What Hong Kong can learn about asylum seekers from Germany’s experience
Joyce Man has researched the refugee crisis from Berlin and says it’s about time her home city changed its perceptions on asylum seekers
A short walk from Turmstrasse station on the sprawling Berlin mass transit rail network is the city’s office for health and social affairs. Known as the Lageso – its German acronym – the functionally austere office complex has in recent months become a de facto refugee clearing house where thousands of the world’s dispossessed queue up for the bureaucratic clearance they hope will mark the start of a new life.
As our train pulled into the station, the sound of German, Arabic, English and French filled the packed carriage. Among the disembarking passengers was Joyce Man from Hong Kong, the only Chinese, who completed an eclectic mix of nationalities in what is one of the world’s most multicultural capitals.
Outside Lageso’s complex, in Moabit, two women distributed free food to asylum seekers, who – as the night fell and temperatures dropped – were returning to the temporary shelters spread across the city.
Man, 31, had spent the past two years in Germany and England, where she is studying law in Bristol. In Germany, she is researching asylum policies and preparing an academic paper aiming to draw comparisons with Hong Kong and make recommendations.
While the theme sparked debate in Hong Kong in recent months, with some calling for the resurgence of refugee camps and portraying most protection claimants as “bogus”, in Man’s opinion, her home city had a lot to learn from the mistakes Germany made in the past, and a lot more from the tolerance the country has shown in recent years.
“Germany, for reasons of language and because it’s not a Common Law system, has often been neglected. Hong Kong tends to look to the UK and Australia, which are very bad examples of asylum policy,” she noted. “I think Germany has a lot of important experiences that we can learn from and the purpose of my research is to draw from their experiences and apply them in Hong Kong.”
As Man talked, a few dozen asylum seekers sheltered from the cold in large white tents set up at the Lageso compound. The main building – closed because it was a public holiday – and the courtyard looked darker and emptier in stark contrast with the weeks of long queues of refugees– mostly coming from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Germany received 1.1 million asylum seekers last year. It was one of the countries in Europe more willing to take refugees – and also the most wanted final destination among those fleeing war and persecution.
Watch: What a Hong Kong researcher has learned from Europe's refugee crisis in Germany
Hong Kong doesn’t take refugees as it didn’t sign the UN Refugee Convention, but it has to screen protection claimants under the UN Convention against Torture.
As of the end of last year, there were 10,922 outstanding protection claims – most of them from Vietnamese, Indian and Pakistani nationals.
Although these figures might sound minor when compared with the number of people seeking asylum in Germany, the local government has raised alarm over the past months and blamed claimants for alleged “widespread abuse”.
Lawyers and experts have insisted that problems lie on a deeply flawed screening system.
Man said that, unlike in Hong Kong, there is “an active conversation between the public and the authorities who are receiving asylum seekers” in Germany.
The government’s transparency was one of the system’s strengths, she noted.
It had increased its cooperation and dialogue with organisations and NGOs, perceiving them not as opponents but part of “the solution as to how the country can receive refugees” she adds.
Man had her first contact with asylum seeking in Hong Kong when she was working as a reporter covering courts for the Post.
“In 2012, I covered a case at the Court of Final Appeal, which resulted in the creation of the unified screening mechanism,” she recalled.
Man decided then to apply for the German Chancellor Fellowship by the Humboldt Foundation. Under the University of Munich’s Centre for Applied Policy Research, she conducted dozens of interviews and studied the German asylum policy for a year, as well as the lessons that Hong Kong should take to improve its own policy.
The German system might not be perfect but it has greatly improved over the years, Man concluded. In 2000, for instance, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Germany had to take on more duties regarding integration, in addition to processing refugee applications.
“This meant the staff not only had to work with the question of refugee rights, but also have to think about how these people are going to be integrated in the society. It widened their perspectives a lot,” Man said.
“This is also something we can contemplate in Hong Kong. We’re still seeing zero, or close to zero, per cent recognition rates.”
