“HONG KONG HOLDS REFUGEES IN A STATE OF CONTEMPT”
On 17 November 2015, the Permanent Secretary for Security, Joshua Law, delivered the Hong Kong Government’s report to the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture, in Geneva Switzerland. In our view, it was a narrow and biased self-appraisal that conspicuously overlooked widespread criticism and growing concerns about the fairness of the city’s asylum process.
Mr. Law articulated a very good case on behalf of the Government of Hong Kong, stating that “The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has always strived to protect human rights and the requirements and commitments under the Convention against Torture … and other international human rights instruments”.
Further, he surprisingly assured the Committee that Hong Kong “exceeded the requirements under Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture.” The report by Mr. Law highlighted another achievement: the provision of “humanitarian assistance to all the claimants (accommodation, food, clothing and other basic necessities, transportation and utilities allowances, medical services and education for minors).”
The Refugee Union maintains that the report is not only misleading, but also dishonest. It demonstrates to what length the Government is willing to go to project an image of a perfect “John be good” with the international community that has little direct knowledge or experience of asylum in this city. It is indeed disappointing that the Government’s rosy picture is entirely disconnected from reality, measured according to unpublished standards and unrated by agencies charged with investigating government performance.
Since the USM was launched in March 2014, it has failed to address the shortcomings it arguably intended to fix. The mechanism is no better at protecting refugees than previous systems deployed since 1992, when Hong Kong signed the UN Torture.
Convention – in twenty-three years Hong Kong substantiated 37 of over 18,000 asylum claims. The abysmal acceptance rate speaks volumes about the contempt in which refugees are held.
The politics behind USM have instead been successful in promoting the divisive terminology of “fake/genuine” refugees which has been regrettably manipulated by the media into public discourse. Rather than honestly analyzing its own failures and weakness, the Government has vigorously engaged in a massive propaganda to discredit refugees in the eyes and minds of the local community.
This strategy however might not be convincing for everyone. In fact, many Hong Kong citizens have become increasingly curious and interested in refugees and are asking very relevant questions. The Refugee Union has been interviewed hundreds of times especially by graduate students who find it perplexing how refugees are treated. We are asked: Why is the acceptance rate so low? Why are you banned from working? How do you support yourself with inadequate welfare? How does it feel to live such a hard life? How do you survive without hope for the future?
The Security Bureau through its periodic reports to Legco frequently emphasizes that the Government of Hong Kong does not have a system in place to screen refugees, since it is not party to the UN Refugee Convention. Therefore the Government is not obliged to recognize refugees, nor does it integrate them into society. Instead they should be removed from Hong Kong as soon as practicable. This is very confusing. On the one hand, the Government says it does not have a screening system in place, but on the other, it says that the USM performs such a role. It is no wonder that more and more journalism students are approaching refugees striving to make sense of harmful policies and the reality they witness through speaking to refugees.
The Government report claims that Hong Kong exceeds the requirements of the UN Torture Convention without specifying exactly what it does to meet the needs of refugees. To start, the welfare provided is grossly inadequate and can hardly sustain us. With an unrealistic rental assistance of HK$ 1500 and food coupons worth HK$ 1200 a month, which do not meet our basic needs, how can we make ends meet? It is simply impossible to secure basic accommodation for that price in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The majority of refugees live in squalid conditions crammed together in dilapidated buildings and slums.
There is absolutely no provision for clothes/shoes among other basic necessities. However refugees are forced to sign monthly contracts with ISS-HK stating that we receive clothes and shoes from the Government. It is not surprising that many refugees are forced to resort to risky behavior to bridge the gap left intentionally open by Government failure.
Some refugees provide cheap labor to the underground economy, others might push drugs, engage in prostitution, steal, beg and lie to survive under harsh and prohibited conditions. It is shameful that refugees resort to such survival strategies. But what other options are available to us? It is dishonest for the Government to present such a polished self-satisfying report when it actually fails to safeguard the health and wellbeing of eleven thousand refugees who live in abject destitution.
Education poses another challenge for refugees. The system requires parents to pay schools fees in advance each month before being partially refunded by the Education Bureau. Where are parents expected to obtain this money upfront? Public funding does not include the waver of kindergarten costs, an essential step for children to learn Cantonese. Is this another measure devised to force our social isolation?
Refugees do not enjoy basic human rights as the Government assures the United Nations. In fact, we suffer high levels of discrimination, marginalization and harassment. The Refugee Union strongly objects to the Government assertion that it exceeds its responsibilities in protecting refugees. We hereby invite Committee members to travel unofficially to Hong Kong to gather first-hand data.
The Government’s report to the UN Committee against Torture leaves a bitter taste.
28 December 2015.
The Refugee Union commends the Social Welfare Department on the lifting of restrictions imposed on the use of food coupons issued to the refugee community since June 2015.
According a notice issued by ISS-HK, Hong Kong Government scrapped the conditions imposed on the food coupons effective 1st December 2015. This is an improvement to streamline one of the essentials services we receive.
Again it wasn’t easy, but action by the Refugee Union carried the day. It followed a wave of RU complaints backed by protests and sits-ins by refugees who complained about the embarrassing and dehumanizing restrictions. Why should parents tell children they are not allowed to eat biscuits?
The Refugee Union was at the vanguard of this operation to bring dignity to a service that humiliated many refugees paying for groceries with Wellcome coupons. In an email dated 21 July 2015, the Refugee Union highlighted its dissatisfaction on the way the program was implemented.
We wrote, “The imposition of conditions on food coupons is being perceived in bad faith by the refugee community. There is a general consensus and acceptance that cigarettes and alcohol can be prohibited items. However we disagree with other conditions imposed in exchange for the coupons … All the prohibitions imposed on the coupons ought to be removed with immediate effect.”
The Union requested that SWD evaluate the effectiveness of this policy with a view to improving it forthwith. We explained, “We find these conditions being highly punitive, oppressive and outright discriminatory, the differentiation of coupons issued to the refugee community from other coupons issued by Wellcome Supermarkets in terms of color and the purchasing restrictions that are tied to the user profile discriminates against a group of people who already feels rejected and unwanted by the society”.
On 25 September 2015, the SWD replied, “We are glad to learn that Refugee Union generally welcomes the new provision mode of food assistance to the non-refoulement claimants (i.e. by means of food coupons) which is introduced with a view to widening the food choices and providing more outlets for collection … The food coupon system is a brand new arrangement. We will seriously consider the suggestions on widening the food choices and the suggestions of confining the prohibited items to cigarettes and alcoholic drinks only.”
Refugee Union therefore thanks Hong Kong Government for taking this positive action to improve the livelihood of refugees who sought its protection.