Interpretation: Enabling Access to Justice

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Fundraising, Information Sessions, Interpretation, Legal aid, USM

Posted by Ellen Pucke

A caseworker working with one of our service users

To me, being a social worker means prioritising the well-being and rights of those that are most vulnerable, in everything you do. In my role as Office Manager at Justice Centre, I have the opportunity to do that every day when making decisions about our operations, logistics, security, and policies. I balance the needs of our service users with those of the staff to ensure we are able to serve our community to the best of our availability. One of the most important ways we are able to prioritise the needs of our service users is by providing them access to interpreters for all appointments and information sessions at Justice Centre.

Interpretation is essential because our service users are survivors of war, persecution, and torture that have found themselves in a country and culture foreign to them; a country which does offer a mechanism for seeking protection – but in a language that may, in effect, make it inaccessible.

Many of our service users have some degree of proficiency with English or Cantonese, either because they learned it in their country of origin, or have dedicated extensive time to studying and practicing these languages once they arrived in Hong Kong. A moderate level of English or Cantonese certainly helps someone navigate Hong Kong’s systems, but when it comes to communicating about something traumatic and so critical to your future – could you express yourself completely and accurately in anything but your native tongue? Would you be able to comprehend legal jargon or describe distressing experiences in a second language?

More than 30 interpreters offer their talent and time to interpret for our clients on an ad hoc basis, in over 22 languages. Because of them we are able to provide our service users with support – allowing them to better understand their rights in Hong Kong, the process of applying for protection, and what the status of their case is; empowering our service users to work collaboratively with our caseworkers to prepare their testimony and legal documentation in an accurate way; and enabling them to work through traumatic experiences and acute mental health concerns with the guidance of a psychosocial counsellor.

Interpretation is absolutely critical for ensuring our service users have the best possible chance of accessing justice. One interpreter described her role as the “bridge between the caseworker and the protection claimant”. She said, “It bothers me when people cannot communicate as they are already in a desperate situation when they come here. Without interpretation, legal support would be impossible”.

I love working with our interpreters for many of the same reasons I love working with our service users – they’re from all over the world, they often know three or four different languages, they come from diverse professional backgrounds, they are eager to learn about the legal process and our advocacy work to improve the experience of people seeking protection in Hong Kong, and they are enthusiastic about holding on to their native languages and using it to help others. Many of our interpreters grew up in households in Hong Kong or abroad where they learned one or more language that is not commonly found here – such as Pashtu, Swahili, or Somali. They tell me they enjoy interpreting these languages at Justice Centre because it’s a way for them to stay connected to their roots. When I am privileged to facilitate that connection between an interpreter and a service user, it often reminds me of the strength found in Hong Kong’s diversity.

My heart is full each time a service user meets an interpreter of their native language at our centre; the sense of relief and hope is palpable. I would hope that interpretation services are prioritised and adequately resourced going forward within Hong Kong’s current protection system, in order to facilitate a smoother and fairer system for people seeking protection here. The value of this cannot be underestimated.

Please consider making a donation today: just HK$ 500 enables us to provide legal and psychosocial support to a protection claimant with the assistance of an interpreter. 

At the moment we are in need of interpreters for Amharic, Arabic, Bangla, Somali, and Tigrinya languages.  If you are interested please get in touch with Ellen at ellen@justicecentre.org.hk for more details.

1416593Ellen Pucke is the Office Manager at Justice Centre Hong Kong. She is also a Hong Kong-registered social worker.

Rejection or protection?

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Legal aid, LEGCO, Refugee, USM

Posted by Lynette Nam

This week, Justice Centre as well as other civil society members had the opportunity to address the Legislative Council Panel on Security (LegCo Panel) in advance of Hong Kong’s periodic review by the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva later this month. The LegCo Panel was a welcome opportunity for long overdue public discussion on the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), the government’s screening mechanism for asylum claims, and it became apparent that LegCo members shared our concerns; particularly, concerns with the government’s recent negative rhetoric on refugees and with the transparency and standards of fairness.

