CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 December 2018

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Call to stop demonising selected groups in society

HONG KONG (SE): A study carried out by the Department of Cultural Studies at the Lingnan University in Fu Tei shows that some reporting on refugees or asylum seekers in Hong Kong is highly biased.
 
A forum organised by the university and the Justice and Peace Commission held at the Living Faith Society Limited in Talentum Bookshop in Yau Ma Tei on August 6 urged people to view reports on refugees or asylum seekers with caution.
 
Speakers at the forum urged Hong Kong people to embrace asylum seekers as their neighbours.
 
The study initially set out to look at editorial changes in the coverage of non-Chinese minority groups in four main Chinese language newspapers, the Ming Po, the Apple Daily, the Wen Wei Po and the Oriental Daily, since the Racial Discrimination Ordinance was implemented in July 2009.
 
However, it discovered along the way that there had only been a small increase in the volume of media coverage between 2007 and 2013 but, on the disturbing side of the coin, beginning from early 2016, there has been a rapid increase in the number of reports on people from south Asian countries, most of which are about crime, and mostly in the Oriental Daily.
 
The sharp increase coincided with a proposal by the former chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, in his policy speech in January 2016 to unilaterally withdraw Hong Kong from the international convention on torture and review the policy of handling non-refoulement claims, together with an overhaul of the Immigration Ordinance.
 
The study revealed that the Oriental Daily had paid little attention to non-Chinese groups prior to the chief executive’s proposal, as there were only 45 reports in 2015.
 
However, in 2016, it suddenly jumped to 53 reports in January, 63 in February and 91 in March.
 
The study also points out that since January 2016, the four newspapers—and especially the Oriental Daily—had set out to create the impression among the public that the present screening system is being abused by asylum claimants, tending to label all of them as fake refugees even though their claims had not been finally processed by the Immigration Department.
 
In reporting on crimes committed by south Asians, the Oriental Daily had tended to create a link between them and fake refugees by adding a totally unrelated paragraph to the story about people abusing the claimant system in Hong Kong.
 
The study points out that reporting of this nature is unprofessional, as apart from anything else, not all non-refoulement claimants are from south Asian countries.
 
Quoting figures from the Immigration Department, it says that while 61 per cent are, 29 per cent are from Vietnam, Indonesia and The Philippines; with the remaining 10 per cent from Africa, the Middle East and other places.
 
On the insidious side, creating this link casts a slur on the many south Asians from Nepal and Sri Lanka who are permanent residents of Hong Kong, a significant number of whom are even born here.
 
The group that conducted the study believes that by demonising non-refoulement claimants or presenting them as a burden on society, the unprofessional reporting from establishment-leaning newspapers could well be tainted with political ambition, paving the way for the government to withdraw from the international convention on torture or impose other stronger measures such as setting up a closed camp, both of which have been threatened.
 
The coordinator of the research, Lisa Leung Yuk-ming, an associate professor from the Department of Cultural Studies, called for true and balanced reporting on non-Chinese minority groups and refugees, instead of the discriminative stereotyping that some media have indulged in.
 
Leung believes the media should also carry positive reports about refugees, especially in the area of how they survive in Hong Kong despite the hurdles that are put in their way.
 
She pointed out that with the popularity of the social media, everyone can be a media person and all then share the responsibility of caution in putting out news or making comments online.
 
Father Franco Mella, who has been fighting for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees for decades, said no one should be labelled a fake refugee, as people do not leave their homes without a strong driving reason, even if it is an economic one.
 
He reminded the people of Hong Kong to be more concerned about those who leave their homeland to look for a better life, as most of their ancestors fled from mainland China to escape political prosecution or economic hardship.
 
In urging people to embrace refugees and treat them as brothers and sisters, he quoted Leviticus 19:34 as saying, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
 
Father Mella added that he finds it ridiculous that asylum seekers or refugees are not allowed to get jobs and are normally be jailed for 18 months under Hong Kong law if they are caught doing work.
 
He added that the Immigration Department lacks the ability to properly manage its prisons, as cells are packed in an inhumane manner with poor hygiene.
 
The Italian missionary said refugees have their own family burdens and need a normal income like everyone else.
 
He related how together with a group of volunteers, he took part in a protest outside the Labour Department on March 8 last year to demand employment opportunities for asylum seekers and refugees.
 
He lamented that while that protest was ignored by the newspapers, the media gave a lot of coverage the next month to the murder of the owner of a convenience store in Yau Ma Tei.
 
He recalled that the murderer was first erroneously identified by some media as a refugee, but was later found to be a Canadian of Vietnamese ethnicity, which was regarded as a minor misrepresentation that no one paid much attention to.
 
Father Mella runs a centre in Mongkok to support asylum seekers and refugees, where people meet every Wednesday to discuss their situation and how they can fight for their rights.
 
It has now been established for 15 years and also provides language and computer courses.
 
He added that another petition was scheduled to be delivered to the Central Government Offices on August 15 expressing disappointment over the rejection of an application from over 10 asylum seekers from the Central Africa Republic, where a war is still raging.
 
Jeffery Andrews, a social worker from Christian Action, an organisation that works to support asylum claimants, said it is difficult for asylum seekers to live on the limited allowance they receive from the Social Welfare Department.
 
Andrews says that he believes they often need to be subsidised by non-government organisations or Church groups, as the monthly allowance which is made up of $1,500 per adult for housing, a supermarket coupon for $1,200, transport averaging $200 per person and $300 for utilities, only allows skeletal subsistence living.
 
He pointed out that at present non-refoulement claims are investigated by the Immigration Department, which may not understand the real situation in the claimants’ home countries.
 
He revealed that many of them have told him their cases were rejected, as the immigration officer, after reading a few simplified news reports or tourism websites from their home countries, believed that it should be safe for the claimant to go home.
 
However, the social worker said an asylum seeker can be caught and tortured once they enter their own country even after a war has ended, especially if they are a former soldier in a civil war or a political dissident, but the immigration department sometimes fails to look at individual cases.
 
Andrews believes that although asylum seekers can get legal aid to appeal a decision, they also need a lawyer with political sensitivity to help them. But such lawyers are seriously lacking in Hong Kong.
 
At present, there are around 10,000 non-refoulement claimants in Hong Kong. However, only 0.75 per cent, or 13.2 people are successfully determined to be refugees each year.
 
One refugee shared during the forum that he came to Hong Kong in 2005 to flee from the civil war in Sri Lanka and his refugee status was recognised in 2010.
 
However, he explained that it is difficult to judge when it is safe to go back to Sri Lanka to see his wife and daughter.
 
In addition, there are still no updates from the United Nations Refugee Agency about his application for resettlement in other countries.
 
The displaced Sri Lankan said he cannot survive on his limited allowance and has no choice but to look for work, even though he understands that he could be jailed.

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