Resisting government labelling and engaging the community: The ‘March For Protection’ in Hong Kong
May 18, 2013
Francesco Vecchio and Cosmo Beatson write for the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, an independent, student run publication that moves to engage with various aspects of forced migration through academic scholarship. The original article is available in the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, Volume 3, Number 1.
This article intends to analyse an event that revealed new avenues for Hong Kong’s civil society to counter the government’s attempt to negate asylum seekers’ individual agency and the government’s opposition towards a comprehensive asylum policy. This article outlines the context which led to the organisation of the ‘March For Protection’ on 30 October 2012.In doing so, it aims to offer a starting point to explore and debate the march’s rationale, attainments and, more generally, civil society’s relationship with state power.
Asylum seekers in Hong Kong recently grabbed the headlines with a protest march in which they demanded fairer screening and rebuffed official and public views that generally depict them as bogus claimants. In the wake of the ‘March For Protection’ (MFP) and widespread English-language press coverage highlighting the difficulties asylum seekers face in the territory (for example Chiu, 2012a; SCMP Editorial, 2012; Kennedy, 2013; Yeung, 2013), civil society and UNHCR Hong Kong’s head-of-office called forcefully for local authorities to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention (Chiu, 2012b; Read, 2013) and address current procedural shortcomings (Daly, 2012; Vision First, 2013a).
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy, it enjoys relatively broad administrative independence in immigration policy. While it is not our intention to delve into China/Hong Kong relations, we note that although the mainland signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and provisions for refugees were included in domestic law, Hong Kong has instead firmly resisted its extension to the territory (Loper, 2010). Nonetheless, the city is a signatory to the 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and a two-track asylum screening system is available to refugees. On the one hand, UNHCR performs refugee screening. On the other, the Hong Kong Government assesses claims under article 3 of CAT, which prohibits the removal of a person to the country where s/he would face torture or other cruel treatment. In spite of its potential to minimise mistakes, this bifurcated asylum reality has been said to give rise to procedural confusion, delays and a wasteful duplication of resources. In fact, refugees’ concurrent or sequential reliance on both mechanisms, affects the understandings of asylum seeking. Additionally, public policy is shaped by Hong Kong’s memory of dramatic mainlander and Vietnamese refugee inflows in the past (Vecchio, forthcoming). The government has repeatedly asserted that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the city would be flooded by waves of illegal migrants posing as asylum seekers to gain entrance and exploit local prosperity (see for example discussions in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, LG, 2011).
There are indications that this and other misconceptions are widespread in the community. A typical statement in this direction was made by scholar Victor Fung (2012), who recently alerted the readers of China Daily that waves of ‘economic migrants’ would inundate the city, working illegally to support their families back home. In his reply to UNHCR’s appeal, Fung warned that were Hong Kong to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the territory would be doomed to ‘sink’ into the harbour and ‘drown’. However, the reasons why such a catastrophic scenario would inevitably unfold were not disclosed. As often happens (see Tao, 2009), the rationale supporting official propaganda on the formation of the Refugee Convention/illegal migration nexus is rarely elucidated, giving us the impression that certain beliefs have become so profoundly ingrained in Hong Kong’s mindset that they amount to tautological truths. While proponents offer no evidence to support the formulation of their views, any attempt to negate them is resisted no matter what evidence is presented to refute their validity.
Click “Read More” below for the full article
Washington DC – Radio Free Asia
May 16, 2013
Click here to read the English translation
University of Hong Kong “Refugee Experience”
May 16, 2013
The University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) within the Faculty of Law approached Vision First to organize a real life experiential learning opportunity for their students. Considered “a day in the life of an asylum advocate”, this opportunity is open to LLB, JD and LLM students who want to learn firsthand about asylum seekers and the challenges they face in Hong Kong. This practical experience will introduce law students to the challenges of seeking refuge from the prospective of aid workers, duty lawyers and refugees themselves. The goal is to expose future lawyers to the reality of asylum that for most remains a theoretical concept, far removed from the challenges and hardships of the process. Through this workshop, students will have a better idea of the struggles that refugees/CAT claimants face, as well as the work dedicated advocates do in the areas of refugee support, protection and rights.
In a city that refugees have described as “a prison without walls”, Vision First has emerged as the watchdog for refugee rights. Those who fear harm in their countries, turn to our organization to counter the structures of injustice and abuse that fetter their existence. Vision First’s leadership in advocacy was evidenced by the latest “March for Protection” in which 800 refugees, asylum seekers and torture claimants protested against a .02% protection rate in 21 years since the Convention Against Torture was extended to Hong Kong. With over 500 refugee members, Vision First is a unique organization where programs, classes and services are deployed to assist the most vulnerable individuals in society. Prohibited from working and provided with insufficient in-kind assistance and no financial aid, refugees scrape through to survive in our expensive city. Effectively reduced to a combination of begging (legally) and working (illegally) to eke out an existence, refugees are criminalized by draconian laws and demonized by government propaganda that brands them economic migrants at best, and criminals deserving deportation at worst. We will prove how grossly unreasonable, and therefore unlawful, this is.
The complexity of the refugee experience will be examined over three full days with the equivalent of 1.5 days spent with Vision First.
- 5 JUNE 2013, AM: Vision First’s centre. Students will be introduced to operations that serve over 50 members daily, including: Hong Kong’s only refugee shelter, case work, class schedule, donation networks, community participation programs, as well as paralegal, education, medical and counselling work. Supported by 90 volunteers who provided 15,000 hours of service in 2012, and distributing over 100,000 HKD in financial aid a month, Vision First is a vibrant agency that serves a vital role in the community.
