A disappointing debate: LegCo discusses the USM

Published on . Posted in Blog, Illegal immigrant, LEGCO, Refugee, USM

Posted by Rachel Li

Watch the webcast of the LegCo Panel on Security Meeting here

Watch the webcast of the LegCo Panel on Security Meeting here

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.

Read our full briefing provided to select LegCo members on our website

Read our full briefing provided to select LegCo members on our website

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”.

IMG_20150627_112320    Rachel Li is the Policy Intern at Justice Centre Hong Kong.

The People behind the Headlines

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, LEGCO, Refugee, Uncategorized, USM

Posted by A. Ma

Refugees have recently made the headlines in Hong Kong’s local newspapers. I work as a caseworker in Justice Centre’s Protection Claimant Services team to help people navigate the Unified Screening Mechanism (or the USM, the government’s screening process for protection). This role has enabled me to see these recent reports by the government and media from the perspective of the people to whom it matters the most – the refugees.

While a majority of this attention has heavily focused on how to reduce the amount of existing refugees, not many people have actually thought about how the refugees themselves feel about these recent developments. Not many know what it is like for them to grapple with the difficult choices they’ve had to make; the loved ones they might have had to leave behind, and what it is like for them to feel “identity-less”.

Refugee issues were certainly not a topic that might have been frequently debated a few years ago. Even just a few months ago, most of the HongKongers I spoke with were not aware of the existence of refugees. Today, people in Hong Kong are starting to gain interest in refugees; perhaps public awareness has been raised due to a variety of recent governmental debates and media interest on how to settle or treat them. Unfortunately, most of the coverage has been negative. Read our op-ed this week for more on this matter in both Ming Pao (Chinese) and Hong Kong Free Press (English).

quote jpbThe refugees I help have come up to me expressing their concerns regarding the hostility they have been feeling as a result of these reports. We have been receiving more enquiries from protection claimants (refugees with a protection claim under the USM) who struggle to understand the numerous new measures announced in the media, such as plans to speed up the USM or the Chief Executive’s comments on Hong Kong possibly withdrawing from the Convention against Torture. They are confused about what criteria will be required to accept their USM claim. While they welcome changes that might speed up processing times, they worry if these may be implemented at the cost of fairness.

Many protection claimants therefore have the bitter impression that Hong Kong is doing everything possible to get rid of them, and are distressed about potentially receiving a negative decision. It is not difficult to see where they get these impressions from, particularly considering the recent trends we have been seeing in the rejected claims for protection. For instance, the UNHCR has advised governments not to forcibly return people to certain countries which are considered to be countries of concern because of how unsafe they are. But despite this, Hong Kong has been rejecting protection claims from countries such as Central African Republic – even though it’s downright dangerous for refugees to return there.

The constant reports on “bogus refugees” in the Hong Kong media are really having an impact on the morale of the protection claimants that I work with, who feel that they are discredited right from the beginning, giving them absolutely no hope of succeeding at all. They came to Hong Kong to try to escape the horror they had been living through. But while they may be safe from physical danger here, they constantly fear that they are at risk of being returned to the danger in their countries. You simply cannot underestimate the negative impact this has on the mental health of people who are already vulnerable. Many refugees have told me that in Hong Kong they live, but they have no life.

More and more protection claimants are asking us if the Hong Kong Government is intending to stop accepting all refugees. This may or may not be the government’s intention, but it seems understandable that so many of them feel abandoned and let down.

As a caseworker, you do the best you can, but there’s only so much you can do to help claimants have faith in a protection system that feels like it’s working against them. It is reasonable that the Hong Kong Government has a duty to safeguard the interests of Hong Kong, but this does not have to be done at the expense of those seeking protection here.

Next week, on February 2, the Legislative Council will be presenting a comprehensive review of the government’s strategy of handling protection claims, which you can watch live on the Legislative Council website.

A. Ma volunteers as a Protection Claims Caseworker at Justice Centre Hong Kong.

Corporates and Non-Profits: Working Together

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Fundraising, Human Trafficking, Refugee

Posted by Melanie McLaren

When people hear about the work of Justice Centre they always ask, “What can I do to help?”. It’s a question that I asked myself. Consequently, last September marked a significant change for me; I took a sabbatical from a successful nine-year career in the financial sector to become Justice Centre’s Fundraising Manager.

I first came to know about Justice Centre through my company which had supported one of Justice Centre’s projects. I was particularly struck by the dual-pronged approach the organisation takes in providing frontline services as well as advocating for better legislation and policies and I found myself wondering how I could use my unique skills to help; I now focus particularly on raising awareness of Justice Centre more widely amongst the corporate sector in Hong Kong.

