Joyce Man writes for South China Morning Post on 5 March 2013
Three African men have taken their challenge against Hong Kong’s system for vetting refugee claims to the highest court, arguing that the government must assess the applications itself rather than passing the responsibility on to the UNHCR. Lawyers for the men, who have not been identified by name, are making their case at the Court of Final Appeal on Tuesday, after previous rulings against them by lower courts. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which handles refugee claims in Hong Kong, currently handles all refugee claims as Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and is therefore not subject to obligations under it.
But the men are arguing that Hong Kong has obligations under international law, including that it must abide by the principle of non-refoulement – that is, it must not send a person back to a place where they may be persecuted. Their lawyer, Michael Fordham QC, said in court that non-refoulement was a fundamental part of customary international law, from which no government is exempt, and that Hong Kong therefore has a duty to abide by it. The government has a duty to “make an informed and fair decision”, Fordham said and must conduct an inquiry into refugee claims to assess them. The appeal, which began on Tuesday, is scheduled to last three days.
The men – one in his 20s and two in their 30s – remain in Hong Kong. All three earlier had their applications for refugee status rejected by the UNHCR, as well as their appeals. One man comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and two from the Republic of Congo. The man from the Democratic Republic of Congo is an ethnic Tutsi who says he had been trained as an army intelligence officer. He claims he could not leave his unit, which had committed human rights abuses, without endangering his life and his family. He said he was arrested in 1998 and tortured, before fleeing to Rwanda, then Uganda, Korea and finally Hong Kong in 2004. One of the claimants from the Republic of Congo claims he had to flee the country after being pursued by a gang. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2004, after travelling to Ethiopia and Thailand. The last appellant claims he was forced to flee after distributing literature for and supporting an opposition political party in his country. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2003. The hearing continues.
South China Morning Post supports our protest with this editorial on 5 March 2013
Statistics about the number of refugees in the world tend to be mind-numbing. They do not do justice to their precarious plight. A simple example does it better, such as a letter from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong crying poor. It informs the city’s 132 people with official refugee status that the UNHCR is cutting their monthly cash assistance from HK$500 to – nothing. The organisation blames the drain on its financial resources of events around the world, including a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria and violent regime change resulting from the “Arab Spring”.
The refugees do not have the right to work. This leaves them totally dependent on government rent assistance of HK$1,200 a month paid to landlords, groceries every 10 days and assistance with other basic necessities such as toiletries and transport to appointments with UNHCR or the government. Refugees have long ceased to pose a challenge to Hong Kong society, which was once a haven for Vietnamese fleeing political turmoil. But, for officialdom, memories of those times die hard. It is understandable that the government is wary of opening the floodgates to refugee claimants. But that seems a weak reason to leave refugee screening to the UNHCR and turn our backs on genuine cases.
Although the government has sought to fill the UN funding gap in the past by extending its humanitarian assistance programme, refugee groups understandably find the latest cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is, therefore, in the public interest that they are enabled to live with dignity while they await settlement elsewhere. It seems odd that Hong Kong is signatory to the convention against torture, which has led to hundreds of asylum claims, but not the UN convention relating to the status of refugees. We set great store by good safeguards for fundamental rights for citizens. The same spirit should prevail for those who turn to us for help.
Hello, my name is Monica and I am a MSW candidate at HKU, as well as a Vision First intern. Over the past months we have organized a well-attended programs for VF ladies to come together for support, solidarity and a little fun – something sorely missing in their current lives. Last Wednesday, a group of refugee women, together with their children, had a great time at Deep Water Bay Beach, a place where none of them had been before, despite being a short bus ride from Central. These ladies, coming from different countries, are members of the Vision First “Cooking & Storytelling Group”. There are few things women like better than chatting while sharing cooking tips and stories about their families, countries and experiences. They have happily attended this group weekly for three months already and have formed deep, supporting friendship with one another. It was the first time these ladies left the concrete jungle behind to enjoy sunshine and fresh air in Hong Kong – the best things in life are truly free!