- 5 JUNE 2013, PM: The second part of the day will be directed by a barrister who is well-known for his robust defense of torture claimants. He will expose the shortcomings of a screening mechanism that accepted only four cases in two decades. Examples will be given about duty lawyers who wholly failed their clients due to negligence in terms of legal representation and research. Case history will stress how important COI research is for effective representation and how issues of trust, trauma and PTSD challenge the recollection of events.
- 6 JUNE 2013, PM: A field trip to the shantytowns hundreds of refugees call home. The students will witness the squalid living conditions that are effectively government sponsored. Students will hear firsthand from refugees about the hardships refugees have endured while waiting in limbo for years, even a decade, as a “Culture of Rejection” frustrates their legitimate demands, in hopes refugees will give up and stop bothering Hong Kong’s affluent citizens and their indifferent administrators.
By the end, it is expected that a street-smart, accurate picture will emerge of an asylum process that is at odds with the lofty ideals students encounter in legal textbooks. This program is a valuable experience for tomorrow’s asylum lawyers – and possibly magistrates and judges – to learn how procedural failures tragically affect the lives of those our laws were enacted to protect. The responsibility will then be upon the participants themselves to influence the change they wish to see in our society.
A PDF of this article is available here and the call for application is here.
Border Criminologies: reporting from Hong Kong
May 13, 2013
Border Criminologies reports on the March for Protection 2
On 27 April 2013 about 800 asylum seekers and torture claimants marched through the streets of Hong Kong to protest the government’s failure to recognize their claims for protection. Pointing out that the current .02% recognition rate of torture claimants lags behind that of liberal democracies with similar refugee demographics, protesters demanded fair screening. They also criticized other socio-legal barriers that asylum seekers face, challenge and clash with on a daily basis while their cases are under review.
Asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not afforded legal status and are forbidden from working. Yet, they are released in society, provided minimal assistance inadequate for their most basic needs. Tissue, water, diapers and other essentials are not included in government provision, while transportation fees to attend interviews are disbursed in lump sums at the beginning of the subsequent month. Meals are also not provided when asylum seekers are required to wait lengthy periods and attend screening interviews. Most endure substandard living conditions, corralled into Hong Kong’s government-funded shantytowns, have been the subject of numerous visits from a concerned NGO.
The protest in April rejected the presumption that asylum seekers are deviant abusers laying siege to Hong Kong for profit. By pushing human rights issues into the political agenda, protesters identified a series of nodes around which activism and research might coalesce. Specifically, they demonstrated the salience of immigration status in any analysis of social inclusion and exclusion. Heavy criminal sentences face those who work, at the same time that the state provides no viable alternative means to survive or flourish. Such policies, protesters argued, have effectively transformed Hong Kong into a ‘prison without walls’ with minimal public debate. Civil society appears to have yielded to state power, accepting securitization discourses that reduce asylum seekers to deportable, yet exploitable labourers.
The April rally questioned the legitimacy of border control policies and practices that infringe upon state obligations under domestic and international law. By taking action, the men and women involved put a face to the grievances of refugees from two-dozen countries. Finally, by organizing a large public demonstration, protesters showed their capacity to negotiate socio-legal exclusion in an attempt to break free from the structural conditions that strangle their lives in ways those with legal status find hard to imagine. Whether their actions will be successful or not it remains to be seen, however the rally demonstrates that, at the very least, the will to resist border control in Hong Kong exists, and ought to be the subject of further academic research.
For more photos of the rally and information about the organisation supporting it see: http://visionfirstnow.org/advocacy/mfp2/
RTHK Kwok Talk: refugee women and family issues
May 10, 2013
Feeding Hong Kong features VF
May 9, 2013
Feeding Hong Kong charity spotlight – Thousands of people are forced to flee their homes every year, abandoning all they know and love to escape persecution. Scared, traumatised and in desperate need of aid, they arrive friendless in countries around the world, including Hong Kong. Vision First, which is based in Sai Ying Pun, works to ensure that they don’t remain friendless for long, stepping in to help feed, clothe and house these people as, now safe, they begin a new journey to rebuild their lives. Refugees cannot remain in Hong Kong and are resettled in another country once their claim for asylum has been processed. That can take several years and, finding a permanent country to call home, even longer. Refugees are not allowed to work. The government instead provides HK$1,200 for rent that is paid directly to landlords, limited groceries every 10 days and transport money. An additional HK$500 monthly allowance from the U.N. is due to end in June.
“With Feeding Hong Kong’s assistance, we can provide more food support to members,’’ said Cosmo Beatson, executive director at Vision First. “They often joke with reports about how `three tomatoes, two potatoes and a chicken’ have to last them for 10 days. FHK’s assistance helps everyone – and especially families – to supplement the little they receive.” Vision First supports more than 500 of these victims of circumstance, about 10 percent of the city’s refugee community. The charity offers practical aid such as food, shelter in the city’s only emergency accommodation for refugees, and access to doctors. Financial support of over HK$100,000 per month is also offered to families struggling to meet daily living expenses, while skills-enhancing workshops teach Cantonese, English, computing and other subjects to improve education and boost morale.
Volunteers form the backbone of Vision First’s efforts. Some 96 individuals committed their time to the charity last year, giving more than 15,000 hours to improve the lives of refugees. Feeding Hong Kong supplies Vision First and its beneficiaries with a delivery of mixed groceries every two weeks. The food is delivered to Vision First’s drop-in centre in Sai Ying Pun, helping the charity bolster the meals of refugees around the city and those staying in its shelter. “Your supplies provide bread, cereals, canned food and easy meals for those who have nothing but a bag to their name,’’ said Beatson. “When they move on to their own place, we are often told how the shelter was home, a safe place when they had none and a warm meal when they were hungry – FHK helps us make the difference.”