The Immigration Department is investigating whether there has been any abuse of the torture claim system.

Immigration Department Assistant Director Fung Pak-ho told local media that many torture claim applicants deliberately delay their cases by claiming that they were ill or emotionally unstable, failing to show up for their appointments with Immigration officers, challenging medical reports written by the Hospital Authority, or applying for judicial review.

The Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) was implemented last year and as of July 2015, there are 10,059 claims pending determination in Hong Kong.

Assistant Director Fung Pak-ho. Source: Apple Daily.
Assistant Director Fung Pak-ho. Photo: Apple Daily.

“Once, there were over a dozen torture claimants on the same flight, and the moment they landed, there were lawyers saying they wanted to lodge a claim. There have even been cases where we received a letter from the lawyer before the claimant reached Hong Kong.” Fung told Sing Tao Daily. It was also reported that 59 percent of the cases are handled by the same law firm.

The Immigration Department is now looking into whether any of these claims involve champerty and maintenance. “We’ll collect and analyse information about the torture claims we have received and try to find out who arranged for them to come, who the ‘boss’ is, and whether any professionals are involved in this,” said Fung.

Others believe it is more of an issue of systematic failure. “The government isn’t going to blame itself—so it has to blame the claimants. Now there’s this new game of blaming the lawyers,” human rights lawyer Mark Daly told HKFP.

“If it had set up the system 10 years ago when it was told by the experts to do so, there would not be this rise in the numbers. There still isn’t a proper system where these cases can be fairly and efficiently dealt with. The numbers are growing and now the government is looking for scapegoats,” he said.

Victoria Wisniewski Otero, Acting Director of External Relations at Justice Centre Hong Kong, also shares this view. “Many refugee and human rights groups have noticed a turn for the worse in the government’s discourse and press statements in relation to refugees. The Hong Kong government has a duty to promote human rights by raising public awareness and promoting tolerant attitudes…Information on the USM has so far been selective and ad-hoc, which can give rise to misinterpretation and misuse of data,” she told HKFP.

Fung, who works at the Enforcement & Removal Assessment branch, told The Sun that there have only been 36 successful cases of torture claims since 2009 and that it is for the public to decide whether some claimants have been abusing the system. He emphasised that the Hong Kong government is very willing to help and give protection to “genuine” torture claimants. 

“There have been cases where [the claimants] could speak English at first, but then suddenly say that they only knew their local dialect. It’s very difficult to find interpreters for some dialects in Africa, so it’s been a headache for all of us,” Fung told Sky Post. Fung also pointed to claimants who refused to fill in torture claim forms because of the emotional trauma brought about by recalling memories of being persecuted.

Village houses and flats overlook a ramshackle slum in Lam Tei. Photo: HKFP.

Otero, on the other hand, asked for more sensitivity when dealing with such issues.

“Many refugees have very real special needs, such as mental and physical health concerns or interpretation, and we can’t emphasise enough how much addressing these is imperative for them to be able to have a fair screening. For example, if someone is severely traumatised, such as people who are survivors of torture or sexual and gender-based violence, talking about what happened to them in a coherent and chronological manner for the legal process may be extremely difficult without psycho-social interventions first…Rather than victim-blaming for backlogs, the government should make more proactive efforts to ensure there is proper training and resources invested in the USM system,” said Otero.

Fung said that these cases have put a strain on resources and that the government has allocated HKD$640 million this year to deal with the issue and provide legal aid to the applicants.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.