The sorry state of our city's refugees
Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, Hamish McKenzie investigates the situation of asylum seekers in Hong Kong, and asks why Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest refugee application rejection rates.
Soldiers have burst into our home and their guns are pointed at our faces. We hit the ground. Shouting, orders, women crying. We follow the assault rifles to a dark field and run across. Mines. Bombs explode in the distance. Screams. Our fellow villagers? Friends? Family?
We make it to the border. A piece of canvas and some bricks. Our home for now. But at least we're alive. Night falls. And shrapnel.
My name is Yaqoob. I'm 41 years old, a farmer. My leg is wounded and I have tuberculosis. I'm here in the camp with my father, Ismael, who is malnourished, deaf, and mute. There is no sleep. For food – stale bread and water – I have to pay the soldiers all my money: 15 Afghanis. To treat my sickness: my shoes. I'm lucky. At least I'm not a woman. But then they find a gun. They want to know if it's mine. They want to know if I'm Taleban.
“Is this your gun?” shouts a soldier in the middle of the night. We're standing in a line outside our tent, all looking at the ground. The soldier found the gun in my tent.
“No,” is all I can offer. They take Ismael instead.
The lights come up. In fact, this has just been a taste of what life can be like for a refugee in a camp. I have only been Yaqoob for 20 minutes. By lunch time, Ismael has turned back into his real form: my 30-year old Scottish editor, Paul Kay. My colleague Bourree Lam has removed her head scarf, and our art director, Dennis Lai, has given up trying to pay for his escape from the 'camp'.
We sit in a circle on the floor in a spartan upstairs room in the old Gurkha army barracks on the Gold Coast and listen to David Begbie debrief us. Until a few minutes ago, he had a scarf round his neck and was ordering us around in a thick accent, eyeballing us from millimetres away and spitting as he barked instructions. Now, the director of Crossroads’ Global Village is calmly explaining to us that the purpose of this simulation – the 'Refugee Run' – has been to open our eyes to the terrible quandary of the displaced. The goal, he says in a voice that is almost too quiet to hear, is “to break some of this societal callousness by allowing people, albeit in a very, very gentle treatment, to for a moment step into the shoes of people in these situations.”
Crossroads – a volunteer-run humanitarian organisation that mainly serves to provide supplies and goods to the needy around the world – has been conducting the Refugee Run and other similar simulations for corporate groups, schools, NGOs, and others since 2005. Some 23,000 people have participated, and this year Begbie took a team to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and business magnate Richard Branson, among other luminaries, took part in an abbreviated version of the Run.
“These are our brothers and sisters,” says Begbie of the Yaqoobs and Ismaels with whom we have just brushed imaginary shoulders. “They could be us.”
Hong Kong's shame
In Hong Kong in any one year, there are between 1,000 and 3,000 asylum seekers, according to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which does refugee status determination here. Separately, there are people who lay claims under the UN's 1984 Convention Against Torture, which forbids states to return people to their home country if there is reason to believe they will be tortured. These are processed by the government.
A lot of arrivals here will both apply for refugee status and lodge a torture claim. If they are successful, they get resettled in another country. While there's a lot of overlap between the two application procedures, this much is unambiguous: Hong Kong gives these people a raw deal. Our system for processing them is a downright mess; a wasteful beast that devours taxpayer money, flouts international law, depletes precious UNHCR resources, and, perhaps most cutting of all, plunges genuine refugees into a tumult of insecurity and uncertainty, as well as psychological and emotional instability.
The problem – though the government won't admit it as such – stems from the fact that Hong Kong never signed the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention. It's not obligated to even process refugees, let alone let them stay here.
“Our unique situation, set against the backdrop of our relative economic prosperity in the region and our liberal visa regime, makes us vulnerable to possible abuses if the 1951 Convention were to be extended to Hong Kong,” an unnamed government spokesperson said in a written statement prepared for Time Out.
The government did, however, sign to the torture convention, which leaves us in the strange position we're in now: with two parallel, half-baked systems that don't even meet basic international legal standards.
“It's unbelievable,” says lawyer Mark Daly, an expat Canadian who has been taking the government to court in test cases on behalf of refugees for more than a decade. “A jurisdiction that is so advanced in many other ways and has ordinances and laws regulating every other area, not to have comprehensive legislation in this area – [it] just boggles the mind.”
Daly is far from a lone voice. In a December 2008 ruling on the torture claim case of FB & Ors v Director of Immigration & Anor, the High Court declared the government's assessment process to be unfair and unlawful because of a lack of legal representation for claimants during interviews and oral hearings, and because decision makers – who, unusually, aren't even the same people as the examining officers – are insufficiently trained.
The system for refugee applicants is no better.
On March 31, the Law Society and Bar Association issued a joint statement that amounted to a massive slap in the government's face. The society and the association called on the government to pay heed to the concluding observations of the UN's Convention Against Torture Committee, which in November 2008 expressed concern that there were no plans to extend the Refugee Convention to Hong Kong. (We need not look far to find an example of a small Asian administration that has recently accepted the responsibility: Macau, please stand up.)
