The future of human rights

Published on . Posted in Blog, Clinical education, Refugee

Posted by Vivian Cheung, May 29, 2014

Earlier this week, I was reading an article about Tiananmen activists seeking safety in Hong Kong back in the 1980s, and the role that some Hong Kong citizens played to ensure their safe passage across the border and beyond. I was struck by the courage and ingenuity of those involved who helped the protesters and what they risked to protect and support those who had fled.

Twenty five years later, we see human rights activists in Hong Kong in the people we know; those who strive to amplify the voices of those who are not heard – NGOs, charity groups, individuals, human rights advocates and public interest lawyers, to name but a few. At Justice Centre, we believe in investing in the next generation of human rights defenders to protect the rights of refugees and other people seeking protection here.

This is why we established a Clinical Legal Education Programme in 2007 in partnership with the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). This is a programme that I took part in during my time as a student, and now co-ordinate. Recognising the importance of engaging young professionals in refugee rights early on in their careers, we take 12 students onto the programme each semester to expose them to the actual practice of human rights law (in particular international refugee and non-refoulement protection law) in a hands-on environment where they put into practice what they learn in the class room. Through the programme, students acquire important practical skills such as interviewing protection claimants who are often vulnerable, carrying out country of origin research to support their claims and transcribing interviews.  From this year onwards, we also introduced an additional advocacy element to the programme, where students learned how to engage with international human rights mechanisms to advocate for protection claimants, harness public opinion, design human rights campaigns and use the media to lobby and bring about change.

As part of the programme, we ask students to keep a diary throughout the semester to reflect on their experiences. On our blog this week, Fiona and Kaspar, two students from our most recent intake, have kindly agreed to share excerpts from their diary and tell us what the course means to them and how they have been inspired by the programme to become future human rights lawyers and advocates.

Fiona was born and raised in Hong Kong, and is just completing the third year of her BA in Literary Studies & LLB. She writes in her diary:

Fiona“On the whole, this course equipped me with not only legal knowledge on refugee issues, but it also highlighted social and practical problems that people seeking protection are facing now in Hong Kong. After meeting with some of them at the group information sessions and the discussion on the Know Your Rights booklet, the personal tales of their experience here made me feel like I did not recognise the place they described, even though we live in the same city. It drew my attention to the public sentiment towards human rights in general in Hong Kong.

Being a city primarily prosperous in finance, there is certainly more that can be done for vulnerable groups like refugees and asylum seekers. This course has given me a foretaste of helping refugees through both legal and advocacy means, and it has certainly inspired me with ideas about my future career in this field… I am glad that I took this course at an uncertain but exciting time when refugee law in Hong Kong is evolving, and it has inspired me to continue to get involved in human rights law in the future!”

 

Kaspar is from Switzerland and is reading a Master of Laws in Human Rights. He writes:

Kaspar

“At the beginning of the semester I asked myself: could being a human rights lawyer and/or would working with refugees be something that I want to do after my studies? Can I contribute to something that seems meaningful to me?

At the end of the semester, I can answer both these questions wholeheartedly with a short yes. This means a lot for me, especially since I struggled for many years during my studies with the question of what I wanted to do with my life. I felt like I did not want to work in a company as a lawyer or for law for itself; the monetary benefit of a company is no great fascination to me. Only now, while working with refugees, when “the law serves the people” is not just a textbook sentence anymore, do I feel again that studying law has been the right decision.

The clinic strengthened my wish to work in the field of refugee law. It’s the simple importance for the life of human beings. It’s also the intellectual challenge of the law and the procedure itself that I find motivating. Additionally, I feel that this is the area where I could make the most use of my skills. I’m of much more use being a refugee lawyer than trying to construct houses in the developing world or by improving water supply systems, or by managing micro credits. It’s not only about helping people, it’s also about finding out where you can bring in your personal skills in a truly helpful way. My technical strengths lie in law. That’s why I did not stop studying even when I did not find them fulfilling enough. I am very glad to see the options now of how I could combine both my passion and my strengths.”

 

#BringBackOurGirls

Published on . Posted in Blog, Human Trafficking, Slavery

Posted by Aleta Miller, 8 May 2014

On April 15, an extremist group called Boko Haram (meaning ‘Western education is a sin’ in the Hausa language) kidnapped more than 200 girls from their school in northern Nigeria. As the Hong Kong public holiday wound to an end on Tuesday, I joined concerned friends around the world in sharing the Malala Fund’s #BringBackOurGirls banner on Facebook. If anyone is, Malala is very well placed to lend her support to this campaign – the Pakistani Taliban shot her when she was 15 because she advocated for girls’ education.  

#BringBackOurGirls

Any way you look at it, this is a horrifying situation. These girls, aged 15 to 18, were at school to take their final exams, despite security fears. They are now reportedly being auctioned off to become slaves and ‘wives’ of militants.  Initially, the international media was quiet on the issue, the story dwarfed by hysteria in the Hong Kong press about a mainland toddler weeing on the street in Mongkok, and ongoing coverage of the tragic South Korean ferry disaster and missing Malaysia Airlines plane. But now, three weeks later, #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted nearly 1 million times, and Amnesty International has launched a campaign where they are asking people to submit solidarity photos for the girls’ families. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan finally broke three weeks of silence on the plight of the girls last Sunday and said on live television ‘wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out’.

Slacktivism?

As I updated my Facebook status, I started to question myself. 200 girls are still missing after three weeks. The stories of terror, torture and rape of our clients started playing in my head. There are now more than 1 million tweets of #BringBackOurGirls, but will all this social media ‘clicking’ and sharing have any impact at all on the fate of these girls? Is this just ‘slacktivism’ on this issue, easy, feel-good actions in support of something topical that have little effect other than giving the person doing them the satisfaction that they have contributed? What can we do from Hong Kong to #BringBackOurGirls in northern Nigeria?

