Hong Kong cannot send back asylum seekers, says top Red Cross official

City urged to find a political solution to the growing problem to avoid festering ill will

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 12:00am

The issue of migrants and asylum seekers would fester into ill will if left unattended, warned the highest-ranking Red Cross official to visit Hong Kong, but sending them back was not a solution.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, added that finding a political solution to the issue did not mean stopping asylum seekers from entering Hong Kong.

“As responsible politicians, you have to manage migration,” said Maurer. “The worst would be to leave it unattended politically, because it will create ill feelings.”

The issue of asylum seekers has been hotly debated among the public recently, as the government raised alarm at a rise in “bogus” torture claimants and accused claimants of abusing the city’s screening system. The same system has also been criticised by human rights advocates for being overly harsh and slow, with over 10,000 outstanding claims at the end of last year waiting to be processed.

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The idea of putting claimants in detention camps has been floated by politicians and was endorsed last week as “the most effective way to deter asylum seekers” by Nepal’s consul general, Baliram Prasad Dhami.

The government also recently spoke of placing visa restrictions on Nepalis and Indians, a suggestion that angered the city’s long-established Indian community.

Maurer, who was in Hong Kong for the opening of Asia’s first humanitarian education centre in West Kowloon, refused to comment on whether the administration had handled the issue correctly.

But to reject asylum seekers would not work, he said. “Can you really send back people to where they are fleeing from?”

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Pragmatic solutions were needed to ensure asylum seekers were treated well and their rights recognised.

As to declaring that Hong Kong would withdraw from the United Nations Convention Against Torture – an idea floated by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying recently but ruled out last week by the Security Bureau – Maurer said a government could not shirk its duty.

“If you back out of a convention ... you can’t dodge your obligation,” he said. “Torture is still not acceptable.”

Maurer added that war and conflict, migration and people movements were global phenomena seen not just in Hong Kong but everywhere in the world.

“Populism, rejection [of migrants and asylum seekers] will not solve the problem,” he said.