the trends coming from these places are troubling. With nascent asylum systems, restrictive immigration policies and lengthy processing times, people seeking asylum in this region face an uphill battle with little hope of a positive outcome.

The figures speak for themselves. In Japan, the government gave refugee recognition to a mere 11 people in 2014. What's even more shocking is that it has rejected 61 applications from Syrian refugees since 2011. Nonetheless, Japan is the second-highest donor to the UNHCR after the US.

In South Korea, the government has offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees, but on a more positive note, it did pass a ground-breaking Refugee Act a couple of years ago - the first of its kind among East Asian countries. Strikingly similar patterns can be seen in the Hong Kong government's year-old unified screening mechanism to process protection claims, which so far has only had 12 successful claims. This makes for a worryingly low recognition rate.

At the same time, in the wake of humanitarian crises, time and again, people in Hong Kong respond to the call for help through generous donations to conflict and disaster-ridden places around the world. This kind of humanitarian spirit does not seem to be translating into policies and laws at home towards people seeking asylum in Asia, who are a drop in the bucket compared to global refugee figures.

Europe has positioned itself as a global leader on human rights issues for decades and should do more to address the refugee crisis through a human rights lens rather than based on political agendas. However, the same is true here in Asia. The refugee crisis unfolding in Europe is a long-overdue opportunity for the powerhouses in this region to step up to the challenge to demonstrate their leadership in managing a global refugee crisis that has so far been plagued by complacency and inaction.

As recent policy developments in Europe show, it is when citizens galvanise around a cause and voice their concerns publicly that governments respond. Many people in Asia and here in Hong Kong have been moved by the heart-breaking image of Aylan Kurdi. Let's bring this same humanity into national debates about refugees who come to our shores.

I look forward to working with Hong Kong civil society to secure rights-based legislative and policy change for refugees which can be considered the gold standard in the region.

Piya Muqit has recently joined Justice Centre Hong Kong as executive director, having most recently worked at UNICEF UK as head of policy and advocacy, and Freedom from Torture as their senior legal adviser. Justice Centre Hong Kong is an NGO that works to protect the rights of refugees and survivors of human trafficking.