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.
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.