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Asylum seekers in Asia

Egyptian Coptic Christian couple went on hunger strike at Hong Kong immigrant detention centre after alleged abuse

Lawyer says the pair were mistreated at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre after struggle to file claim for protection from persecution, and case could be tip of the iceberg

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 5:08pm

A Coptic Christian couple who say they are fleeing persecution in Egypt have accused Hong Kong immigration authorities of mistreatment, amid a spate of allegations submitted to local lawyers concerning similar cases at the city’s largest centre for immigration offenders.

Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho said the couple had been denied access to basic amenities and prevented from calling their lawyers at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre in the New Territories.

The alleged mistreatment had left them distraught and the pair had even launched hunger strikes, according to Ho, a lawyer with Hong Kong firm Daly and Associates.

“They have encountered one blockade after another from immigration ... Their cases have been dealt with quite inappropriately,” Ho said.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have for centuries faced discrimination in the Muslim-majority nation, but the situation has worsened in recent years with a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in the region and an increasing number of attacks targeting the group.

The couple claimed Hong Kong authorities tried to send them back to Egypt and urged the pair not to file a protection claim following their arrival in the city on May 31. Only after almost 24 hours of arguments at the airport were they able to file one, they said. The pair were then detained.

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Ho described their situation as an “unlawful detention” because “it is clear their protection claims will take a long time to process”. She argued the couple should be free during that time.

The screening of protection claims in Hong Kong often takes several years and the acceptance rate is lower than 1 per cent.

Ho said there were two main issues of concern in the case that pointed towards a broader problem.

“One is that immigration tried to remove them when they tried to make a claim ... This happened all behind closed doors at the airport. One has to question how often this happens,” she said.

“Another issue is the way they have been treated at the immigration centre ... This is not happening in an isolated manner.”

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Lawyer Michael Vidler, who is not involved with the couple’s case, said he had been receiving “ongoing complaints” from protection claimants and other immigration offenders at the facility.

“I have received complaints of assault, inappropriate use of solitary confinement, deprivation of medical treatment and, on a bigger issue, the unlawful detention of asylum seekers who should have been put on recognisance pending determination of their claims,” Vidler said.

He said he had been recently dealing with a detainee who had been in solitary confinement for a year.

There was no established mechanism through which detainees could access legal advice if mistreated, Vidler said, and they had to rely on charity from lawyers willing to give up their time pro bono.

The centre is visited every two weeks by justices of the peace, who are responsible for monitoring prison conditions in Hong Kong. But “the difficulty for any detained person speaking to a justice of the peace is that, once they leave, the detainees risk being punished for speaking”, Vidler said.

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In July last year human rights lawyers raised concerns about an alleged pattern of mistreatment at the centre, after an asylum seeker from North Africa claimed through his lawyer that he had been stripped naked and held in isolation inside a yellow cell without a mattress to sleep on.

About four months earlier, another asylum seeker, who had been held at the centre for 150 days, alleged he had been subjected to both verbal and physical assaults by immigration officers, including kicks and punches, his testicles being stamped on, and pinching of his ears and nose.

Lawyers said officers used the period of detention to place pressure on detainees.

“They can make the detention conditions more egregious as a way to pressure them to leave Hong Kong ... There is definitely an issue of conflict of interests, and I think there is also an issue of impunity,” Ho said.

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Questioned about the allegations raised by the couple, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Department said it would not comment on individual cases. But she said protection claimants may be detained “for different specific purposes”, and “detention must be justified with sufficient reasons and for a period which is reasonable”.

Detainees were informed of their rights, she added, which included adequate food and drinking water, medical examinations and personal hygiene.

The department would not reveal how many alleged cases of abuse had been investigated.