“I really want to thank you for giving us such a beautiful day!” Magda from East Africa said to volunteers at the end of the outing. As a matter of fact, the ladies themselves contribute greatly to the preparation. Some helped to bring members who did not know the location, some brought BBQ materials and carried all the way to the beach, some took care of the children when others were busy broiling the food. To them, cooking and sharing had become a delightful way to fight the anxieties in refugees’ lives and also make new friends. And the sunshine and fresh air on the bay area indeed relieved them from Hong Kong’s merciless city life. On a bright sunny day like this, the ladies could finally wear their beautiful make up, put on their colorful dresses and be who they truly are. As Fatima walked to the beach, she stood in the middle of the ocean water and looked into the far way mountains, she seemed to be embracing her moment of Zen.
The children also had a lot of fun. They quickly became friends and played together. They climbed up near the fence to watch the boats floating on the water; they chased each other through the paths between the BBQ sites; they hide from their moms who were eager to check how much food was left in their mouths. Then they held hands and posed expertly for the camera, as if they were stars on a magazine shoot! After the BBQ, the ladies and children went to the beach to play by the water together. Rashmi with her son and a friend’s little girl went into the bay and had a fun water fight. Their clothes were soaked, but their laughter was like music. The picture of Rashmi gently holding her boy in the middle of the water, became a touching memory to the volunteers. However, nobody would argue that this photo below perfectly captures the wonderful spirit of that sunny afternoon of friendship and hope.
Here is a song composed and sung by our very own Emmanuel Prah, a man with a deep soul. He came to Hong Kong to seek refuge in 2005 and experienced the many ups and downs of this experience - mostly downs actually. A passionate musician, Emmanuel contributes his talent to several churches and finds in music the consolation and hope that reality deprive him of. In a friend’s home studio, he arranges and records songs that witness the unconquered spirit of marginalized souls who enduringly refuse to stay down when trodden upon. In September 2012 his torture claim was predictably rejected. The Notice of Determination explained that, “your country is taking charge of those who are torturing people and now there is no danger there.” Understandably, our friend wasn’t willing to accept HK Government’s assurance on the matter!
What is noteworthy is that Emmanuel is married to a lovely Hong Kong wife and the couple had already applied for a dependent visa. Given these circumstances no consideration, Immigration proceeded to arrest and detain a ‘future citizen’ with the firm intention of removing him from the city. There are many individuals in this position and Vision First regrets Immigration’s lack of consideration towards those married to Hong Kong partners - who will in due process become fellow citizens. It appears to us shortsighted and counterproductive to incarcerate the legitimate spouses, and often parents, of HK citizens for failing to secure international protection against Immigration’s 100% rejection rate. What message are the authorities sending their soon-to-be compatriots? What do children think of a government that removes their parents?
Please click here to listen to Emmanuel’s “Yes we can” … dedicated to the overworked folk at Immigration Department.
Betty Cheng writes for Oriental Daily on 27 February 2013
7．1起實施 生活更困難 – 聯合國難民署駐港職員莊小姐向本報表示，由於全球難民問題嚴峻，位於瑞士的總署將在世界各地分署削減開支，故本港分署亦難以幸免，今年七月一日開始會取消向在港難民提供的五百元現金津貼，該署亦明白取消津貼後，難民生活會更加困難，正聯絡志願團體向難民提供協助。
一直協助在港難民的志願團體Vision First負責人Cosmo Beatson指，由於難民不能在港工作，沒有收入，雖然港府會向每名難民支付約一千二百元租金津貼，及每十日提供糧食，但因本港租金昂貴，在深水埗租住一個房間至少要一千八百元，故難民署取消五百元津貼，將令難民生活更加困難，故希望港府能伸出援手，向難民提供實報實銷的租金津貼。
John Carney writes for South China Morning Post on 27 February 2013
In a shock move, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong (UNHCR) has announced that it will cut all financial aid to recognised refugees living here. There are 132 people with official refugee status in Hong Kong. Each one receives HK$500 from the UNHCR per month. But this will now be stopped from June. In a letter sent to all refugees in Hong Kong, the organisation said the events happening around the world, such as the recent unrest and violence in Syria and the lingering 2008 global financial crisis, have led to budget cuts. All their offices worldwide have been asked to take similar measures.