Since the unified screening mechanism was introduced in 2014, the acceptance rate in Hong Kong stands at 0.56 per cent – one of the lowest in the developed world. In the final quarter of 2015, Europe’s acceptance rate was around 60 per cent.
The government argued that Hong Kong had attracted a high number of fake claimants, but Man raised other questions: “Why is the Immigration Department … so predisposed to deciding in a certain way? Is it because there is a cultural bias within the system? How can we eliminate it?”
In her opinion, staff should be exposed “to different cultures and different questions of migrationand consider how they can integrate or harmonise different cultures into society”.
But to change policies won’t be enough, the government also needs to nurture a more understanding community, Man said.
“Hong Kong people’s perspective of refugees or asylum seekers is quite negative and that comes from our history,” she noted. “We had a lot of Vietnamese refugees and there was a perception that the population had to foot the bill for a decision that wasn’t theirs,” Man said.
During some three decades, Hong Kong received more than 230,000 Vietnamese refugees. The last camp only closed down in 2000.
Over the past few months, financial concerns were brought up again by the government and some politicians. The estimated expenditure for 2015-2016 on handling protection claimants was HK$644 million, which represented an increase of 21 per cent from the previous year, according to the Security Bureau.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the city. They live in old buildings – mostly on Kowloon side – or shanty towns in the New Territories, and are dependent on charity, social welfare stipends given by the government and coupons to buy food in supermarkets.
“We can reference the German experience here as well,” Man said. “Before the 1970s, when the number [of refugees] was rising, there was a lot of negative perception, to a large extent that resulted from the media. “There was a lot of talk about asylum seekers coming to abuse the system, very much akin to what we are seeing right now in Hong Kong.”
Germany has come a long way from those perceptions. Despite the recent emergence of far-right populism, “there has been a great change since then ,” Man noted. “Nowadays, the major newspapers... are very much positive in tone when they speak about asylum seekers. And … you see [Angela] Merkel and a lot of the main politicians speaking positively or constructively about refugees coming in,” she said.
German chancellor Angela Merkel defended her open door policy for migrants without limits on refugees, but after a year – during which Germany received more than one million refugees – she is now under pressure, both internally and externally, to ensure that such situation won’t be repeated.
The EU and Turkey reached a deal last month on returning migrants. Refugees arriving in Greece who don’t meet the asylum criteria can be sent back to Turkey, instead of being allowed to continue their journey to other European countries.
In Hong Kong, the Security Bureau have put out documents that reference protection claimants as “illegal immigrants” and “overstayers”, a language that Man considered to be “heavily tainted.”
Man also noted that in the past year, newspapers in Hong Kong used the term “bogus claimants” more often than ever.
“Bogus refugees” were mentioned in a total of 122 articles in the local news sections of Chinese-language newspapers based in Hong Kong – a tenfold increase on 2014 and five times as many as in the five preceding years altogether, Man said.
Recently, politicians like Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, executive councillor and former security chief, have suggested the reopening of refugee camps to deter asylum seekers from coming to Hong Kong. Ip suggested building a closed camp on an outlying island of Shenzhen for those who were looking to seek asylum in Hong Kong.
The Nepalese Consul General Baliram Prasad Dhami also said on Thursday that detention camps would be the most effective way to deter asylum seekers.
“I am against putting refugees in detention camps, and anything that is a high density mass residence of purely asylum seekers,” Man said. “Practice in Germany shows that integrating and spreading asylum seekers in small numbers throughout the local population is a good way to lower fear and tension for the residents,” she said. “It also increases well-being and provide opportunities for learning the local culture and language for the asylum seekers.”
Aside from pushing for refugee camps, some have also argued Hong Kong should withdraw from the UN Convention against Torture – an option that the city’s chief executive said earlier this year could be considered.
Man asked Hongkongers to look at their own past: “Many Hongkongers in the lead up to 1997 were so worried about their future that they sought safety in other places … I think there’s a similarity there.”
Some studies also show that approximately one third of the population in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s could also be considered refugees and asylum seekers, she said.
“We are essentially a society that grew out of refugees. I think that is significant and something that we have to reflect on.”