Watch the full webcast of the LegCo Panel on Security session

Watch the webcast of the LegCo Panel session

Notably, and on a more positive note, Social Justice Alliance (SJA), a self-led community group formed by graduates of our Voices for Protection Human Rights and Advocacy Traineeship for refugees, also weighed in on the discussion with their experiences of the USM.  As a new member of Justice Centre, it excites me that I am part of an organisation that strives to make refugees’ voices heard – and to do so in a way that results in real practical action on a public platform.

Since starting as the Justice Centre Fellow last week, I have been familiarising myself with the USM and meeting with some of our beneficiaries who have come to Hong Kong to seek protection. As part of my work here in the legal team, I have been sitting down with beneficiaries to draft testimonies to support their claims; their experiences are often confronting and unimaginable from the comfort of soft couches and mugs of tea at our office.

Many of them have fled highly volatile countries, marred by widespread violence and political unrest. Many have experienced acts that are at the very least degrading and inhumane. While it is easy to be empathetic, our role at Justice Centre is to help them navigate the baffling maze that is the USM.

However, the concern has been that since its inception, the USM seemed to be designed to confound and dissuade. There was limited public consultation upon its introduction; despite repeated requests, there are no comprehensive statistics or database made publicly available to track its progress; and there is no set of precedents to draw upon for guidance, as redacted decisions under the USM are not published.

The lack of transparency aside, what is even more alarming is the rate of rejection of 99.7%, one of the highest in the world. This is rather hard to believe, given that we at Justice Centre are seeing claims for protection from countries with blatant and pervasive human rights abuses. The abysmally low rejection rate raises serious concerns about the underlying fairness and reasonableness of the decision-making process.

What surprises me most is the fact that many of the rejections are based not on the credibility of the claimant, but on the grounds that the decision-makers believed there is no risk in their countries of origin (COI). We find it disconcerting to see rejections of claimants from countries such as Central African Republic, Somalia or Yemen, which have been flagged by UNHCR and numerous governments as countries of concern for asylum purposes due to widespread conflict and persecution in those territories.

It is also concerning that the rejection letters seem to include COI research that does not correlate to the particular circumstances of the claimant, and reveal an exceptionally high bar for the risk of torture, cruel, degrading or inhumane treatment or punishment (CIDTP) and persecution. This puts into question the reasonableness of decisions, especially when pitched against international standards. This is why we are currently conducting a legal analysis of rejected decisions.

Transparency and fairness go to the core of any legitimate and just legal system. Instead, what we have right now places vulnerable people in a system steeped in confusion that focuses on rejection rather than protection.

There is a long road ahead before we arrive at a comprehensive, transparent and procedurally fair system for the vulnerable people who come to Hong Kong in search of sanctuary; yet I believe Hong Kong is a society that embraces solidarity and humanity, and I am hopeful we will get there.

 

36b81f4Lynette is the Justice Centre Fellow and the latest addition to our team. Before joining Justice Centre, Lynette worked at Fragomen Worldwide, an international law firm specialising in immigration law, in Australia and Hong Kong.  She also worked as a human rights trainer on the Thai-Burma border, where she developed and implemented a curriculum on non-violent social change for young Karenni refugees. 

 

Watch the webcast of the LegCo Panel on Security session here.

Read Justice Centre’s full speech to the LegCo Panel on Security here.

Read Social Justice Alliance’s full submission here.

Read Justice Centre’s shadow report to the Committee against Torture here.

The Beauty of Law

Published on . Posted in Asylum seeker, Blog, Legal aid, Refugee, Young Advocates’ Programme

Posted by Sabrina Lu

Every year, Justice Centre’s Young Advocates’ Programme is open to a small number of young people to give them insight into the workings of refugee law and human rights advocacy in a real practice setting. Sabrina Lu, a 15 year-old high school student, and one of this year’s Young Advocates, reflects on her experience of the programme.

