The power of information

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Information Sessions, Refugee, USM

Posted by Aleta Miller

“Information is the currency of democracy”, according to Thomas Jefferson, former president of the United States. This is the currency we deal in at Justice Centre Hong Kong and it is at the heart of our information sessions – run up to four times a week – which are open to all people seeking protection in Hong Kong in their own language.

The implementation of the Unified Screening Mechanism, the new government-led system for assessing protection claims in Hong Kong, has been overshadowed by the massive lack of information, inhibiting refugees and other people seeking protection from accessing it. The government has no information for them, no dedicated telephone number, no website, no public counter, no frontline staff. NGOs have no information from the government either, and many organisations supporting refugees and other people seeking protection have come to Justice Centre to find out information from us about the new system. To me, this appears to be a deliberate ploy by the government to make it as difficult as possible for people seeking protection in Hong Kong to enter the process. The strategy is creating a situation with the most dire of human consequences.

This strategy is not really a surprise, as this is a system that the government didn’t want to implement in the first place. The Hong Kong Government is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and for many years they refused to hear refugee claims, with the UNHCR until recently filling the gap. The government has been forced by the Court of Final Appeal to screen protection claims themselves, implementing the new system at the beginning of March.

In the absence of information about the claim process, we have been holding sessions at our centre, which have been filled to capacity since they started in February with anxious refugees and other people seeking protection. Their uptake shows that we are filling a vital gap. In our seven years of operation, the need and demand for our services has never been so great. Within the past two months, we have run over 35 information sessions, each one attended by up to 20 refugees and people seeking protection from 30 different countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Vietnam, Yemen and Gambia. The sessions detail in the languages of those attending how they can access the USM, what to do once they have filed a claim and their rights as protection claimants. Justice Centre staff are available to provide individual assistance after the sessions. Food, refreshments and transport money are provided by Justice Centre and the sessions are held in a dedicated training space set up to meet the needs of refugees and people seeking protection in a safe and comfortable environment.

Photo Credit: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov
Photo Credit: UNHCR/D.Kashavelov

What we are seeing in our information sessions is extremely concerning. After submitting a letter by mail, some, but not all of those seeking protection, have received an official letter from the Immigration Department telling them what they should do next. The letters are in legal language and in English, difficult even for a lawyer to understand, nevermind someone who speaks a different language. In the letter, they are being advised to write to the Immigration Department outlining their reasons for seeking protection in Hong Kong. They are not being offered any legal assistance from the government to enable them to do this. UNHCR is no longer accepting claims or assisting people entering the new system. In fact there seem to be 4 different versions of letters which protection claimants receive, making the process even more complicated.

The government is doing the bare minimum to meet their obligations under the order from the Court of Final Appeal. Nothing more. For people fleeing human rights abuses such as war, torture and rape, this is wholly inadequate. The decisions the government will make under the new system could mean the difference between life and death for the people we work with and it’s extremely difficult for them to get clear information on how to even make a claim. Their very lives are at stake and the government won’t even show them the respect to tell them how to enter the process of seeking protection.

We are currently gathering information from people attending our information sessions and are compiling a detailed report with analysis of the problems they are experiencing, which we will present to the government. We will continue to empower refugees and other people seeking protection who going through the new system with all the information we can, as well as providing individualised support and legal assistance to the most vulnerable people, those most at risk of falling through the cracks including children, people who are mentally or physically unwell, people who are illiterate in their own language and those who have difficulty recounting the trauma they have experienced. We will continue to demand that the government operate a fair, transparent and efficient system.

Information is power. By denying refugees and people seeking protection access to information, the government is denying them their rights.

Justice for UK asylum seekers

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Refugee

Posted by Adela Kamaragoda

News of the recent UK High Court judgement calling for a review of levels of asylum support in the UK has caused a bit of a stir in the Justice Centre office this week because it hit so close to home.

Refugee Action, a UK  refugee rights NGO, along with The Migrants’ Law Project took the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May,  to the High Court to challenge her decision to freeze 2013/2014 asylum support at 2011 levels.  The court ruled in their favour, labelling Ms May’s decision-making as “flawed” and “irrational”.

