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Asylum seekers in Asia

Give Hong Kong’s asylum seekers the right to work, NGO leader says

Tom Franz from Branches of Hope calls for path to residency for protection claimants, most of whom arrive in the city from Pakistan, Bangladesh or India

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 11:38pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 11:49pm

The leader of one of the few organisations in Hong Kong providing support for asylum seekers and human-trafficking victims has called on officials to give those seeking protection in the city the right to work and a path to residency.

The appeal by Tom Franz, CEO of Branches of Hope, comes just days before a security panel at Hong Kong’s legislature gathers to discuss government proposals that could reduce the time allowed for asylum seekers to present their cases.

“These are people who have experience, skills and talents who were forced to leave their homes. If we give them opportunities, platforms, more skills, then they can be very beneficial to society,” Franz said.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed and must rely on social welfare stipends – including a housing allowance of HK$1,500 (US$190) – and handouts from charities.

“It’s a pipe dream … but I would like to see a road, a path, to becoming a resident,” Franz said. “I think the first step would be to allow them to join the workforce one way or another. There are certain sectors that need employees, so I think it will benefit both them and the city.”

The NGO chief said: “Part of being a developed and civilised city is that you take care of the most vulnerable and most marginalised. You include them, you protect them, you give them rights, you help them.”

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Most asylum seekers in Hong Kong come from Pakistan, Bangladesh or India. There are currently 2,997 people waiting to have their cases screened by the local government, and many have been in limbo for several years.

Branches of Hope, formerly known as Vine Community Services – helped more than 650 people last year and provides more than 300 with financial assistance on a monthly basis.

According to Franz, many of the asylum seekers they have dealt with fled their homes due to political or religious persecution.

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A segment of the asylum seeking population in Hong Kong were victims of human trafficking, he said, but they often went unnoticed and received little support.

“There is a real problem with human trafficking [in Hong Kong]. It’s organised,” Franz said. “There is someone who does recruiting. They go to a village in, say, India, promising a job in Hong Kong and saying the workers need to pay HK$30,000 to be able to come. Then they loan that money and they create a debt bondage situation.

“When they get here, they are told to file asylum claims and they find out they have no permission to work. They are told: ‘It doesn’t matter. You owe me HK$30,000,’” Franz said.

Cases emerged in 2016 of men being duped by agencies in India into applying for fictitious “asylum visas” in Hong Kong.

The US Department of State’s latest Trafficking in Persons Report placed the city for a third consecutive year on its Tier 2 Watch List, indicating it did not fully comply with minimum standards set out in America’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act, but was making significant efforts to comply.

Advocates have pushed for the introduction of anti-human-trafficking laws, but the Hong Kong government has insisted the current legal framework is sufficient.

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Franz said officials should be able to identify victims while claimants had their applications screened.

The two main communities at risk were foreign domestic helpers and sex workers, he said.

According to experts, such cases are often difficult to bring to court and victims usually do not receive the protection they need.

“It takes a really long time to proceed with these cases, so the majority of people we have dealt with have either returned home or are still pursuing their case ... These are cases that take two to three years,” Franz said.

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“The majority are vulnerable most of the time because of poverty. What we see is that even though many were trafficked, exploited, hospitalised, what they really need to do is find another job and send money home, because their family is close to starvation.

“It’s a very difficult situation they are in.”

Franz said a special visa should be considered for those identified as trafficking victims, as was issued in the United States.

“That’s what a developed city should do,” he said.