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One of our corporate partners delivering a public speaking workshop for Voices for Protection

The move was definitely a significant change: no more free breakfasts, no easy access to state-of-the-art technology and facilities, no person to take over my administrative work – the perks many take for granted in the corporate sector. Yet, I found the shift from the corporate to the non-profit sector to be extremely smooth, largely due to the professionalism, patience and enthusiasm of everyone I encountered.

Something that struck me particularly in my first few weeks at Justice Centre was the sheer breadth of stakeholders in the refugee and anti-human trafficking space. It clearly demonstrates that when it comes to advocating for human rights, everyone can and should play a role. My days have involved meeting people from a wide range of organisations and backgrounds, from consulate diplomats in Hong Kong, to accountants working on a financial solution to human trafficking issues, to talented local artists who have created work to raise awareness of human rights in Hong Kong.

Like many of these people, before I came across Justice Centre, I had very little knowledge of the political and humanitarian situation facing refugees here, or even that there was a significant refugee population within Hong Kong. However, so far I have seen that once people come to appreciate the current position refugees and victims of human trafficking face in Hong Kong, they have been extremely enthusiastic to get involved, whether through a formal corporate partnership, individual volunteering, engaging in fundraising activities or even simply attending our events.

Justice Centre is extremely fortunate to have wonderful support from a core group of partners who assist us in our work through our pro-bono partnership programme. With training and mentorship from our team of seasoned human rights lawyers, these partners generously provide their time and legal expertise, as well as other resources, and gain rewarding, hands-on experience assisting our beneficiaries.

Further to the legal work, our partners have engaged in a range of other activities with us, from hosting capacity-building workshops for refugees to build their skills through Voices for Protection, to company-wide fundraising drives such as auctions or bake sales, to individual fundraising activities. Justice Centre and our NGO partner Free to Run organise refugee hiking and running groups, and a group of volunteers from one of our corporate partners trained weekly with some of our refugee beneficiaries ahead of participating in a 10 kilometre race together in November 2015 to raise funds for both organisations.

It has been wonderful to see how involved and passionate the individuals within these firms are to contribute in any way they can, and we look forward to building on our existing platform and network with other businesses and people from the corporate sector.

Moving to the non-profit sector has shown me that advocating for forced migrants’ rights in Hong Kong is a responsibility we all share, and one that requires collaboration across sectors. If you or your company are interested in partnering with us, fundraising for us or supporting our programmes or activities, I urge you to get in touch to explore the possibilities.

We are currently recruiting for a part-time volunteer Development Associate with a background in PR/fundraising/business development to join our Fundraising and Development team. Find out more on our website

 

Work PhotoMelanie is the Fundraising Manager at Justice Centre.

 

Reviewing Hong Kong’s Human Trafficking Case

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Court Case, Human Trafficking, Refugee, Slavery

Posted by Adam Severson

If Chief Executive Leung’s recent remark that HKSAR could “quit” the Convention against Torture was meant as a joke, he isn’t getting many laughs. Least of all because his timing is off – just over a month ago the Committee against Torture (CAT) released its concluding observations from its fifth periodic review of the HKSAR territory. CAT raised concerns that include: the use of excessive force by police, a “distinctly high threshold for granting protection” under the Unified Screening Mechanism, and the absence of a legislative framework for combatting human trafficking and forced labour. None of which is the least bit amusing. Call me humourless.

CAT’s concerns about human trafficking and forced labour in the HKSAR territory are of particular relevance this week as the Hong Kong High Court considers a landmark human trafficking case. The question before the court is whether the Hong Kong Government has an obligation to create laws to protect people from human trafficking, including for the purpose of forced labour. I observed the proceedings on Wednesday.

The victim, ZN (whose identity has been protected), came to Hong Kong in 2007 on a domestic worker visa. But he claims that the life he found in Hong Kong was not as promised. ZN alleges that his employer was verbally and physically abusive towards him, made ZN work long hours, withheld his wages, and confiscated ZN’s passport so he could not leave. He claims this went on for nearly four years, and that he sought assistance from the Hong Kong Police, the Immigration Department and the Labour Department, but that nothing was done.

ZN argues that the Hong Kong Government failed to protect his right to freedom from servitude and forced labour pursuant to Article 4 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (HKBORO). He claims that the Hong Kong Government failed, in part, because its domestic legal framework does not prohibit human trafficking, including for the purpose of forced labour. There is much anticipation around this landmark judicial review, as it may determine whether the government has an obligation to create such a framework.

We agree human trafficking is an egregious violation of fundamental freedoms. So this case should be simple, right? Unfortunately it isn’t. The issue is that Article 4 does not explicitly mention human trafficking; rather it prohibits slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. Check out our joint 2014 report with Liberty Asia, How Many More Years A Slave? to better understand these complex terms.