The public shaming didn't stop there. “The UNHCR assessment process, if it was amenable to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong courts, would not meet the high standards of fairness and would most likely be declared unlawful,” the Law Society and Bar Association said. They also threw a brick at the government for the fact that the ultimate decision on a refugee's status by the UNHCR isn't subject to judicial scrutiny.
That point is brought into heightened significance when considered alongside the fact that, on average, nine out of ten people who apply for refugee status at the UNHCR's Hong Kong branch are rejected. That acceptance rate is among the lowest in the world. In countries where governments provide legal aid to refugees (for example, Canada or the US), 30-40 per cent of refugees are accepted. Across the 30 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), acceptance rates are about 20 per cent. Hong Kong's rate suggests that 90 per cent of refugee applicants in this city are bogus – a proposition Daly describes as “crazy”.
So, what happens to the nine out of ten refugees in Hong Kong who the UNHCR reject? The choices are grim: run, hide, or return home on their own volition. And if it's none of those three? They get deported.
Life of an asylum seeker
A tall African man is standing in the unfamiliar surroundings of a Tsim Sha Tsui Starbucks, trying to remember the name for a particular type of coffee. He's dressed in a blue chequered shirt, baggy blue jeans, and large white basketball shoes. A light blue cap, flipped backwards, sits on his head. The man has a warm manner and a smile that turns up on the right side of his mouth. After he is served his drink in a cardboard cup – a “lah-tee,” as he finally calls it – we take a seat nearby and he settles in to tell me his story.
This man has a name, but because he's under assessment for a torture claim, we can't use it in this story. He says to call him Dxn. He's in his early thirties, and at home in Ghana he sold sheep and goats to support himself. He could eat good food whenever he pleased. He had land. He came from a well-to-do family. His uncle was a long-serving chief in his northern rural village.
But in 2002, a rival family decided it was time to overthrow Dxn's uncle, who had been chief since 1974. That rival family were loyal to Ghana's new government, led by the New Patriotic Party. The uncle and Dxn's family were supporters of the recently ousted National Democratic Congress. On the night of a festival, the rival family launched a surprise attack on the chief and other members of Dxn's family, while, according to Dxn, the government turned a blind eye. Police didn't arrive on the scene until three days later. Dxn’s uncle was cut into pieces and set on fire.
“He was butchered like meat,” says Dxn, jabbing his finger on the table.
Dxn managed to escape into the bush with an aunt. Eventually, after retrieving and selling some of his animals, Dxn secured a passport and a plane ticket to Hong Kong. He's now been here more than four years, and after going through the refugee application process with the UNHCR (his case was ultimately rejected) and then the torture claimant assessment process with Immigration (his case there is still under review), his future – in Hong Kong or otherwise – remains unknown. Because of the unavoidable circumstance of becoming an overstayer as a result of Hong Kong's refugee processing system, he has served two weeks in a Tuen Mun detention facility. At various times, he would hide in cupboards during monthly police raids on Chungking Mansions to round up overstayers. He has spent his time in Hong Kong nervous of authority and even more worried about being sent home, where possible persecution – or worse – awaits.
“They can send me to any country they want,” says Dxn. ”I don't want to go to Africa.”
Misunderstandings and fear
“Unfortunately, the words 'asylum seeker' have become synonymous with 'illegal immigrant' to a lot of people here,” says Brian Barbour, executive director of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. Barbour came to Hong Kong last year from New York, where he worked as a consultant with the UNHCR. “There is a big gap in awareness [in Hong Kong],” says Barbour.
“For example, in the United States... there is an attitude against illegal immigrants, but refugees – they don't associate the two.” The advice centre was established in 2007 to provide much-needed legal support to refugees who were most in need of assistance in applying to the UNHCR. Today the centre boasts a 46 per cent success rate for applicants who receive its legal advice. Set alongside the across-the-board 10 per cent success rate for refugee applicants to the UNHCR, that's a pretty big deal.
Barbour, who works with a small staff and a team of volunteers from a dilapidated building in Jordan that also houses a women's shelter and a support office for domestic workers, points to the bad press refugees here receive as an indicator of that “awareness gap”. Consider the reaction to a March court ruling that found a group of Pakistani asylum seekers weren't breaking the law by accepting work erecting stalls in Mong Kok's Ladies Market: “Hong Kong has become a place for gold-digging for people from South Asia and Africa,” cried a March 18 story in Sing Tao Daily in response to the ruling. The story continued, “According to Immigration, those illegal immigrants know how to use international convention to protect themselves.” In the same edition, a fear-mongering opinion piece said: “the situation is getting more and more uncontrollable, like a time bomb, creating a heavy burden on Hong Kong's public security and economy”.
A March 8 story in the Sunday Morning Post quoted a South Asian businessman as saying a 60 per cent drop in his business could be attributed to asylum seekers undercutting salaries of legitimate workers. Barbour says that claim is “crazy,” and, “That has such a damaging effect on support for refugee needs in Hong Kong.”
