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 and a simple PDF version is here.
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.
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The website 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/