ZN’s lawyers argue that the High Court should follow the example of the European Court of Human Rights. In Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, the court interpreted Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights – a provision very similar to HKBORO Article 4 – to include a prohibition on human trafficking. The Hong Kong Government disagrees, arguing that the High Court should read Article 4 as written – without any mention of human trafficking. And it buttresses its argument by pointing out that, unlike most European states, the HKSAR territory is not bound by the UN Trafficking (“Palermo”) Protocol, which creates robust protections for human trafficking in all of its forms.

It is tough to discern which direction the High Court is leaning, but hopes are high that the court will find that the Hong Kong Government has an obligation under HKBORO Article 4 to create a legal framework to combat human trafficking.

In the meantime, I hope Chief Executive Leung lays off the careless comments and instead focuses on implementing the Committee against Torture’s recommendations.

20151214_124030Adam is the Senior Legal Advisor at Justice Centre Hong Kong

Will we move forward in 2016?

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Illegal immigrant, LEGCO, Refugee, USM

Posted by Raven Lam

On my first day at Justice Centre I remember I was asked what I thought about refugees. After a slight hesitation, I answered, “The media says some are bogus refugees who come to Hong Kong intentionally for economic benefits”. However, the more I researched refugee issues as part of my work at Justice Centre, the more I found out how biased the Hong Kong mainstream media can be in its coverage. “Bogus” (literally meaning “false, not real or not legal”) and “illegal immigrants”, are the words frequently being used to describe refugees who are seeking asylum in Hong Kong. I worry that the effect of labelling refugees as “illegal immigrants” puts them at a distinct disadvantage in the policy-making process; mainly because the other side of the story is largely left untold.

The UN Committee against Torture, in their recent concluding observations with recommendations to the Hong Kong Government, expressed concern for the situation faced by refugees here, particularly about the fact that a person has to overstay their visa and become ‘officially “illegal”’ in order to apply for protection. The Committee also continues to urge the Hong Kong Government to seek extension of the Refugee Convention to Hong Kong to offer refugees international standards of protection.

Most refugees do not have a choice of where to go when fleeing persecution in their home country. What the public does not know is that many come to Hong Kong on a (legal) visitor’s visa, which ensures them immediate safety, with the intention of applying for asylum once they are here. However, they are often shocked to find out later that Hong Kong is not bound to the Refugee Convention.

Additionally, the government-funded humanitarian assistance package is not sufficient to support the livelihood of the refugees, given that they are prohibited from working in Hong Kong, where the cost of living is extremely high. Some of them who cannot afford the rent even live in slums in New Territories where the sanitary conditions are appalling. Regarding social inclusion, refugees may be further marginalised due to their immigration status, ethnicity and language barriers. Many find it difficult to publicly advocate for their own rights, fearing that revealing their identities might endanger their (or their family’s) safety or even affect their protection claim in Hong Kong. In a nutshell, the experience of refugees in Hong Kong sounds inconceivably dehumanising, yet we cannot deny its existence.

What can we, young people particularly, do to help refugees? Perhaps the first step to take is to change our mindset by knowing more. For instance, this UNHCR video shows the lives of refugees from Central African Republic, a country which many of Justice Centre’s individual assistance recipients come from. Many people don’t know very much about the events happening in this country, which refugees are fleeing from. Before volunteering with Justice Centre, to put it bluntly, I had a biased understanding towards refugees; at one time I thought these people were not worth the resources that the government had been spending. But my mindset has changed considerably in the three months I’ve volunteered here, from indifference to sympathy, after learning more about the hardships many refugees overcome to reach safety from their home country.

Young people can also help by using their knowledge to positively contribute to the dialogue; it is heartbreaking to see insulting comments targeting refugees on social media where it is clear that the netizens usually have no idea of the other side of the stories. We can also reach out to policymakers to advocate for refugees in Hong Kong. Our understanding of these issues makes a difference, as public opinion can be an influential factor that policymakers consider when debating policies on refugee rights. Young people are essential to bringing about change, but all of us need to take a first step to learn about refugees and understand the critical situation that they are facing, both in their home countries and in Hong Kong.

The government has been promoting Hong Kong as Asia’s World City, an international melting pot where vibrant people, cultures and ideologies are tolerated and respected. However, such a notion is not reflected in the government policy on the rights of refugees. It is 2016: is the government moving forward to a more tolerant and fair protection system or stepping backward to an unwelcoming and ambivalent one? The answer is held in your hands.

Raven

Raven is a final year International Relations major at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). She is an intern at Justice Centre through HKU’s Social Science Social Innovation Internship programme.

 

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