Posted by Rachel Li
Last week, I accompanied my colleagues and several refugees to observe the Legislative Council’s (“LegCo”) Panel on Security meeting. The session was to discuss the Hong Kong Government’s comprehensive review of the strategy of handling non-refoulement claims, including the Unified Screening Mechanism (the government’s screening process for asylum claims, or the “USM”). A comprehensive review of the existing system surely is a good thing. However, the Government’s review actually places a lot of emphasis on the removal – rather than the protection – of refugees in Hong Kong. In response to this, Justice Centre has circulated an informal briefing to selected members of LegCo detailing our concerns.
As we walked towards the LegCo complex to attend the session, we warned the refugee observers with us that we did not expect the meeting to be a pleasant one: harsh and vacuous words might be thrown around, and the atmosphere might be hostile. We had good reason to believe this; ever since last June, when the government started displaying a keen interest in people seeking protection in Hong Kong, the political discourse surrounding the issue has largely been negative and misdirected.
As we tried to enter the building itself we were informed that the ‘Recognizance Paper’, which is the only form of official ID a refugee has in Hong Kong, is not considered an acceptable identification document for visitors. This was unusual as protection claimants have accompanied us to LegCo on numerous occasions to observe sessions, tour the complex, meet with LegCo members and even to present at a Panel on Security session. It took 30 minutes to resolve this and obtain permission for the refugees to enter.
This in itself was worrying; the ability to observe and participate in meetings at LegCo are an important part of our socio-political rights. In other words, LegCo should be accessible to everyone, and this includes people who are seeking protection in Hong Kong. Therefore, it is extremely concerning (and ironic) that they were very nearly prevented from observing an important discussion on their own rights and status.
The actual session was very disappointing. A total of 30 minutes were allocated to discuss this important issue that will have a profound impact on people seeking protection in Hong Kong. Throughout the meeting, legislators reiterated the government’s rhetoric that refugees are a nuisance to public order and security. Legislators and government officials discussed withdrawing from the Convention against Torture (that protects not just refugees but also people in Hong Kong), setting up detention camps and removing “fake refugees” speedily in a worryingly callous manner. There was barely any discussion that actually focused on ‘protection’. At no point was there a mention of the implementation of the Committee against Torture’s recent recommendations to Hong Kong.
I felt uncomfortable with the xenophobic undercurrent that underpinned the discussion; the use of labels such as “black criminals” or “Southeast Asian illegal immigrants” is insensitive and unnecessary – especially considering that Hong Kong is home to people of many ethnicities. What saddens me on a very personal level is that people seeking protection in Hong Kong are not treated as human beings with rights. Rather, they are seen as a problem, a pest, a nuisance. According to the government, asylum seekers are “illegal immigrants”, “overstayers”, “refused landing passengers”, “economic migrants”, “abusers”, “criminals” and “fake refugees”;
But we must be reminded that they are not just faceless figures. These are ordinary people who just happen to be in extraordinary circumstances; they are student activists who told me if the Umbrella Movement had happened in their countries, it would have been so effective that they would have been given their rights in a day; they are keen learners who told me they were taking Cantonese classes or that they would like to pursue another degree in University; They were once my grandparents, who fled China during the Sino-Japanese war.
We need more humanity in the discussion. This is especially so given that the world today is grappling with the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. To quote my colleague Victoria, “It’s high time we understand that refugee rights are about human rights, and if we erode refugee protection in Hong Kong, we are only shrinking the human rights space here”.
Rachel Li is the Policy Intern at Justice Centre Hong Kong.