After dramatic scenes of Europe’s refugee crisis made global headlines, nearly 200 people marched to EU offices on Saturday’s International Refugee Protest, demanding the HK government to improve its treatment of refugees.
Europe’s response to the refugee crisis on its shores prompted hundreds to march to demand a reform of our system in Hong Kong.
Chanting, “Refugee solidarity”, participants, jointly organised by the Refugee Union of Hong Kong and Socialist Action, rallied in Central’s Chater Garden, then marched to the gates of St. John’s Building, where the European Union’s Office in Hong Kong and Macau is located. Speakers featured representatives from the League of Social Democrats, Defense of HK Freedom Alliance, and the Migrant Progressive Alliance.
Similar rallies were held on the same day in cities around the world, responding to a global call to support refugees.
Arif, a refugee from the Refugee Union, criticized the Hong Kong government’s poor treatment of refugees. “The culture of rejection is alive and well in Hong Kong,” said Arif. “The government has banned us from working and instead force us to live with minimal assistance. With only $1,500HKD [in monthly housing subsidies given to refugees], we can only live in the most dangerous and often illegal spaces in the city.” He cited the tragedy of a Sri Lankan refugee named Sivarajah Sivatharan, nicknamed “Lucky”, who died in a fire caused by dangerous electrical rigging in his Yuen Long shack in February.
“We want to be able to work and sustain our own lives,” said Arif. “We want to be able to make use of our skills and contribute to this city.”
Currently, International Social Services’ Hong Kong branch (ISS-HK) is contracted by the Social Welfare Department to provide assistance in kind to asylum seekers and torture claimants, including $1,500HKD in rental subsidies and $1,200HKD worth of Wellcome coupons, which can only be used to purchase a prescribed list of food.
Parties under fire
Donald Mak (麥英偉) from Defense of HK Freedom Alliance, criticized pro-establishment political parties for making life for refugees in Hong Kong difficult. “[The Liberal Party] completely ignores the rights that people should have, the dignity people should have.” He called on the government to give refugees the right to work. “Under the principle of a global village, we shouldn’t differentiate between jurisdictions. We should ensure that everyone has their basic human rights, including the right to work.”
Jaco Lam Jai-lung (林仔龍) from Socialist Action also echoed Mak’s comments on the position of pro-establishment parties on Hong Kong’s refugee issues. “The Liberal Party and the DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong) are the worst,” said Lam. “The Liberal Party has always been instigating and fabricating rumours, saying that many refugees are ‘faking’ and that they steal government benefits, inciting ethnic divisions and fear towards refugees. The DAB are starting to do this as well.”
Protesters also demanded change in the government’s non-refoulement claim screening process under the new Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), which the government launched in March 2014 to replace the previous programme run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Substantiated non-refoulement claims are required for refugees to be protected against deportation to their home countries.
“Many people believed that under the USM, refugees can be screened and judged fairly,” said Arif. “But what we see is still an acceptance rate of maybe 3 or 4 out of thousands of requests.” Many protesters held signs that lambasted the new programme, reading “Fake USM”.
A refugee named Apple vocalized similar concerns. “The UN was a better system [compared to the USM],” she said, referring to the program run by the UNHCR, now replaced by the government’s USM. “They know our needs. They provide for our needs. Not like USM. Many of us refugees cannot return to our home countries because our lives are in danger. The USM doesn’t understand us.”
Hong Kong currently hosts close to 10,000 refugees who, while awaiting results from the USM screening process, are unable to work. According to the government’s response to an Access to Information request by Justice Centre, a non-profit organization advocating for refugees in Hong Kong, as of November 2014, the USM had 9,500 outstanding claims, with an average of 71 cases processed per month. 636 claims were processed from March to November 2014, all of which were rejected. The current figures for USM claim determinations are unknown. The previous screening mechanism for torture claims, now replaced by the USM, recognized only 22 out of 8,764 claims, a rate of 0.2%.