The court said that the analysis the Home Secretary had used to set the levels of support was ‘erroneous’, that she misunderstood and misapplied vital statistics and did not gather enough evidence to make a fully informed decision.

In the UK, the Home Office covers the cost of accommodation and basic health care of asylum seekers and provides an additional cash allowance as low as around £5 per adult per day (which equates to about HK$68), with which asylum seekers are expected to cover the cost of food, transport and essential needs. As a result, refugees are often forced into destitution and are struggling to survive.

The argument for increasing the levels of assistance is based on the fact that in real terms, the level of support is actually going down, as it is not linked to the increasing cost of living in the UK. Secondly,  the support does not take into account the need for vital household items, essential goods for new mothers and babies, such as nappies and milk, or allow asylum seekers to maintain interpersonal relationships and a minimum level of participation in social, cultural, and religious life. Other costs such as transportation to attend meetings with legal advisors and telephone calls to family and legal representatives are not covered by legal aid, yet it is difficult to meet these needs with the current level of support.

Sound familiar?

The issues raised in the High Court judgement are indeed too close to home: levels of support for people seeking protection in Hong Kong are simply inadequate for the purpose of maintaining a dignified standard of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and are not adjusted in line with the increase in cost of living

Refugees and people seeking protection in Hong Kong currently receive around the equivalent of HK$40 a day for food; that’s just HK$13 for each meal. They do not receive cash to buy their food; instead they suffer the indignity of a ‘food package’, where they must go to selected outlets to collect bags of food, choosing from an unchanging list of items year after year. Choice is limited, overhead costs are high, and there are problems with quality and pricing. This policy is all wrong.

Towards rent, they are entitled to a meagre $1,500 per month. How many homes do you know in Hong Kong, the city with the most expensive real estate in the world, affordable at that cost? Essential items like baby milk, nappies and sanitary protection, they are expected to buy themselves, but how, when they are not permitted to earn an income?

We, at Justice Centre, have been lobbying the Hong Kong Government for a long time to increase the welfare package, yet when it was so-called ‘enhanced’ in January this year, we found the improvements did not go far enough to ensure that refugees could live here in safety and dignity and enjoy even basic rights. 

Photo credit: SoGo

Photo credit: SoGo

What next? Bring back dignity to refugees

The UK judgement was a victory for Refugee Action and asylum seekers on whose behalf they lobbied, yet it is not over yet. The court did not declare the rates of support unlawful as it is not within its power to do so. Instead, the Home Secretary has been ordered to retake her decision, based on relevant information and evidence.

Refugee Action has since rolled out the Bring Back Dignity campaign, where members of the public can sign an online petition calling for the Home Office to increase the levels of support for asylum seekers in the UK. Lend your name and let us know you’ve done so by commenting below or on our Facebook page, or even Tweet about it.

Also watch this space for an upcoming campaign in Hong Kong with regards to the meagre levels of support for refugees in this wealthy city, where fiscal reserves are in excess of HK$750 billion. Are you ready to hold our leaders to account? ‘Cause we are.

The Justice Centre Blog

Published on . Posted in Blog

Posted by Aideen McLaughlin

Welcome to our new blog! This is where you can expect to find your weekly view of the world through the eyes of Justice Centre Hong Kong and our guest bloggers. If you like the sound of that, please sign up to receive it each week and if you have any ideas for content or are keen to contribute, please also get in touch.

Photo credit: UNHCR/S. Schulman

It’s been three weeks now since we launched Justice Centre Hong Kong, and what a time it has been.  On our first operating day, we hit the ground running, grabbing the front page of the South China Morning Post with our new report on forced labour in Hong Kong, produced in partnership with Liberty Asia.

How many more years a slave?

