Today is UN Human Rights Day,and HKRAC is proud to have an article published in the South China Morning Post calling for the Hong Kong government to put human rights at the centre of their new asylum policy. We urge our supporters to use this day to share this call and highlight the difficulties faced by so many refugees and asylum seekers who come to this city:a beacon of wealth,development and democracy,but which barely provides the minimum for the small number of people seeking protection from terrible persecution in their home countries.
On UN Human Rights Day,Aleta Miller,Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre’s Executive Director,calls on the government to put human rights at the centre of their new asylum policy.
Asylum is a human right. This is one of the fundamental messages at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),proclaimed by the UN General Assembly 65 years ago today. This right to asylum exists alongside other basic entitlements that many of us take for granted:the right to life,the right to liberty and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
For asylum is a human right and,like the others enshrined in the UDHR,it applies to all of us equally,regardless of race,faith or creed. It even applies to you and me,but for most of us,it is thankfully one we will never have to exercise.
However,to those 15.4 million refugees fleeing from persecution around the world,this right to asylum is their potential lifeline;the one belonging they can hold on to when they have to leave everything else behind;their due that should protect them on whomever’s doorstep they land.
There are currently only around 6,000 people seeking protection in Hong Kong,fleeing from persecution in countries such as Afghanistan,Somalia and Syria. One of the most common questions we at Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre are often asked by the public is:“Why do refugees choose to come here?” The simple answer is they don’t;when you are fleeing for your life,where you’re going is the last thing on your mind,our clients tells us. Indeed,if they were fully aware of Hong Kong’s refugee policy,they would most likely go somewhere else.
Historically,Hong Kong does not recognise refugees and unlike most developed economies,is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Where the Hong Kong government has shirked its responsibilities,UNHCR –the UN Refugee Agency –has filled in,hearing refugee claims here.
The Hong Kong government has however signed up to the UN Convention Against Torture and in 2004,set up a screening mechanism to assess cases in line with this convention. Since then,it has granted only around ten claims.
Refugees in our city of plenty must currently subsist on inadequate welfare support,which includes small amounts of sometimes rotten food every five days and
HK$ 1200 per month rental assistance,which doesn’t get you much in the city with the most expensive real estate in the world. As a result,refugees are often forced to live on the margins in precarious settlements that can hardly qualify as formal housing.
But we are currently at a crossroads in Hong Kong’s refugee history. There is imminently an opportunity for change and for Hong Kong to put itself on the map as a world city in every way. A landmark decision by the Court of Final Appeal in March forced the government’s hand,ruling that it,not UNHCR,should determine asylum cases from now on. In response,the Immigration Department announced its intention to adopt a Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) by the end of the year,bringing asylum claims together with torture and cruel,inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment claims under one process. It will still not recognise people as refugees.
But as we arrive at the end of the year,nothing is yet in place and despite calls from us and other refugee groups,no further information has been provided. Vulnerable women,men and children who have already been waiting years for decisions on their futures are further suspended in interminable limbo.
On this historic day,we call on the Hong Kong government to put human rights at the heart of the upcoming system. As the now primary duty-bearers towards refugees,they have a renewed responsibility to meet their human rights obligations and can no longer rely on NGOs to fill the gaps.
Under the new policy,the government should expand and enhance legal assistance to refugees;they must overhaul the humanitarian assistance package to meet the costs of Hong Kong;and they should review right to work,tertiary education and vocational training to allow refugees and their children some sort of life here while they prepare for resettlement.
In imagining his vision for South Africa as a microcosm of the new world still to be born,the late and great human rights leader Nelson Mandela said:“This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights,a world freed from the horrors of poverty,hunger,deprivation and ignorance… and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.” We would urge our leaders to share his vision for their new system about to be born. It’s long overdue.