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/
Aleta Miller writes for South China Morning Post on 1 May 2013
Imagine you are faced with an impossible choice. You must survive in Hong Kong on HK$1,200 a month for housing and three bags of food every 10 days, or you can risk working illegally, where you will likely face exploitation by unscrupulous employers who will take advantage of your vulnerability, and where you face possible arrest and prosecution by the authorities, with severe penalties. This is the dilemma that refugees in Hong Kong face every day, condemned to a life of deprivation and uncertainty. Unfortunately, misconceptions are rife about who refugees are and why they are here, feeding a fear that allowing the right to work would open the floodgates to economic migrants. Whereas an economic migrant chooses to come to Hong Kong to better their prospects, a refugee is forced to flee and cannot return because they are persecuted – sometimes by their own states. Currently, the refugee-status determination and resettlement process for applicants takes years to complete. Meanwhile, refugees must grapple with making ends meet in an unfamiliar city with no legal right to work or volunteer and relying on minimal welfare assistance that is inadequate for the cost of living.
Refugees are essentially forced into the very dependence for which they are often criticised, although they would prefer to be self-sufficient, if given the choice. The right to work is not the right to a guaranteed job; it is the right to have access to the labour market. It is a fundamental human right, without which other rights become meaningless. It is about more than being able to make a living; work is crucial for dignity, self-esteem and a sense of purpose. And poverty goes beyond unmet material needs – it also denies participation in society and personal autonomy over decisions that affect one’s life. The status quo is inefficient and creates perverse incentives. The right to work would make refugees more self-reliant and allow them to contribute to the economy; their valuable skills are untapped potential. By being granted the right to work, refugees would also contribute to the tax base, as well as be better prepared for resettlement. Access to livelihood opportunities would deter people from having to turn to the unregulated, informal economy or other means just to survive – reducing crime and labour abuses.
Social harmony would be improved by allowing those who are largely cut off from society to interact more with local people, playing a vital role in changing public perceptions. Exhausted arguments that the right to work would create a “magnet effect” are employed to justify the government’s tough stance on refugee protection. Based on the experience of other jurisdictions, there is a lack of empirical evidence to support this claim, and the level of apprehension is disproportionate given the actual numbers: there are fewer than 100 recognised refugees in a population of more than seven million. The potential gains of granting refugees a legal right to work – for productivity, social cohesion, refugees’ mental and physical health and for our reputation as a world-class city where rights are respected – far outweigh the costs of doing nothing. On Labour Day, when we show solidarity with workers and honour their contributions, let’s not forget to extend our support to those who are still denied access to this basic right.
John Jacob writes for the Pakistan Christian Post on 30 April 2013
In Hong Kong, last Saturday on the April 27th over five hundred torture claimants and asylum seekers joined a protest against the “zero percent acceptance” . This protest was organized under non-profit, independent and a private organization called “Vision First”. These torture claimants told the interviewers, that many of them are living here for more than 10 years but the government wants them to go back to their countries where they can be persecuted. There are over 4000 who are hanging in the space for their future and waiting to put their first step on the land of freedom.
Among these 4000 plus, there are 30 Pakistani Christians who were able to escape persecution and many were severely persecuted, falsely accused and threaten by the government and Muslim religious parties of Pakistan. They are very much under pressure, stressed and worried what will happen to them if they will be removed back to Pakistan. What Christians are facing in Pakistan has been noticed and seen by the international media and United Nations but failed to stop injustice, false accusations of blasphemy, killing, kidnapping, gang raping, property snatching, threat calls, church attacks etc. Once if someone is target by Muslim groups it’s almost impossible for a person to escape.
They can’t go to police because police does not help them but always give favor to the Muslims. Because the entire Muslim community thinks that Christians are second class citizens and infidels therefor they have not equal rights with them which causing Christians to seek protection in different parts of the country but it seems there is no such place which you can say it’s safe now.The 30 Pakistani Christians here in Hong Kong appeals to the government of Hong Kong for not to remove them back, but to protect them. Pakistani Christians are peaceful, loyal and good citizens. This is also an appeal to the international community to write to the government of Hong Kong the injustice what Christians are facing in Pakistan.