What for asylum seekers should have been a positive ruling – which, by the way, the government is sure to appeal – has instead turned into a media whipping boy that foments further ignorance and perpetuates negative stereotypes. But if the government is concerned about illegal immigrants exploiting the refugee and torture claims systems in Hong Kong, it could change its policy. “An inadequate system will only invite abusive claims that exploit weaknesses in the system,” said the Law Society and Bar Association in their March statement. For as long as the status quo, remains, however, it seems refugees will bear the brunt of public anger.
Dxn doesn't like to stop and let thoughts percolate in his mind. “If I sit down for an hour without doing anything, I absorb something from the past,” he says with a slight grimace. “I become angry all the time.” And so he keeps himself busy: playing basketball with friends, painting at charity organisation Christian Action's headquarters in Chungking Mansions, or writing lyrics for his music. Last year, he was part of a small group of refugees who, with students from Hong Kong International School, produced a CD of songs expressing the plight of refugees in the city. His major contribution to the compilation was the rap song Where Is My Future? Money raised from the few sales went to refugees and support groups here. (The CD, Naked Backs, is still on sale at Makumba bar on Peel Street.)
As with every refugee with a pending torture claim in Hong Kong, Dxn relies on hand-outs. From Christian Action he gets clothes. From International Social Services (ISS) he gets some food – beef, fish, rice, potatoes – every two weeks. For an accommodation allowance, also from the ISS, he gets $1,000 a month.
“There aren't any rooms or bathrooms in Hong Kong [you can get] for $1,000,” he says. There are cheap rooms to be found in Yuen Long, To Kwa Wan, and Sham Shui Po, but the bottom price is about $1,600 a month. In Chungking Mansions, a room costs $2,000 a month. And so refugees reliant on ISS support have to find roommates to split the costs.
Dxn is lucky – he shares his room with a businessman who only comes to town every couple of weeks but pays most of the rent. For other money – for instance, to pay his cellphone bill – he relies on the kindness of visiting Ghanaian businessmen. During Ramadan, he can expect help from his mosque and fellow Muslims. If he and other refugees were allowed to work in Hong Kong (they're not allowed to seek education, either), they could make a meaningful contribution to the city and fend for themselves. Very likely, the government would no longer have to pay to support them – a circumstance that rankles Dxn.
“That's not the future we are looking for,” he says, his voice rising. “We are not here to rely on [other] people.”
A system ripe for change
As the sixth anniversary of World Refugee Day dawns on June 20, the Hong Kong government has been presented with a prime chance to change a system that is damaging and wasteful; not only unfair but also verging on unconscionable. The Law Society and Bar Association said in their statement that “this is a critical juncture and an opportunity to implement a coherent and comprehensive system”. The UNHCR knows it too. Its Hong Kong head of office, Choosin Ngaotheppitak – who heads a team of 32, including just six interviewers – agrees a unified assessment system for refugees and torture claimants under the government would be the best and most efficient course of action. In December 2007 he told The Standard, “If the government can do this directly that would be the best way to address the issue because they have all the resources and the means to do it.”
But how hopeful is he that change will come soon? His answers don't inspire confidence. “So far it is the status quo,” he said when asked what the government has done so far with the UNHCR to change the refugee status determination system in light of calls from the UN and the Law Society. The UNHCR has had discussions with the government, but, when asked for details of those talks, Ngaotheppitak wouldn't elaborate. (In January, however, the UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding with the government, promising to help train immigration officers on screening procedures.) Asked if change to a unified assessment system is inevitable, Ngaotheppitak offered only: “I hope so.”
In the wake of the High Court's December judgment on the FB case, the government suspended its processing of torture claims, and since then the cases have been piling up. Meanwhile, the government says that it intends to set up a “statutory mechanism” for handling such claims. “Preparations are ongoing for a legislative framework to be put forth by the end of 2009,” a spokesperson said in a written response to our questions. In July, the Legislative Council's security panel will discuss a review of the torture claim screening mechanism, and the government will discuss a legislative proposal with relevant groups, “including the legal professional bodies,” before making a final call, the spokesperson said.
The government also said it has already conducted a seven-week training programme for immigration officers, in conjunction with the UNHCR, and that it will continue to provide training in various forms. The screening procedures, it said, “are currently under revision”.
The Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre's Brian Barbour is cautiously optimistic about the government's capacity for change – not only for the improvement of torture claims processing, but also for the prospect that government will take over refugee status determination. “We're on the right path – it's just going to take time,” Barbour says. He believes that while the transition is inevitable, it's a long-term plan and the policy debate could take years. “It's not going to happen tomorrow, because governments move slow.”
Last year, Dxn's friend Enest, a fellow Ghanaian, got sick. Though he had been in and out of hospital, the doctors here couldn't determine what ailed him. Dxn and a group of friends got together to raise funds so they could send Enest back to Ghana for treatment.
Enest never got on the plane.
Fingering his cardboard cup, Dxn's sentences become shorter and are buffered by long silences. Eventually he says of his friend: “His story has finished.” Enest had been in Hong Kong three years, waiting for his refugee application to be processed. He died as a 28-year-old in limbo.
The tall African man in a chequered blue shirt looks down at his latte and lets his thoughts percolate for just a moment.
“We don't want to end our lives like this.”