The truth is, I’m not sure there is much we CAN do from Hong Kong to bring the Nigerian girls back to their families. Pressure is mounting within Nigeria for the government to take action against Boko Haram, and international leaders are pushing the Nigerian government to act. Retweeting, sharing on Facebook, and joining online campaigns may play a small part in building this pressure. As I see it, the risk is that we click, we tweet, we share, and we feel that we played our small part in bringing the Nigerian girls back, and we get on with our lives. But the reality is that there are very real human rights abuses happening in Hong Kong that also involve slavery, trafficking and denial of rights which people who live here may not be aware of or be willing to do anything about.

Slavery – including forced labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude – and human trafficking happen in Hong Kong. Indeed, half the world’s slaves are in Asia. Women, men and children suffer in situations where they have been forced from their homes, from their families and their rights and freedoms taken away, situations where they cannot choose to go home, where they cannot seek safety. The truth is, we can do something about this in our city, we CAN take action and bring about change.

YOU can fight slavery

So what can you do to stop slavery here? Lots. At Justice Centre we are focused on changing the situation in Hong Kong; not the wider region, not the world, just our city, where you and I live. We are undertaking new research so we have more information about what is actually happening, preparing ground-breaking reports, lobbying the government to broaden the legal definition of trafficking, educating school and university students and speaking at companies and community groups about what is really going on and what you CAN do about it.

You can play YOUR part by inviting us to speak at your company, school or university or by joining our campaigns for change, when they arise. If you don’t work full-time, you could volunteer your time to build our campaigns, research or education work or you could support us by asking your company to donate, by running a marathon, having a bake sale or a clothes swap to raise money. Get in touch, there’s lots that can be done; there’s something that everyone CAN do.

And for those 200+ Nigerian girls? My heart aches for them and their families. For now, I’m sharing Malala’s banner, biting the bullet and signing up to Amnesty’s campaign to tell their families that the world does care. Maybe my little click, my little share, my few words will add a tiny bit more weight. And I’m channelling my rage that this can happen to even one child in any country in the world today to fuel the work that lies before us to protect women, men and children from human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Will you join me?

What’s your work ethic?

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Blog, Refugee

Posted by Adela Kamaragoda

In most countries around the world, May 1 is a celebration of Labour Day, International Workers’ Day or Fête du Travail, an annual celebration of the achievements of those lucky enough to be workers amongst us. It’s an extra day off that most of us look forward to, one we can spend with our families, indulge in hobbies or go shopping. Yet we all know, particularly those of us who have been out of work for sickness or unemployment, just  how much we find fulfillment and meaning in our lives through our jobs: as we use our skills, we make a difference in our world and feel good about ourselves, right?

On this Labour Day, let’s spare a thought for those unable to work in Hong Kong, – refugees –  not because they are ill or unfit, but because they are denied that basic right most of us are entitled to that enables us to provide for ourselves and our families.

A better life?

Refugees and people seeking protection in Hong Kong do not have the right to work, even after they have been recognised as refugees.  Do they come to Hong Kong for a better life? Certainly – they seek security, safety and freedom from persecution.  Yet in reality, life is no bed of roses for them in Hong Kong. Refugees flee their countries, having lived through unimaginable traumas like war and rape, seeking protection in our affluent city. How does our city respond? It offers substandard living conditions, inadequate food packages, limited access to healthcare and no right to work, tertiary education or even volunteering.  What type of life is this?

Hong Kong: A city of opportunity?
Photo credit: A Kamaragoda

People seeking protection in Hong Kong have so little control over their lives. They wait for years for a decision on their case, a life in limbo where they have little sense of purpose, no ability to get on with their lives. They are denied participation in society, denied the right to lead dignified lives, to have the autonomy to provide for their families. Instead, they are forced into dependence and destitution  – exacerbating the misconceptions that include horrible phrases that I don’t even want to write down. It’s a catch 22 situation.

Professionals with much to offer

In our centre we meet highly qualified refugees – doctors, lawyers, journalists, people who had a career and would have been well-respected in their home countries at one time, people who have so much to offer.  When refugees and people seeking protection come to Justice Centre, we see first-hand how their mental and physical well-being, their pride, their self-esteem and ability to meet their own needs is seriously undermined by their inability to earn a living.

Only 100 in seven million

The Hong Kong government says it can grant temporary right to work on a discretionary basis, yet there are just around four refugees who have been granted this permission. The government cites the so-called magnet effect as a reason to prohibit refugees from work, but there is no evidence to support this claim and it is not evidenced in other countries where recognised refugees are allowed to work, such as the UK.

The numbers in Hong Kong are minuscule. Recognised refugees amount to less than 100 in a city of seven million, and are not likely to increase greatly. That’s 0.00001 per cent of the population. Is that really a threat?

If refugees were granted the right to work and to volunteer, they could be a valuable asset to Hong Kong’s limited work force, and as they wait for resettlement to a third country, they could further develop their skill-set in preparation.  The reality is that with limited government assistance that gives them a meagre HK$1500 towards rent each month and bags of food equivalent to HK$13 per meal, refugees can be forced to work illegally just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. This puts them in a vulnerable position where they are at risk of exploitation, of being arrested and damages their chance of resettlement

We have been lobbying the government hard on this issue, and will continue to do so. But today, as we look forward to our days off, let’s consider just how lucky we are to be able to work, to earn a living to pay our rent and have enough to eat. It’s a privilege worth more than any pay cheque.

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.

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