We want to work, say asylum seekers

Protesters gather at ferry pier then march to Legco over living conditions as UNHCR reveals 51 million people have been displaced this year

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:20am

Asylum seekers rallied at the Star Ferry pier in Central yesterday, protesting over their poor living conditions and asking for the right to work.

The protest came as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that there were now more than 51 million people worldwide who had been displaced from their homes - the highest number since the second world war.

Some 200 asylum seekers beat drums, danced and chanted, as they gathered for about 1-1/2 hours at the pier before marching to the Legislative Council offices on World Refugee Day.

"If you keep silent you're an easy target for abuse," said Vincent Kolo, an activist with NGO Socialist Action. "It used to be easier to malign refugees, but now people are hearing the opposite side of the story."

Refugees are not allowed to work in Hong Kong while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. That means they must subsist on food handed out by the government worth about HK$40 a day, and they receive just HK$1,500 per month towards rent. Many refugees end up living on the margins, in rundown settlements with no running water.

There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong - mostly from Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. Some are fleeing political persecution, others torture and some could be economic migrants.

Worldwide, 1.1 million new asylum requests were submitted in 2013, according to the Global Trends Report released by the UNHCR. That was an increase of more than six million people from the previous year, mainly because of the war in Syria, which forced 2.5 million people to flee. Conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic also added to the refugee toll.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres yesterday called on countries to find solutions to the conflicts, and for non-traditional donors to boost funding and provide homes for those displaced. "Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed," Guterres said.

Amnesty International meanwhile slammed the UN Security Council, saying it was failing spectacularly to maintain international peace and security.

"Apathy, political alliances and point-scoring must cease trumping human rights concerns when it comes to decision-making at the Security Council," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director for global issues at Amnesty International. It criticised Russia and China for blocking any meaningful action on Syria, saying they had contributed the least to the global refugee crisis and had not resettled a single refugee.

In Hong Kong, the government brought in a new screening system to identify refugees after it was forced to do so by the courts.