The report How many more years a slave? looks at trafficking for forced labour in the region and argues that the Hong Kong Government is not fully complying with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking for forced labour. It highlights glaring gaps in existing legislation, and calls on the government to raise the benchmark to a higher standard. Forced labour, modern slavery, debt bondage and human trafficking are all terms that have recently hit the headlines in Hong Kong, mainly in the context of reports of alleged abuse of foreign domestic helpers, such as the much-publicised cases of Kartika Puspitasari and Erwiana Sulistyaningsih (whose case against her employer is currently going through the Hong Kong courts.)

Photo credit: Sandra ten Zijthoff

Photo credit: Sandra ten Zijthoff

The report was welcomed as a much-needed look at the issue and a strong nudge to the government to pull its socks up if it is to safeguard the rights of migrant workers who may have been trafficked and suffered abuse.

Where is the problem?

But one question the report is raising time and time again is ‘where is the problem?’ That is indeed the problem. We can’t see it. Or at least, we can’t see it enough to know how much of a problem it really is. Because trafficking for forced labour is not recognised as a crime under Hong Kong law, there is no sense of the numbers who are likely affected by it. There is a lack of systematic data collection, monitoring and reporting on the situation; there is also no ability for victims to even bring a case forward or make a complaint, and no way for authorities to conduct investigations and prosecute traffickers. This is why Justice Centre is working on this issue (alongside refugee issues). We want to find out the extent of the problem and work with others to ensure victims are identified and protected, perpetrators are prosecuted and justice is done.

Hong Kong, are you up for it?

The new US Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is due in June 2014. Previous TIP reports have said that Hong Kong is failing to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Before the next one, there is now a crucial window of opportunity for the Hong Kong Government to make radical improvements in the sphere of human trafficking and improve its reputation on the global stage.

Hong Kong, are you up for it? The clock is ticking.

Justice Centre Hong Kong off to exciting start

Published on . Posted in Blog, Human Trafficking, Refugee, USM

Aleta Miller
By Aleta Miller, Executive Director, Justice Centre Hong Kong.

Dear Friends,

This week marks the official launch of Justice Centre Hong Kong! Justice Centre Hong Kong is a human rights organisation working fearlessly to protect the rights of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable forced migrants – refugees, other protection claimants and survivors of modern slavery.

Building on Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre’s strong foundation of providing life-changing services to more than 2,000 men, women and children over seven years, Justice Centre provides services to all protection claimants in Hong Kong (asylum seekers, torture claimants, and claimants seeking other forms of protection). As Justice Centre, we build upon HKRAC’s groundbreaking work in policy and advocacy to fundamentally change the landscape for refugees in Hong Kong. We also expand our advocacy work to include modern-day slavery.

Yesterday (Monday), we launched a landmark report, How Many More Years a Slave? Trafficking for forced labour in Hong Kong. The first in a series, co-written with anti-trafficking NGO Liberty Asia, the report argues that current laws around human trafficking in Hong Kong are far too narrow and consequently don’t provide adequate protection for victims.

The report made front-page news in Monday’s South China Morning Post newspaper and drew widespread support, ranking as the most read story yesterday on SCMP.com, which you can read here. SCMP also ran a poll, with over 80 per cent of people polled supporting change to Hong Kong’s trafficking laws to increase protection for domestic workers.

Our work over the past seven years was made possible by the courage, dedication and generosity of our current and former staff, volunteers, partners and supporters. Human rights protection and modern-day slavery are huge issues that require a long-term, dedicated and specialised response. Justice Centre Hong Kong is a local, independent, non-partisan and non-religious NGO, well equipped to lead this response and fiercely defend the human rights of some of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable people.

We invite you to join Justice Centre in changing the human rights landscape in Hong Kong, and in changing the lives of individual men, women and children. ‘Like’ us on Facebook at facebook.com/justicecentrehongkong, follow us on twitter @justicecentrehk and check out our new website and blog launching later this week at www.justicecentre.org.hk

I look forward to a bright and exciting future as Justice Centre Hong Kong, leveraging our experience to dynamically transform the human rights landscape in the city. Join us on the journey. Thanks again for your support.

Warmest regards,
Aleta

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T (852) 3109 7359
F (852) 3422 3019
info@justicecentre.org.hk