Signs of tolerance of refugees is a chance for the government to reform the asylum system

Poll shows a more positive view of those seeking shelter here, making it a good time to speed up processing of claims and to root out abuse

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 3:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 3:08am

Implicit in the government’s hard line on claimants for refugee or asylum-seeker status is a perception of public opinion still shaped by the experience of coping with tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers decades ago, and a fear of reopening the floodgates. Negative perceptions include “danger” and disturbance to society and a strain on resources. A poll of attitudes among 1,001 Cantonese-speaking adults commissioned by the University of Education’s Asian and policy studies department paints a different picture. While one quarter of respondents still had a negative view of asylum-seekers, for example as “fake refugees” and “criminals”, two thirds were neutral and therefore more open to new initiatives.

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As a result there was a measure of support for reforming the screening system (nearly 37 per cent), hiring more staff to speed it up (30 per cent), and allowing claimants to work in low-end jobs after five years (32 per cent). There was also misunderstanding of asylum seekers’ rights, with nearly half believing wrongly they can become residents under the current immigration system. More than half supported a crackdown on snakeheads and trafficking organisations responsible for the flow of refugees and asylum-seekers . In this respect the government has already moved to toughen penalties for trafficking in humans from South Asia and Africa, to bring them into line with those for trafficking from the mainland, Macau or Vietnam.

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Many foreigners have sought refuge in our city, claiming they are fleeing torture or other threats elsewhere. Some are not genuine and are trying to exploit the system for a better life. Recently the number of claims has ballooned, prompting executive councillor and former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee to make the controversial suggestion of housing illegal immigrants in a camp on an island off Shenzhen.

If a government review of the system for processing asylum claimants speeds it up and reduces abuse, that would be a step in the right direction. Officials should be heartened by evidence in the poll results of tolerance and support for pluralism.