This week, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sent a strong message to UK politicians following the “Brexit” campaign. In its Concluding Observations to the United Kingdom, the UN human rights expert body expressed deep concern that the campaign was “marked by divisive, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric”, and went on to blame prominent political figures for “not only failing to condemn… but also creating and entrenching prejudices”, thereby “emboldening” members of the public to carry out acts of intimidation and hate crimes towards minority groups.

Unfortunately for the UK, the damage has already been done – there has been an “epidemic of hate”, the bitter fruit borne of months of fear-mongering and anti-migrant campaigning by the “Vote Leave” camp.

Just hours after the referendum, a wave of incidents of racial abuse and harassment of migrants and minorities was reported; these have only proliferated since. More than 3,000 allegations of hate crimes were made to the police in the week before and after the vote, a 42% increase from the year before.

In similar vein in the United States, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has been relentless – lowering the ethical bar to levels never seen before in American politics. He has repeatedly called “illegal immigrants” in the United States “rapists” and “criminals” and just yesterday vowed to deport millions of people during his “first hour in office.”

He has not only targeted migrants, but also mocked women and people with disabilities. It is no surprise that white supremacists in the United States have rallied around him. However, for most of the electorate, his dark view of America is unsettling.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because we are seeing similar trends in Hong Kong. Certain political factions are rallying around anti-immigrant, xenophobic slogans. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, these tactics have gone almost completely unchallenged.

Sharing experiences hong kong unison
Sharing experiences at the “Human Library” event by Hong Kong Unison. Photo: Hong Kong Unison.

While the intention may be the short-term aim of capturing votes for elections on Sunday, we are at risk of unpicking Hong Kong’s progress in promoting social harmony, multiculturalism and racial tolerance for years to come.

For over a year, Justice Centre and other ethnic minority, refugee and migrant-serving organizations have noted a marked shift in the discourse of the HKSAR Administration.

It has moved from referring to refugees in neutral terms as “non-refoulement claimants” to employing specifically ethnic terms (“non-Chinese illegal immigrant” or “NECII”), often invoking criminality.

We have documented a large increase in the volume of press releases issued by the government about protection claimants and those seeking asylum; in the past six months in particular, several have issued each week, and these focus exclusively on crime and abuse of the system.

refugees fake dab
Photo: HKFP.

At the same time, we have seen a sharp increase in the level of press coverage, mostly negative, towards refugees and “illegal immigrants” (the two terms are often conflated).

For example, from December 2015 to April 2016, according to a government paper (although there is no public statistical database), there was an increase in the backlog of protection claims from 10,922 to 11,178 – a change of 2.34%. On the face of it, this is a small increase and hardly merits much attention.

However, our research shows that in one local media outlet, for example, the total number of articles with the word “refugee” in 2015, compared to the first half of 2016, increased by 880% and the number of articles about “refugees” and “crime” rose by 1,327%. This is completely out of proportion and distorts perceptions among the public.

It’s not surprising that several social media groups have grown up, whose online forums include comments that amount to racial vilification and incitement to violence – not just towards refugees and migrants, but towards ethnic minorities generally.

ethnic minorities
File photo: Hong Kong Unison.

When Justice Centre has requested crime statistics, what we have found is that the total number of “non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants on recognizance” arrested for “serious crimes” was 95 in January 2015 and 87 in January 2016. This is just a fraction of the cases of serious crimes – 3.55% in 2015 to be exact – with the vast majority being committed by Hong Kong residents.

Worryingly, only statistics on the number of arrests, and not the number of prosecutions or actual convictions, are provided or reported, essentially only telling us about people suspected to be guilty, but not proven to be so, despite us asking for this.

justice centre graph
Number of “NECII on recognizance arrested” (Jan 2015-Feb 2016) by month for “serious crimes”

What this does show is that there is currently no reliable evidential basis for claims about refugees and so-called “illegal immigrants” being involved in any spike in serious crime. Yet policy papers about claimants reiterate that “illegal immigrants” have caused a worsening crime situation; that they pose a threat to “social and public order”, and that this has caused “considerable public concern”.

This is powerful language for any government to use. Likewise, some political parties have created campaign materials and public banners making strong accusations about refugees and migrants in relation to violent crime in particular. What is going on?

refugee protests
Photo: Dan Garrett.

Sadly, the answer appears to be gutter politics – using negative stereotyping and fear-mongering to grab votes.

This escalation in discriminatory language prompted more than 150 civil society organisations and prominent individuals in the community to sign a joint statement in April calling for a stop to discrimination and calm on the refugee debate.

ethnic minorities speaking at a forum
Representatives from minority groups speaking at a forum in 2012. File photo: Hong Kong Unison.

In response to this statement, some political parties and public figures stated that they were not racist, but rather, they felt the so-called “bad” ethnic minorities were unfairly tarnishing the reputation of the “good” ethnic minorities.

But as a refugee once put it to me quite bluntly, there is no post-it note on refugees’ foreheads saying that they are seeking asylum. And this means that if you foster and agitate anti-refugee sentiment, it bleeds into racism and generalised discrimination towards anyone who looks different – whether they happen to be a Hong Kong citizens, a refugee, or an economic migrant (“expats” included).

As the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination noted, governments, politicians and the media should be providing the public with accurate information to combat prejudices rather than fueling them. But what our documentation and media mapping appear to show is that the opposite may be happening.

The effects of all of this are already showing. The focus on crime and a “surge” in claims has created support for regressive proposals to reinstate detention camps and even pull Hong Kong out of the UN Convention against Torture – a fundamental international human rights treaty.

This is despite the fact that the financial costs and psychological harm of detention centres in other countries have been well-documented, and that UN CAT protects the rights of all people in the HKSAR territory.

ethnic minorities
Photo: Hong Kong Unison.

A poll released a couple of days ago by the Department of Asian and Policy Studies found that only 4.7% of those surveyed held positive views towards asylum-seekers and refugees. Of those who had a negative opinion, almost two-thirds cited that they felt “society was unsafe”. Nonetheless, almost half admitted that they did not know much information about asylum seekers and refugees, and 80.7% agreed with the statement that Hong Kong people need to know more about other ethnic groups. Almost all reported that they receive information on these issues from the media.

These figures are sobering, yet they offer a glimmer of hope. The answers by those polled show that Hong Kong people want to learn more about minority groups. It is therefore the duty of governments to promote a culture of respect and to raise awareness and understanding about refugees, migrants and ethnic minorities.

Democracy and respect for multiculturalism go hand-in-hand. We should always be wary of politicians – anywhere – who try to bring division and intolerance into mainstream politics. In the lifetime of one election it might seem like an easy strategy to scapegoat vulnerable groups, but at what price?

If we look around, we can see that picking on the marginalised and powerless in society causes long-lasting harm and division, to the detriment of all of us.

hong kong refugees asylum protest
Photo: Danny Sierra.

Exactly one year ago a haunting image of a Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on Europe’s shores, galvanized citizens around the world to help people who are the innocent victims of conflict and persecution.

A refugee is that boy. A refugee is a person, with a story, a life, a family, accomplishments, hardships, hopes and a desire for safety and belonging.

As the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said on World Humanitarian Day last week, “Nobody is ever just a refugee. Nobody is ever just a single thing.” Voters around the world should not let opportunistic politicians make them believe otherwise.

Justice Centre Hong Kong consists of committed human rights advocates working fearlessly to protect the rights of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable forced migrants – refugees, other people seeking protection and survivors of modern slavery.