The word ‘law’ often connotes interns working late into the night, law students reading endless stacks of paperwork, and associates downing their third cup of coffee as they stare at the piles of briefs weighing down their desks. As a 15-year-old girl, it was hard to imagine that the legal aspects of my experience in the Young Advocates’ Programme with Justice Centre would be the parts that exhilarated me the most. I absolutely loved sitting in on interviews with refugees, working on their testimonies, and conducting research on their countries of origin.

Sheltered from world events

A big part of my love for the legal work is the knowledge and understanding I was able to procure from doing it. I came in to my first day at Justice Centre relatively ignorant and sheltered from the events going on in the world. I read the news, but did so from the comforts of my room, where I could never truly understand the severity of the situations that I was reading about. It was only after I began assisting with the real life testimonies of refugees, listening to them talk about their situations, and researching the places that they came from that I started to realise how critical the situations around the world are. I found myself gasping at some of the harrowing details and experiences from the testimonies and cringing as I read about the violence-filled countries that the claimants had escaped from. I know that I will never be able to truly understand the events that I read about, for I have never experienced anything close to them; however, I can say with the utmost confidence that I am now more cognizant of these situations and am slowly breaking out of my bubble of ignorance as a result of my work at Justice Centre.

Breaking the Stereotypes Through TestimoniesUntitled

I do admit that I arrived at Justice Centre with preconceived notions about refugees. Everything I knew about these issues was what I had heard from others, and unfortunately the things that I had heard were very stereotypical. However, my perception was immediately changed when I read my very first testimony. The testimony was that of an East African refugee who had gone through great atrocities in her home country. Despite her experiences, she had no need for psychological support and spoke with remarkable clarity about her situation in her testimony. I was in awe over her strength and how she could speak so clearly about things that would have absolutely terrified me. I then read a testimony of a Middle Eastern man who spoke with an incredible eloquence. He too had gone through great obstacles but was again able to speak of them clearly and coherently. The refugees whose testimonies I read exhibited a fortitude that I don’t see in myself or anyone I have ever met; their resilience in fighting through all the obstacles thrown in their way is extremely admirable. It is an unfortunate reality that the public views refugees in a very negative light, often feeling superior to them. However, if the testimonies taught me one thing, it would be that refugees are not only just like us, but they also possess a strength that we can and should all learn from.

Making a Difference

It is quite uncommon for a high school student to walk out of a NGO volunteering experience and be able to say with conviction “I made a difference.” Most of the people I know end up complaining about the tediousness of making coffees and comparing stories about all the shows that they watched while waiting for their next task. However, I felt that with every legal task that I performed, I was able to make a small difference; in helping out with the testimonies and providing research to support each refugee’s claims, I was slowly helping the caseworkers to build and strengthen cases for refugees that could ultimately help them acquire safety and a fresh start in their lives. This was my absolute favorite part of working on the legal tasks. I entered the Young Advocates’ Programme thinking about the possibility of a career in law, but was still held back by what I thought could be tedious and somewhat boring legal work. However, even though I am not ignorant to the piles of paperwork that I will have to conquer if I study law, I realize that legal work has its beauty and can truly be enriching and thought-provoking. Most importantly, legal work can be incredibly empowering, assisting people in receiving the justice that they deserve.

The views expressed in this blog represent the personal views of the author/s and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or policy of Justice Centre Hong Kong.

We need to talk about refugees

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Illegal immigrant, Legal aid, LEGCO, Media, Refugee

Posted by Rachel Li

“When I am in the MTR, people sometimes pinch their noses and move away as if I smell. If my arm touches theirs, they brush themselves off as if I’ve dirtied them. It hurts.”

These were the words of a refugee who participated in a workshop I observed last week at the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to teach graduates of Justice Centre’s Voices for Protection about Hong Kong’s anti-discrimination laws and the mandate of the EOC. Refugees were asked to think about their own experiences with discrimination at the beginning of the workshop. After the speaker had explained the law, they discussed whether they thought these experiences constituted discrimination by law.

