Asylum seekers in Asia

‘Ray of hope’ as Hong Kong recognises first Syrian refugee in the city

The person, who cannot be identified due to serious security concerns, travelled more than 7,000km to seek refuge in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 10:23am

Hong Kong has recognised its first Syrian refugee in the city, offering what rights advocates see as a rare “ray of hope” during a time of international controversy surrounding the acceptance of those displaced by war in the Middle East.

The Syrian, who travelled more than 7,000km to seek shelter in Hong Kong and had to wait for about a year for the refugee claim to be substantiated, cannot be identified by name or gender due to serious security concerns.

Rights lawyers and advocates hailed the rare case as a “ray of hope” for those who no longer believe that their protection claims can be fairly assessed in a city that has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the world for asylum seekers.

The Syrian refugee’s legal representative, human rights lawyer Patricia Ho of law firm Daly&Associates, said: “It is important that the refugee community get the message that genuine cases stand a chance of success. Many of the most desperate claimants remain concerned that their cases are assessed by persons who hold bias against them, so a ray of hope helps.”

The acceptance rate in Hong Kong stands at 0.6 per cent, whereas in Europe it reaches 60 per cent, with the global average at about 30 per cent. From 2009 to December last year, only 72 asylum seekers were recognised by the Hong Kong authorities. Many wait several years to have their claims screened.

While the Immigration Department has accused some refugees of using “delaying tactics”, lawyers and experts have described the local screening system as flawed and extremely slow, with an excessively high threshold.

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The news comes against a backdrop of global consternation after US President Donald Trump announced on January 27 a temporary entry ban on nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. The executive order also suspended the entire US refugee programme for 120 days and froze its Syrian refugee programme indefinitely.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked the enforcement of Trump’s executive order, but the policy can be reinstated upon appeal.

Although Hong Kong is obliged to screen protection claimants, the city does not resettle refugees. When a case is substantiated – meaning that the authorities recognise the claimant does need protection – the applicant is referred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement in a third country.

During the process – from filing a claim to being eventually resettled somewhere else – refugees are not allowed to work in the city.

Speaking on behalf of her Syrian client, Ho said: “The claimant wishes to express gratitude towards the Immigration Department for the decision to provide them with protection.”

The Immigration Department declined to comment on the case. However, a spokesman said that as of December 31, out of 9,981 people waiting to have their claims screened, none was from Syria.

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Reacting to the news that the first Syrian refugee had been recognised in the city, Isaac Shaffer, a British lawyer and protection claimant services manager at local human rights organisation Justice Centre, said: “It is definitely a positive and significant move. Whether or not this marks a key change on how Hong Kong deals with refugee status determination I think that it is possibly too soon to say.”

Martyn Broughton, director of communications for Médecins Sans Frontières Hong Kong, also noted that it was hard to read into one case. But, he said, “It would be great if it was something of a precedent and more people with good grounds for asylum could be accepted and be accepted more rapidly.”

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The screening of the only Syrian claimant so far in Hong Kong was considered fairly quick compared with many other cases.

“This person came from a country where there’s overwhelming evidence in their favour, which makes everyone’s job easier. Also, this refugee did not have to go through an appeal, so that naturally makes the time short,” lawyer Ho said.

The Syrian conflict, which started about six years ago, has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to seek asylum abroad.

Ho noted: “The quick assessment certainly is a good model to follow – less build-up of anxiety on the part of the claimant and more speedy resolution, which facilitates easier resettlement into a durable solution.”