Refugees in Hong Kong see little improvement from new screening system

Rights advocates say that new method has not improved an 'effective zero recognition rate'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 February, 2015, 3:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 February, 2015, 8:38am

NGOs and rights advocates say a new screening mechanism put in place nearly a year ago is not doing enough to help people seeking asylum in Hong Kong, with just a handful of successful claims from the more than 830 applications decided.

The Immigration Department confirmed that, as of February 12, only five claims had been successful since the new system was put in place. That means that the total number of successful claims since the United Nations Convention against Torture was extended to Hong Kong in 1992 was 28.

Rights advocates have long expressed concern about what they call an "effective zero recognition rate".

The unified screening mechanism (USM) was introduced in March last year after court judgments found inadequacies in the old system. Streamlining the system to just one process, it aimed to speed up the screening process. But rights advocates say the figures under the new system do not show a marked improvement from the old and they are a far cry from global averages.

About 34 per cent of asylum claimants received some protection in the first instance in the European Union in 2013. Globally, the total recognition rate - including refugee status and other protection - stood at 43 per cent, according to UNHCR figures.

"Although we are pleased some positive determinations have been made under the USM, of the over 800 cases determined since it was implemented in March, only a handful have been substantiated. This is extremely worrying to us," said Aleta Miller, executive director of the Justice Centre Hong Kong, an NGO that protects the rights of refugees.

Noting that 22 of 8,764 claims had been recognised under the torture screening system, she added: "These numbers raise several red flags when compared with the recognition rates of other countries."

Cosmo Beatson, founder of asylum support organisation Vision First, said the system was "a farce", noting no Pakistanis or Bangladeshis - two of the top countries of origin for asylum seekers to Hong Kong - had ever had their claims substantiated.

But the Immigration Department has previously rejected claims of unfairness, pointing to measures like interviews, medical examinations, written decisions, interpretation services, and publicly funded legal assistance. Processing times, it said, could increase if the claimant did not cooperate.

Barrister Mark Sutherland, a non-executive director of Vision First, said he believed the department may still be trying to process the cases quickly with little regard for overall fairness and the time allowed to file evidence was not long enough.

"The pressure to tell somebody's life story in six weeks is ridiculously short," he said.

Under both old and new mechanisms, claimants must file their forms and documents within 28 days of receiving the department's request.

Lawyer Mark Daly said systemic delays remained and blamed a culture of bias against asylum seekers at the Immigration Department among other factors for the low substantiation rate.

Department figures obtained by the Justice Centre showed that nationals of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam made up more than three-quarters of the 9,580 claimants whose cases were active at the end of November.

The department received 4,634 claims from March to December. When the new mechanism became operational, 6,699 torture claims remained outstanding - these have been subsumed into the new procedure. In total, 9,618 cases were outstanding at the end of last year.