“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”
reads Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was proclaimed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and is widely recognised by most countries. And yet we have witnessed so much of its failings in recent months when the refugee crisis heightened across the globe. While it seems that Hong Kong is very far away from the happenings in Europe as they are dealing with the influx of asylum seekers, and is not affected by the Rohingya issues originated in Myanmar, we are experiencing an increasingly hostile atmosphere against migrants and asylum seekers stirred up by local media and politicians.
In view of the current social atmosphere, Amnesty International Hong Kong and HK Community Connect collaborated in April to host an event specifically on the topic of refugees and asylum seekers in the hope to rebut some of the most bogus comments against this vulnerable group of people. We invited Mark Daly, human rights lawyer and Principal of Daly & Associates, and Zamira Monteiro, Public Engagement Coordinator of Justice Centre Hong Kong, to speak about their work and personal experiences in handling refugee cases. It was also our pleasure to invite an asylum seeker in Hong Kong Andrew (name altered to protect his/her identity) to speak about his personal experience going through the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) and the injustices he encountered in this system.
In his sharing, Mark mentioned several cases and anecdotes which he provided legal support to asylum seekers and represented them as a legal counsel. In one case, the asylum seeker was eventually recognised as a refugee and was resettled to Canada. Mark told us this was one of the few cases he felt satisfied with. “I and my family visited his family in Canada. Their kids were bumping around… This would not have happened if his case was not successful”, said Mark. In response to a question from the audience, Mark also expressed his concerns over government’s denying asylum seekers their right to work and only providing less than $3000 allowance per month to these people, subjecting them to a destitute living condition in Hong Kong. He encouraged the audience to “get informed with the genuine situations of refugees by reading balanced news”.
Echoing Mark’s speech, Zamira began her sharing by asking the audience if their parents or grandparents are migrants from countries and cities outside Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, many members of the audience have parents or grandparents either from mainland China or other countries. “Currently, in Hong Kong, we have a crisis but it is not a refugee crisis. We do not have a refugee crisis in Hong Kong because the number of refugees coming into our city is really not high. Instead, we have a crisis of fear”, said Zamira. She criticised that there have been a considerable amount of media and politicians generating fearmongering statements against torture protection claimants recently, which created an intimidating atmosphere for these vulnerable people. “People called us asking why the media and politicians are attacking them and would these comments affect their applications for torture claims. People are scared.” In light of recent events, Justice Centre is working with refugees in a programme called Voice for Protection in order to train them to advocate for their rights in different occasions.
Both Mark and Zamira believed quitting the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) will not automatically solve the current “refugees issues” in Hong Kong, as proposed by various politicians. Zamira reminded us that “the UNCAT does not only protect the right of asylum seekers but also the right of every person in Hong Kong not to be tortured.” In fact, if Hong Kong opts to withdraw from the Convention, it will waive the legal liability of Hong Kong government in cases of tortures or inhumane treatments and will lead to a disastrous aftermath.
As a city taking pride of its international and multicultural heritage, it is truly sad to see recent xenophobic sentiments in Hong Kong society fueled by politicians and media outlets. Although Hong Kong is not a party to United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, we still have an international obligation of non-refoulment as stipulated in UNCAT. Hong Kong government should not hide away from its obligation and should streamline all torture protection claims in no time. USM system should be accelerated in order to avoid any abuse of the system and the government should create a welcoming atmosphere for everyone who is seeking refuge in this city.