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Stop asylum seeker bashing

World Refugee Day was marked this year on June 20 as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that for the first time in history the number of displaced people in the world exceeded 60 million.

Although only a handful are seeking protection in Hong Kong, they are a long way from finding an open-hearted welcome or home to begin a new life and instead are facing a new round of refugee-bashing with regular reports in the media about fake refugees.

In addition, the screening process they face is somewhat controversial.

At an event to mark World Refugee Day held at The Hive Studios on June 16, a Christian Egyptian known as Poules, spoke confidently of his hope that his claim would eventually succeed.

However, he noted that in the four years he has been in Hong Kong, he has only been interviewed once.

A television reporter from a religious minority, he was active in the 2011 Arab Spring that overthrew Hosni Mubarak.

He described his lone flight, leaving family behind, as the result of the consistent beating and persecution by the Egyptian military that he was subjected to.

A return home is out of the question, so his future in Hong Kong lies with the Unified Screening Mechanism.

Peter, from the Hong Kong Refugee Union, said there is always the chance of third country resettlement, if the claimant is convincing.

However, he explained that refugees are seldom willing to divulge details even among the wider asylum seeker community.

The Vine Centre also hosted an event marking World Refugee Day under the theme of United in Love on June 18.

Jeffery Andrews, a case worker from Christian Action Centre for Refugees, told success stories of UN-brokered third country resettlement in the United States of America.

Curse of Love is the story of one of them.

An Iranian teenager, called Ida, who fled threats to religious minorities with her family in 2012, told her story in the third-person. She said her claim was approved in three-and-half years and those like her deserve protection in Hong Kong.

Ida declared, “We are not here to take away your home and jobs. We are here to seek protection from the Hong Kong government.”

Quoting the Immigration Department, Adam Severson, from the Justice Centre Hong Kong, revealed the average hearing time under the Unified Screening Mechanism is 28 months. Many failed claimants then go to the Torture Claims Appeal Board.

Severson lamented there are few legal people prepared to appear for them and rejected cases are difficult to get into court.

A colleague of his is bringing this issue before the head of UNHCR in Geneva.

He added that deportation and repatriation takes a long time, as Hong Kong only recognises voluntary repatriation and this requires a passport, which many asylum seekers do not have. But Severson did not rule out the possibility of forced repatriation in the future.

Emily Lau, a member of the Legislative Council and chairperson of the Democratic Party, reflected on Hong Kong’s history and her own experience of being banned from mainland China and Macau.

Lau stressed, “Hong Kong can do a lot for the protection of refugees, because Hong Kong is a land of refugees.”

Vowing to do her best to convince her party and colleagues before her retirement in September, Lau appealed to the public to take action and “not allow the newspapers to report on fake refugees every day.”

She then called on the social conscience of Hong Kong, as the true measure of a civilised society is “how you look after the most vulnerable.”

The UNHCR established an office in Hong Kong in 1952, which became permanent with the arrival of Vietnamese boat people in 1979.

Hong Kong has never been a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is not obliged to process or accept asylum claims, but in 1992 it did ratify the Convention Against Torture and other international treaties, which form the protection channels of today.

In the wake of Nine/Eleven 2001, many countries tightened their immigration policies in sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s open borders, which have continued to allow a steady increase in the number of claimants entering the territory.

In March this year, the number stood at 11,201, mostly from southern and south-eastern Asia with a significant number from Africa.

Prior to 2008, asylum seekers only held UNHCR protection, with the government offering no objection to presence documents. But then papers were made available along with minimal monthly assistance payments.

Permanent resettlement can be sought under the Refugee Convention through the UNHCR or with the government as a torture claimant. Most try both.

Chances of success are slim. Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that 1,547 refugee claims were evaluated by UNHCR in 2008, but only 46 were recognised.

A mere 22 torture victims succeeded with the Hong Kong government in the first 22 years after the convention against torture was ratified.

The dual paths began to merge in March 2013 when the Court of Final Appeal ruled in favour of asylum seekers in a case against repatriation after their claims had been rejected by the UNHCR.

A year later, the Unified Screening Mechanism was set in motion by the Immigration Department for all non-refoulement claims. This transferred refugee status determination from the UNHCR to local bureaucrats.

Substantiated cases are referred to the UNHCR for recognition as refugees, but Immigration Department figures as of March 2016 show there are only 52 out of 8,465 cases.

This reflects a different Hong Kong from the one that welcomed millions of people fleeing the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and Maoist political campaigns, who have made the city what it is today.



                    • Hongyu Wang