Hong Kong Court Denies Refugees Right to Work

Te-Ping Chen writes for The Wall Street Journal on 18 February 2014

Hong Kong’s top court on Tuesday denied the city’s refugees—some of who live in slum-like conditions—the right to work, disappointing activists who say the decision is likely to force more refugees into deeper poverty.

The financial capital’s treatment of refugees has come under fierce criticism in recent years. Until a court ruling last year, Hong Kong refused to handle many asylum requests, effectively outsourcing them to the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which helped refugees find homes elsewhere. The city doesn’t allow recognized refugees to permanently settle inside its borders, instead requiring them to seek homes overseas.

That process of resettlement can take a decade or more, and in the meantime, many refugees and asylum-seekers live in squalid shacks dotting the city’s periphery. Hong Kong technically allows refugees to work, but they must first seek approval from the immigration department, which rarely grants it, lawyers say. If they work without permission, they risk jail time.

On Tuesday, Cosmo Beatson of refugee-advocacy group Vision First lambasted the court’s decision, calling it “massively disappointing.” Other developed nations, he notes, such as the U.S., grant refugees the right to work.

“The right to work is a fundamental right,” he said. “The fact that we’ve had refugees who’ve been recognized 10 years ago and still can’t work is absolutely outrageous.”

Advocates say allowing refugees to work would have a limited impact on society, given that there are currently only around 100 recognized claimants in the city.

In its ruling, Hong Kong’s court unanimously dismissed the appeal of four applicants identified in the judgment by their initials. The applicants hail from Burundi, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and all resided in Hong Kong for around a decade without the ability to work.

According to Daly & Associates, the law firm representing them, three of the four applicants are suffering from major depression or schizophrenia because of both the terrors they have suffered in the past and as a consequence of their uncertain status in Hong Kong.

“This is not a case about ‘immigrants’ taking ‘our jobs,’” said the firm’s Mark Daly.  “It is a case about basic human dignity.”

Though three of the applicants can now work, Mr. Daly notes, they were given temporary permission, which expires this year, only after filing their latest appeal with the court.

A spokesman for city’s security bureau, meanwhile, said that it welcomed the court’s judgment, adding that the government had “been acting and will continue to act in accordance with the law in a fair and reasonable manner.”

A refugee from Bangladesh stands at the doorstep to his room at a compound where asylum-seekers reside in the Ping Che area of Hong Kong. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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InMedia on the Eastweek article

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TVB “Closer Look” on the Unified Screening Mechanism

For six and a half years our situation is unchanged here. Each day we die and wake up again. Why? Because we don’t have any choice. We are very peaceful people. Everyone respects the law. We are only waiting for a fair decision from the Immigration Department.” – Tariq, Pakistan

The wasted eight years of mine. Nothing (can explain this). I don’t know how to explain that feeling. It’s so bad. You keep somebody here. He cannot work. He just stays at home. Now I have no future. I am just waiting for my two kids’ future. That’s all.” – Ibrahim, Togo

Until today the screening system has been a failure. It has been a failure on the UNHRC side. As far as the Immigration Department is concerned, we are worried. We are worried because the track record has been very poor. (The recognition rate) is about .02%. If you compare that with any other developed country, where the average is between 25 and 40%, there are good reasons to be concerned.” – Cosmo Beatson

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Demand letters to Eastweek and HK Standard

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This is personal: the fraud case

Dearest Refugees –

Our detractors fired a shot at Vision First and myself – it turned out to be firecrackers … loud, but harmless!

On Tuesday 17 September, Eastweek Magazine published an article, echoed by the Hong Kong Standard, on my personal history and matters from a decade ago. We will comment on allegations made against Vision First in a defamation lawsuit. We will seek damages from journalists, editors and publishers and the cash will be distributed to you.

These articles manipulate certain ‘scandalous information’ that is irrelevant to Vision First’s mission. There is tabloid gossip about models and movie stars that require no comment. For the record, I was not married to Wong Pui Ha, mother of my eldest daughter, Camelot, who many of you know. Further, information about my net-worth is easily available from public records.

The fraud case merits an explanation. From 1992 I pioneered the parallel trade of Mercedes-Benz in Hong Kong, South Asia and China, where I worked entirely in Mandarin. We were wholesale brokers and sold thousands of automobiles till 2008. My company is called Classic Speed Limited and is a property holding since I retired at the age of 42.

Thailand was a big market for Mercedes-Benz and a once-respected client, Mr. Krit, bought hundreds of cars until he had financial problems during the bear market of 2002. Classic Speed operated with its own capital. We never borrowed and took no credit risk. Instead, Krit was heavily indebted and when lenders called in loans during the crisis, he went rogue and cheated us.

In 2002 Mr. Krit stole from us Mercedes-Benz worth 10 million HK$ stored in Bangkok Port. We had the originals Bills of Lading (shipping documents) in our Hong Kong office. However, without our consent and through corrupt Customs connections Mr. Krit removed our goods from bonded warehouses. We never recovered our property and took a massive loss.

We pursued Mr. Krit with police and lawyers in Thailand to no avail. His brother was a high-ranking officer in Bangkok police and Krit greased countless hands to facilitate business. Krit had my partner arrested in Bangkok for months on false charges. Eventually my partner was allowed to fly back to HK on court bail for medical reasons. He skipped bail as we realized justice would not be served in Thai courts. To this date Thailand remains off limits for us.

Western car dealers have been murdered in Thailand. Krit threatened us openly. We knew our lives were in danger if we ever returned to Thailand. Without legal avenues to fight Krit’s crime, we devised a plan to reduce our losses. Mr. Krit still had a 5 million HK$ letter of credit (LC, banking instrument) open in our favor. We decided to ship cars of lesser value than the ones stated, though still part of ongoing trade with Krit. He had dozens of Mercedes-Benz ready for shipment from Germany, but didn’t have funds to complete the deals.

Our goal was to draw Mr. Krit back to the negotiating table and meet him in Singapore to find a solution. We took the law in our hands in a context where the law was powerless before Krit’s dishonesty. We failed to realize we had broken the law by presenting invoices to HSBC in Hong Kong. In our minds it was international trade between Germany and Thailand, thus under German jurisdiction. We nevertheless held the contracted goods for Krit in Singapore should he finalize the deal.

Our strategy failed. Desperate to extort more money, Mr. Krit reported a select part of our trade dispute to Hong Kong police. Hong Kong is not Bangkok and we had to pay for our mistake. Eventually we were convicted in the District Court and sentenced to 240 hours community service, whereas incarceration is mandatory for LC fraud and particularly of this scale.

The Department of Justice appealed and the case was brought to the High Court. We were sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. However, the judges agreed the “case is wholly exceptional” and suspended the sentenced for two years. We walked out of court, free. Incidentally, we were represented by barrister Keith Young, who was appointed Director of Public Prosecution last week.

In retrospect, the LC fraud was a DUMB idea. It cost us millions of dollars more when we repaid the full amount to Krit, but never got a single Mercedes-Benz back. The “fraud” we devised was purely a business strategy to attempt to recover what had been stolen. We learnt that while there is rule of law in Hong Kong, there is no such thing in Thailand. We paid the price.

To set the record straight, I retired at the end of 2008 when I decided to dedicate 20 years to charity as a personal challenge, not because of business problems. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1992 with 300 USD and have never struggled financially. I entered the charity field exclusively to give back to a city I love, one that welcomed me and offered me great opportunities – unlike it does to refugees.

You may click here to read the High Court judgment.

Please email me if you have any questions: cosmo@vfnow.org

Now let’s get back to business and we all know what the mission is!

Sincerely yours,

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