Posted by Victoria Wisniewski Otero
Information is power. What we cannot measure, we cannot improve. So for governments to monitor and evaluate policies, it’s crucial that they put solid data systems in place, which are an important tool to hold governments to account for human rights. We can know what works, so that it can be replicated, and what doesn’t, so it can be reviewed and rectified, which is all the more important in times of transition, when policies and systems are new.
This is exactly why we have been pushing the Hong Kong Government to produce information on how its new screening system to process refugee and other protection claims – known as the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) – is working. Unfortunately, even in the age of big data and unlike many other countries, Hong Kong does not produce regular, publicly available statistics on its screening system. The only avenue left has been for us to make individual requests to the Immigration Department through Hong Kong’s Access to Information Code.
We placed two such requests to contrast this information with the sparse and selective statistics provided earlier by the Administration in a LegCo Panel on Security paper. Here’s what the numbers we got through using the Access to Information Code tell us about the roughly 9,500 outstanding USM claims.
NO RECOGNITIONS SO FAR
Of the claims received, as of 31 July, 862 had commenced the assessment process. From March to July, 301 people withdrew their claims or did not take further action on them and 164 claims were determined. Of these 164, none were substantiated, although around half filed an appeal or petition. We have since learned that the latest numbers are 504 determinations – but there are still zero recognitions. The previous government torture screening mechanism that existed before the USM only ever had 22 claims recognised out of 8,764 determined, setting a worrying recognition rate of 0.2%. These numbers raise several red flags when compared with other countries’ recognition rates.
HOW ARE CASES BEING PRIORTISED?
Unfortunately, the government has not provided us with a full breakdown of cases received and cases resolved accounting for ALL nationalities in its response to our request. Only 10 nationalities are listed, and the earlier Panel on Security paper, which is the only public paper with USM statistics, even went as far as to only list 5 nationalities (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines). The remaining countries are lumped into an “others” category, and although 467 claims fall under this “others” category according to USM claims received, only 4 of them were determined.
Why is this troubling to us? At our centre, we provide intensive legal and psychosocial support to the most vulnerable and traumatised claimants. Most of them come from countries that fall into this “others” category, such as Somalia (by far), Pakistan, India, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Iran, Guinea and Egypt. None of the people we provide this individual assistance to have start their USM interviews. We don’t have information on how the government is choosing to prioritise cases and the extent to which vulnerability factors into this equation.
EXTREMELY SLOW PROCESSING
In May, the Administration estimated that in the USM’s first year, 1,500 claims could be determined. However, at the rate that the Immigration Department is going of having processed 500 claims in six months, they will not reach this target. Even if they processed claims at the benchmark they set, it would take still take them more than six years to go through the outstanding claims, not factoring in withdrawals or new arrivals. Obviously, the system has to process claims faster, but without compromising high standards of fairness.
WHAT ELSE WE’D LIKE TO KNOW
There’s a lot more that we and other stakeholders would like know, and we plan to follow-up with more of these requests in the coming months. We recently held a lunchtime discussion at our centre on in the spirit of sharing this information and providing a forum to discuss these issues, attended by other NGOs, churches, UNHCR representatives and many of our pro bono lawyers from our corporate partnerships.
Some ideas included asking for more information on interpretation services, the humanitarian assistance and trainings offered to duty lawyers (who provide free legal aid to claimants) and immigration officers as well as staffing and financial resourcing of the USM system. Other ideas included asking about vulnerability criteria, how many people have filed letters to have their claim fast-tracked, how claims are prioritised and how long people have had open claims, on average, before they withdraw. We also plan to ask for more information on decisions to grant or reject permission to work and on durable solutions for people who get a positive decision – currently they cannot stay in Hong Kong.
A PERSON BEHIND EACH NUMBER
Of course, these figures represent people whose lives hang in the balance of this new system. We must never lose sight of this when we scrutinise data. However, statistics are part and parcel of any functional system. It is the government’s duty to not only produce regular, public statistics, but to present these findings in a neutral, not a misleading way and to respond to trends. It is both principle of good governance and accountability to the public, and most importantly, a matter of justice to the people behind these numbers.
Click here to view our PPT presentation from our October 28 Lunchtime Discussion on Statistical Trends in the Unified Screening Mechanism
Please read a 9 November SCMP article “Refugee screening system still slow and opaque, critics say” with an interview with our Advocacy Officer Victoria Wisniewski Otero and a refugee spokeswoman.