Some spoke about feeling like they were racially profiled by the police. Others mentioned that taxis would not stop for them or that they were turned away by real estate agents. To their disappointment, participants quickly learned that what they see as discrimination towards them is not always within the ambit of any of the anti-discrimination ordinances.  The Race Discrimination Ordinance is the most relevant, but there are times when the discriminatory treatment refugees may have received was not necessarily caused by their race. For instance, many participants spoke about the trouble they had getting by with only the Recognizance Paper, colloquially known as “Form 8”, when they tried to access medical facilities, public gyms, the swimming pool, and library services. So it would seem that discriminatory treatment is more caused by their status as non-refoulement claimants than their race.

“And very often discrimination is difficult to prove,” one of the participants added.

Indeed. Very often is it only a sideways glance, a look of disdain, a shift in one’s seat and a nervous clutch at one’s bag.

It was interesting to hear refugees’ perspectives just one week after an important Legislative Council (LegCo) Panel on Security meeting on the Unified Screening Mechanism on 7 July. The opening paragraph of the paper provided by the Hong Kong Government for this meeting refers to refugees as “foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong and visitors who overstayed their limit of stay”, labelling them as “collectively ‘illegal immigrants’”. “‘Illegal immigrants’ seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong are not to be treated as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’,” it asserts. There is no mention that refugees who arrive in Hong Kong with valid visas are only eligible to enter the Unified Screening Mechanism after they have overstayed their visa, hence made to become illegal in the first place.

The government’s change in rhetoric is extremely alarming, for it feeds into negative stereotypes and encourages the public to view refugees with suspicion. Justice Centre’s response to the paper in an informal briefing to certain LegCo members and in the media has highlighted the concern that this deliberate anti-refugee discourse plants the seeds of intolerance and discrimination.

As an external relations volunteer at Justice Centre, a key part of my work has entailed monitoring Chinese-language news and social media. I have found it disturbing to see how the government’s anti-refugee discourse is being weaponised by some against refugees in Hong Kong. For instance, the “illegal immigrants” label paints a picture of refugees as “lawbreakers” and “criminals”; when refugees apply for legal aid and lodge judicial reviews, they are said to be “wasting taxpayer’s hard-earned money”, as if they should not be allowed the basic right to access justice. What is more saddening though is to witness blatant racism and even racial slurs – be it in online forums, news stories and comments or social media pages – directed towards certain ethnic minorities.

These sorts of abuses are, hopefully, on the more extreme end. But prejudice is prevalent in Hong Kong society and, if it is left unchecked, can easily flourish into xenophobia. As someone who is born and bred in Hong Kong, it is disheartening to see the general indifference towards these sorts of abuse. “What does it matter and what does it have to do with me?” was the most common response when I brought up the issue with friends. It matters because refugees are people, and because they are fleeing their countries for very real reasons.

I would not have made the connection that my own family had a refugee history if it was not for working with Justice Centre on the #SharedPasts project. My grandparents fled China and came to Hong Kong during times of war and turmoil. They were living on sweet potatoes and tree bark for some time during the war. My grandfather was made to stand under the blistering sun with his infant son, my uncle, and was nearly killed by a Japanese officer when he put a hat on his baby. He was spared when the village chief offered the officer a cigarette in exchange for my grandfather’s life. These are stories that Hong Kongers know by heart, and the reasons that compelled my grandparents to risk their lives and flee their country are the same as those that force refugees to flee their homes today.

Upon reflection, I also realise that I did not know much about refugees in Hong Kong prior to entering college. I had heard about refugees, of course, but I thought of them as being in some faraway war-torn country. This is why the government’s deliberate anti-refugee rhetoric is so harmful: when the public knows so little about refugees in Hong Kong, what the government says dominates and misleads the public discussion. The government, for a start, has the responsibility to acknowledge that the right to asylum is a human right. We need to start having a healthy conversation about refugees in Hong Kong.

Read our informal briefing to selected LegCo members of the Panel on Security here.

Check out our response in the media to the government’s anti-refugee discourse here and here.

