The government has sent 68 people living in Hong Kong without legal permission back to their home country of Vietnam. They were deported on the first-ever charter flight since the introduction of a new screening method for refugee claimants.

The Immigration Department announced Friday that the group were put on a Hanoi-bound charter flight the previous day. It said the “relatively large-scale” operation marked the first time the government chartered a flight since the Unified Screening Mechanism was introduced in 2014.

illegal immigration
The group were put on a charter flight. Photo: Immigration Department.

Assistant Director William Fung Pak-ho said that the group comprised of 30 males and 38 females aged between 18 and 64, around half of whom were unsuccessful refugee claimants. The remaining three were children below the age of two.

He said they had stayed in Hong Kong for an average duration of ten months, and that they voluntarily agreed to return. Fung declined to disclose how much the operation cost.

The government launched the Unified Screening Mechanism in March 2014 to determine claims for non-refoulement protection against expulsion. People who do not have the right to remain in Hong Kong may make the claims based on fear of torture or persecution.

Low rate of acceptance

Following the introduction of the system, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees no longer assesses asylum claims. The Immigration Department is vested with the power to make final decisions instead.

But rights groups have criticised the new system for not being helpful to asylum seekers, with a low success rates for claims. The government said last year that only 52 of around 7,000 refugee claims – or 0.7 per cent – were substantiated.

Fung said the Immigration Department will be able to increase the efficiency of deportation operations after building on past experiences of handling unsubstantiated cases.

illegal immigration
Police on standby as the group were put on a charter flight. Photo: Immigration Department.

See also: No play, no future: The bleak prospects for refugee children in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN’s refugee convention and does not grant asylum. Successful cases are referred to other countries for resettlement.

The Immigration Department received 1,743 non-refoulement claims between January and November this year, a slight drop of 5 per cent compared to last year. There are 6,362 pending refugee claims as of the end of November.

Government data show that most refugee claimants came from China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.