Pro-Beijing lawmaker Elizabeth Quat is facing criticism from rights groups after she said that asylum-seekers “abuse” Hong Kong’s immigration system, and compared the current resettlement process to a “malignant tumour.”

“For years, the abuse of the non-refoulement system has been a pressing problem in Hong Kong,” Quat told the Legislative Council on Wednesday during a debate on a controversial immigration bill. “We need to use all possible means to heal this malignant tumour in order to have space to help those who really need it.”

Elizabeth Quat
Elizabeth Quat. Photo: LegCo.

A spokesperson for human rights group Justice Centre Hong Kong told HKFP they were “saddened” to see legislators make “biased, racist and xenophobic remarks” during the debate.  

“We are also alarmed by similarly misleading and xenophobic language in some of the press, including references to ‘fake refugees’, ‘malignant tumours’ and false constructions of refugees as criminals,” the spokesperson said.

The legislature approved controversial changes to the Immigration Ordinance that will give the immigration chief sweeping powers to ban residents and others from entering or leaving the territory. The bill passed with 39 votes in favour and two against.

The government says the law is aimed at curbing the arrival of asylum-seekers and there is no intention to curb departures. But critics fear it could be used to prevent residents and others from leaving the city.

Effective from August 1, the Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2020 will empower the government to bar a passenger or a crew member from boarding a plane to enter or leave the territory. The changes will also allow immigration detention officers to carry guns and steel batons while on duty.

airport departures
File photo: via CC 2.0.

Dismissing concerns from lawyers and activists, the government has said the bill’s main objective is to “improve” asylum application procedures and clear a backlog of claims, formally called non-refoulement claims. The changes will include reducing the time allowed for applications and introducing measures to enforce immigration laws for the removal and detention of immigrants.

In a statement Wednesday, the Justice Centre said the changes would “reduce fairness and protection available to one of the most vulnerable communities in Hong Kong.”

“By denying asylum-seekers and refugees equal dignity, our society also denies these brave survivors of horrendous rights violations equal access to justice and critical social welfare,” it said.

Recent anti-refugee rhetoric

The Programmes Manager at Christian Action’s Centre for Refugees, Jennifer Moberg Pforte, told HKFP that anti-refugee rhetoric has “unfairly portrayed all asylum-seekers and refugees as bogus claimants, here to take our resources and end up committing crimes in our city.”

“Most refugees are law-abiding, contributing members of Hong Kong, and deserve to be treated as human beings like the rest of us,” said Pforte.

fake refugee dab
DAB politicians campaigning against “fake refugees.” File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a multilateral treaty which defines the term “refugee” and outlines their legal status. It has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates worldwide. 

The government seldom resettles asylum-seekers in the city, sending those whose claims of non-refoulement are accepted to a safe third country. While they wait they are not allowed to work or even do volunteer work and are dependent on subsidies and food vouchers from the government.

Between late 2009 and March 2021, the government heard 23,299 non-refoulment claims but only 249 – one per cent — were approved for resettlement.

hong kong refugees asylum protest
Photo: Danny Sierra.

“In these challenging times, we should find ways to have mutual understanding, dialogue, and representation, where they as stakeholders in this discussion should have a voice,” Pforte said.  

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Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.