While more than a million refugees have traveled across Europe in 2015 to avoid political conflicts, violence and abuse, refugee crises are not isolated to the western continent. Hong Kong has seen its own set of issues where asylum seekers lack the proper legal aid, money, psychological support and security to recover during the long, winding screening and resettlement process.
Piya Muqit, Executive Director of human rights NGO Justice Centre Hong Kong, explains why she thinks we have a refugee crisis right here in Hong Kong.
A human rights lawyer, Piya Muqit has been in the nonprofit legal sector for 19 years. She pursued a law degree after college and as well as a masters in human rights, practicing as a barrister until 2007. Muqit transitioned to the nonprofit sector and worked at several UK and European organizations including Refugee Legal Centre, Freedom from Torture, Redress Trust and UNICEF. After 19 years in the field, Muqit joined The Justice Centre as Executive Director in 2015.
1. A new system has made things messier
The 1951 Refugee Convention has not been extended to Hong Kong, which means the country is not bound by international law in the same way that other countries are. The territory does not have a legal obligation to grant refugee status, but it does have a duty not to deport people back to places where they may face a risk of persecution, inhumane punishment or torture.
The status quo in Hong Kong is, since March 2014, the USM [Unified Screening Mechanism to process claims]. It was rolled out as the new system for determining if someone has a bona fide persecution or torture claim or a claim based on cruel and inhumane punishment – those are the only scenarios where you can be recognized as a refugee.
We’re seeing delays in processing the claims. We’re seeing poor decision-making at the first instance levels, so we’re seeing many claims going up to appeals state. From March 2014 to date, there have been 18 individuals recognized as refugees out of around 5,400 processed, and there were approximately 10,000 applications in the system, although it’s hard to have up-to-date figures as the government does not publish official stats.
2. The system forces refugees to become “illegal immigrants”
An illegal immigrant is a person who is in a country where they do not have permission to enter. So that’s what illegal immigrant means – it means you don’t have a tourist visa, dependency visa, or work visa. You haven’t claimed through the USM and you have no administrative status. The only way you can claim protection in Hong Kong is to become illegal. The Government is describing refugees as “illegal immigrants” as well, which only serves to stoke public misunderstanding and even xenophobia.
3. Refugees are left to languish in Hong Kong
They have a modest housing allowance of $1,500 a month and are given food vouchers equivalent to about $1,200 a month. Often the claimants have to find a top-up from church groups or humanitarian agencies because Hong Kong rent is so astronomical.
A refugee can wait for years with no assurance that they can actually resettle in another country and, practically speaking, that’s only the US and Canada. We have people, with proven claims and recognized status, who have been here for decades, with no right to work.
To seek permission to work from the Director of Immigration, you need to have a job offer first and the permission can take in excess of 12 months and, by that point, how many employers are going to hold a job open? This process has many bureaucratic hurdles, can take a very long time and permission has only been granted in a handful of highly exceptional cases.
4. The government influences public opinion
The government’s response to the European refugee crisis is to frame the refugee situation in Hong Kong to say that there are multiple numbers of “fake” claims or “illegal immigrants” – so it seems like they are abusing the system and that all refugees are also involved in criminal activity.
5. People have misconceptions of ‘refugees’
The only way to get to Hong Kong is really by plane or by ship. And the idea that a refugee has gotten on a plane and arrived here immediately can suggest, ‘Well, how did they afford the plane ticket and the passport, and they got through immigration so are they really a refugee?’
We associate refugees with poverty, but many times, a refugee may actually have been someone from the elites in their country of origin, often persecuted for their political opinion, for example.
It cannot be that refugees are left to languish in Hong Kong for the next 50 years. It’s about changing public opinion and reminding Hongkongers of the history of Hong Kong — many of whom are descendants of refugees who fled persecution from China during the Cultural Revolution and the civil war. People coming now are not so different from their great grandparents or grandparents who came to Hong Kong and made a life here.
I would like to see a situation where the public talks about refugees positively and sees this population as an asset to society. In Asia Pacific there isn’t a regional leader on refugee issues. Someone should take that position, and why not Hong Kong?