By Tony Read

Border control and immigration are high on the agenda of most countries in the world as a result of migration issues in Europe.

In Hong Kong we might think that we have much more pressing issues to resolve than migration. But recently there was a rare glimpse into the mind of the Hong Kong Administration on immigration policy at a Security Panel meeting in LegCo. This was convened ostensibly to review the operation of the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) used to assess asylum seekers.

Photo: Dan Garrett.

It should have been a careful appraisal of the achievements and shortcomings of the USM system in dealing with asylum claims. Instead it turned into a long series of questions from legislators about ways to prevent and deter people from coming to Hong Kong to make claims in the first place.

One disturbing aspect of the review was the way some legislators chose to ignore the factual evidence of the administration’s statistics, showing a reduction in illegal immigrants and a decrease in the number of people making claims for protection since 2014.

Instead they preferred to believe the narrative of crime, abuse and social unrest reported by some sections of the local press as evidence that Hong Kong was facing a serious refugee crisis which needed urgent and drastic action by tightening border control and getting tough with USM protection claimants. It is frightening when decisions which affect people’s lives are based on the strength of negative rhetoric in a newspaper rather than the statistics produced by government.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Hong Kong’s USM approach was contained in the Council’s background note for legislators.

“The administration has a long-established policy of not granting asylum to any non-refoulement claimants…. The illegal immigrant status of non-refoulement claimants will not change …… regardless of (assessment) result.”

This implies firstly, that the emphasis of the USM is primarily as a means of screening out claimants for deportation, rather than determining those who are at risk and need protection in Hong Kong. Secondly, it means that even if a claimant is successful they will never, ever be able to obtain right of abode, but worse still will forever remain illegal immigrants until the day they leave Hong Kong.

The performance of the USM should have been assessed on its ability to fulfil several essential requirements within the overall framework of immigration control. An effective policy needs tight border control balanced by rigorous implementation of human rights legislation.

Photo: Danny Sierra.

It is not acceptable to use a policy of non-acceptance of refugees as an attempt to deter illegal immigration. Any screening process must be both professional and employ a high degree of fairness. Open monitoring by trained lawyers will be an essential component of ensuring it is free from policy bias.

Finally successful claimants must be allowed to pursue their aspirations and contribute to society without the indignity of bearing the “illegal immigrant” label forever. Hong Kong deserves better than that.

Tony Read is Justice Advocate for The Vine Community Services Ltd.

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