Rachel image

Rachel Li is an external relations volunteer at Justice Centre. She is studying Literature and Law at the University of Hong Kong. 

Raising Refugee Voices

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Legal aid, LEGCO, Refugee, USM

Posted by Betsey Hawkins and two Voices for Protection participants

We are so proud to see our third intake of our Voices for Protection traineeship graduating next week. Voices for Protection is a twelve-week traineeship where refugees from different backgrounds learn how to advocate for their own rights in a safe and professional manner. The current intake has been our most diverse group yet, with refugee participants from around a dozen countries and different walks of life. We are so grateful to the wide range of guest speakers, including lawyers, journalists and human rights activists, who have come to speak to them.

Mr. Ho with two of our staff members

Mr. Ho with two of our staff members

Last week, the group had the special opportunity to meet with a Legislative Council member, Mr. Albert Ho, at the Legislative Council Complex and were very excited to be given the chance to raise their voices and advocate for themselves. After a lovely tour of the premises, thanks to our tour guide Jessica, the group sat down with Mr. Ho to share their three key messages.

The rest of this blog is jointly written by two participants of Voices for Protection, Sana from South Asia and Adam from East Africa (names changed), who have shared, in their own words, their reflections on this experience for themselves and their fellow participants.

It was a great honor for us to meet with Mr. Ho to discuss some challenges we face in Hong Kong. We realised that when we advocate together as refugees, it makes us stronger and helps to bring about change. It was empowering to speak to someone who felt sympathy, but who could also stand up for us and advocate for us. We would like to share with you the key messages that we shared with Mr. Ho.

Right to work for recognised refugees

One of the participants watching a Legislative Council session

One of the participants watching a Legislative Council session

At the meeting, Mr. Ho was already keenly aware that not being able to work is a very heavy burden on the lives of refugees. We had prepared for the meeting with a view to letting him know how we feel about this situation and how the burden of not being able to work impacts us. We advocated that refugees who have a recognised status and are waiting for resettlement, many who have been here for a long period of time, should be able to work. We know that he can’t change this problem himself, but it helps us to have allies in the Legislative Council. We brought up that the right to work is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which applies to all human beings. If we are aware of this right, the government should acknowledge it as well.

During the meeting, we talked about how working also provides a way for refugees to be more integrated in Hong Kong. One of the participants made the point that “integration within Hong Kong is good for us and good for them. We have skills to contribute to Hong Kong society. If I can be of benefit or an asset to the society, I want to be able to do that.”

Social Welfare Department tender for a new humanitarian assistance contract

The Social Welfare Department issued a tender for a new humanitarian assistance contract, which will start in mid-2015. We wanted to let Mr. Ho know some of our concerns with the current contract so that these can be changed in the next one. The issues included the lack of choice over our food, the low amount of money allocated to the housing allowance as well as the transportation budget. We were impressed that he was willing to listen to all of our specific problems as we described the hardship in making the food we are given last through the 10-day period between pick-ups.

Updates to the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM)

The USM for protection claims has been in place for just over a year. We wanted to offer Mr. Ho an idea of what it’s like to have to go through the system. Our greatest concern is the amount of time that it is taking for many of our claims to be processed. We are left to wonder where we are in the process and how long it will take for us to receive a decision. Mr. Ho was interested to know how many claims have been accepted and the processing times. We were impressed that he acknowledged that the long waiting times were of concern and he seemed to understand that the process should be more transparent.

Going to LegCo and speaking about our problems to a person who is a member of the law-making body made us feel empowered. Explaining our problems gave us a lightness and happiness. It energised us and made us feel happy and relieved. Even if he himself can’t give us a solution, at least we spoke up and let him know how we felt. Mr. Ho was very positive and encouraging, and he was a very patient listener. He acknowledged our voice, took notes and expressed concern. After the meeting, a fellow participant summed up our feelings and said, “I felt there is a hope that is almost tangible, that change is coming soon.”

Betsey Hawkins is a volunteer at Justice Centre, assisting in the coordination of the Voices for Protection programme. 

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