“We regret to inform you that we do not have enough money to continue to provide monthly cash assistance to refugees after June 2012,” the letter read. “As a result, the last cheque will be distributed in early May.” Refugees in Hong Kong get government assistance with rent (HK$1,200 per month, paid directly to the landlord), groceries every ten days and other basic necessities, such as toiletries and money for transport to UNHCR/government appointments. This is given in kind – not in cash – by the International Social Service, commissioned by the Social Welfare Department.
Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First – an agency that works with refugees – reacted angrily to the decision. “This shocking move comes hard on the heels of cuts last year. It seems aggravating refugees’ suffering is now the UNHCR’s policy, rather than offering them protection,” Beatson said. The change comes after the organisation raised the amount it paid refugees last November from HK$300 to HK$500. Philip Karani head of the UNHCR in Hong Kong defended the move. “Of course, we’d like to keep supplying refugees here with this money but unfortunately our budget just cannot sustain it,” he said. “The reality is, we have to respond to different emergencies around the world … where many people are suffering.” However, Beatson did not accept this decision. “Last year HK$30 million was raised for the UNHCR here. But what good does this do the refugees in Hong Kong?” he said. “Refugees only received a pittance anyway. Now a vital lifeline has been taken away from them.”
Rumours are coursing around town that UNHCR is closing its Hong Kong office. Some say they are moving to Macao. Others say they have run out of money. Yet, others report the Government is closing them down. Perhaps unaware of this disappointment-driven gossip, the commissioner hasn’t released a statement on the matter. However, we are quite certain UNHCR will continue to operate its Hong Kong office. It couldn’t be otherwise, since Hong Kong is a fundraising goldmine.
Partly explaining the turmoil, a UNHCR circular was delivered to our office on February 19. The letter carried the bad news that “we do not have enough money to continue to provide monthly cash assistance to refugees after June 2013.” The unsigned statement continued, “we sincerely regret the inconvenience that this has caused” closing with dramatic irony, “Please do not hesitate to let us know your feedback as your valuable opinions are important to us.”
Over the week, the circular was explained to 140 refugees with the assurance that, “we will continue to try to persuade (other parties) to complement UNHCR’s assistance whenever and however possible.” This leaves us wondering: how is it possible to complement a zero contribution? Further, it “assure” readers that “there are no changes to the UNHCR-Christian Action Refugee Support Programme”. Except for its backbone check-issuance service. Needless to say the community has well understood the illogicality and is outraged by this agency’s inability to take refugees needs seriously. We are pleased that UNHCR recognizes that “life is very difficult for refugees in Hong Kong, as you have no legal status, are not allowed to engage in income-generating activities, and have limited access to community resources. We understand that many refugees have used the allowance to help cover the cost of rent and utilities or other living essential items.” It stretches the mind to imagine how acknowledgement and sympathy benefit penniless refugees hanging by a threat at the margins of society? We wonder what misdirected policy terminates a vital lifeline without first establishing alternative solutions. Shouldn’t substitute aid be established before the cut?
Unfortunately, such a behaviour does not come as a surprise. Last year, we repeatedly highlighted their failings (see, for example, UNHCR: evolved into irrelevance). We explained how UNHCR presence in Hong Kong creates the illusion that refugees landing here are properly screened and safeguarded. As a matter of fact, since December 2012 refugees are not even allowed to visit UNHCR with request relating to housing, food, education, medical and advocacy needs; for which they are unceremoniously bounced to other parties to receive minimal assistance or, most often, face refusal.
Importantly, the circular states that “our key objective in Hong Kong is to offer you international protection”. However, a series of dodgy claims are made which grope unimaginative with justifications to cut assistance, blaming “political unrest”, “violence in Syria”, “lingering 2008 global financial crisis” and “painful budgetary cuts”. Assistance was also reduced last year, before Vision First petitioned to have it reinstated to a semblance of adequacy. At that time unrest in Sudan and Mali provided diversionary excuses – there is always an exigency more pressing than those begging before you. Today over 1,500 asylum seekers await UNHCR assessment; several hundreds of them for numerous years and many since before 2005. If protection not fundraising were the genuine focus, there wouldn’t be cases such as Srilankan Mr. YS who lodged a refugee claim in June 2006.
