Hong Kong accused of 'shifting its rhetoric' on refugees

Advocacy group blasts government paper that refers to 'removal' rather than 'protection'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 6:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 1:08pm

A non-governmental organisation that advocates for refugees' rights in Hong Kong says the government is changing its rhetoric on protection claimants.

Justice Centre Hong Kong said that in a paper submitted to the legislature, the government called refugees and protection claimants "illegal immigrants" and referred to their "removal" instead of their "protection".

"To call legitimate refugees seeking protection illegal immigrants is disingenuous and alarming," Justice Centre advocacy officer Victoria Wisniewski Otero said.

Since a unified screening mechanism launched in March last year, "the government forces refugees who come to Hong Kong on valid visas to overstay and become illegal in order to even enter the system", she said.

Otero said the government had a responsibility to raise awareness and promote tolerance rather than negativity.

"The government's deliberate and misleading anti-refugee discourse is shameful and is feeding dangerous negative stereotyping and intolerance," she said.

In the document, which the Legislative Council's security panel discussed on July 7, the government said the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol had never applied to Hong Kong.

Human rights groups have criticised the city's absence from those agreements over the years, though the UN Convention against Torture was extended to Hong Kong in 1992.

The paper also stressed that "illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong are not to be treated as asylum seekers or refugees".

For example, it reads, "they will not be offered legal status to settle in Hong Kong" regardless of the results of their claims.

"In fact, the government has a long-established policy of not granting asylum to anyone, and not determining or recognising anyone as a refugee," it stated.

The Unified Screening Mechanism is the new government system for processing protection claims.

It merges refugee claims with torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment claims under one process, which the government calls "non-refoulement".

"The main objective of the USM should not be removal, but protection of those fleeing from persecution and grave human rights abuses in their country of origin," Otero said.

Since the new system was introduced, the recognisance rate has been lower than 1 per cent. Among 1,873 screened claims by the end of May, eight received positive answers and the rest were rejected.

The Security Bureau could not be reached for comment.