Six years later, in December 2012 YS committed to a debilitating two-week hunger strike until urgent attention to his claim was promised. Last month, in a habeas corpus writ a judge noted, “In October and November 2012, the Immigration Director had repeatedly urged UNHCR to expedite the applicant’s refugee claim. There was no indication from them that the assessment would take a long time. In fact, the applicant’s refugee claim was filed in 2006, it is reasonable to expect that the result would be available within reasonable time.” The judge recorded that Immigration sent letters to UNHCR on 15, 22 and 28 October and 5, 12 and 19 November 2012 urging them to expedite this refugee claim – for which a decision is still pending. Vision First is acutely concerned how waiting seven years achieves UNHCR “key protection objectives”, when justice revolves around the principle of reasonable expectation. In other words, justice delayed is justice denied!
We understand that refugees approach UNHCR in hope of finding a ‘family’ that will protect them with concern and compassion. Instead, to their dismay, they learn that even their physical survival is not a priority at the United Nations. We are at loss to understand policies that effectively deprive help to those at their doorstep, in the name of others in distant countries. This approach is hardly legitimate, when deprivation causes additional hardship to those already in their care. An analogy can be made with a hospital that discharges sick patients to send its doctors far away to cure other people equally in need.
How do refugees feel about receiving four months’ notice without being offered viable alternatives? In Yuen Long there is a family of eight that receives 4,000 HK$ and in June will get none. Across Hong Kong there are a hundred refugees who committed their allowance to pay rent and will likely be evicted by irritated landlords. The mood in the community is bleak: refugees stopped trusting UNHCR long ago. Unfortunately, they were already braced for additional bad news, disappointment and confusion, though it’s tough to face this new reality. Amid the outcry, one Afghan refugee said “In my country we have a saying: if you cannot feed your family, don’t feed your neighbours”. An outraged refugee mother couldn’t contain her anger, “Today the UNHCR is looking very bad. They don’t tell us the truth. They abandon us and write, ‘we will continue to listen to your concerns and feedback’. And what actions will be taken when we tell them how we feel? You let us down! You hurt us!” By issuing this circular, UNHCR not only failed at damage control, but also failed to anticipate the storm it sparked. UNHCR credibility is in tatters. Their usefulness to Hong Kong is called into questioned by legal bodies. Again the commissioner has made clear that aggravating refugee suffering is a matter of policy. This tarnished agency consistently demonstrates it doesn’t take refugees’ welfare as seriously as its own.
Here is UNHCR circular letter to refuges, dated February 18, 2013
Here is our Press Release to all media outlets, dated February 26, 2013
Stuart Lau writes for South China Morning Post on 21 February 2013
Vision First call for the re-screening of cases that were refused
There has been a tenfold increase in the number of people deported after failing to seek sanctuary from oppression in their home countries over the past three years, official figures reveal. The Immigration Department’s screening process for torture claimants was ruled to break local laws and international treaties by the Court of Final Appeal in December. Last year, 677 torture claimants were “deported or removed”, up from 426 in 2011 and just 56 in 2010, according to the Security Bureau’s reply to the Legislative Council yesterday.
Meanwhile, the number of torture claims filed to the government has dropped steadily, down from 1,809 in 2010 to 1,174 last year. Bangladesh is the only country of origin which has seen a rise in the number of nationals claiming to have been tortured. Most of the 1,159 deportees over the three-year period came from Indonesia, followed by India and Pakistan. At the other end of the scale, just three were from Ghana and Cameroon. All the deportees’ claims had been “finally determined as unsubstantiated”, the bureau said. It did not address the court’s ruling in its Legco response but said immigration officers would adhere to “the ‘highest standards of fairness’ as required by the court”.
Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, a charity that assists torture claimants, said no more deportation should be made at this stage. “We call for the rescreening of cases that were refused,” he added. He said all the department’s decisions involved rejections, calling it a “mathematical impossibility”. He added that in Europe and Australia, applications by torture claimants had a 25 to 38 per cent success rate.
Written reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, to a question by the Hon Dennis Kwok in the Legislative Council today February 20
Number of torture claimants by country of origin (2010 – 2011 – 2012)