By Andrew Gardener, Senior Pastor of The Vine Church, Wanchai
Recent actions by the Hong Kong Government have highlighted how the making of laws without proper consultation can detrimentally impact the vulnerable and marginalised ethnic minority groups in our city. The passing of the Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2020 on April 29 is one action that has reduced the fairness and smooth process of procedures to handle thousands of asylum-seekers with non-refoulement claims outstanding.
The xenophobic and at times racially charged language used throughout discussion of the bill, without proper representation from the group concerned, further denied them the dignity and humanity we all deserve. In another questionable action, the announcement this past week of mandatory testing for all foreign domestic workers in our city, and the expectation (now under review) that they must be vaccinated before renewing contracts, clearly discriminates against an already stigmatised ethnic group.
But perhaps the most shocking action is one that may never hit the headlines, yet needs immediate attention.
There is a group of over 13,000 people in Hong Kong who at present are not allowed vaccinations – members of the refugee and asylum-seeker population. Under the current programme, only people with an approved identity document (Hong Kong identity card, consular Corps ID card, acknowledgement of application for an identity card or certificate of exemption) are eligible for vaccination.
As non-refoulement claimants do not possess any of these documents, they are automatically shut out from receiving the protection the vaccine provides. This is in contradiction to the call by the UNHCR on World Health Day for concerted international action to ensure fair access to vaccinations, including for refugees and other forcibly displaced and stateless people. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has put it, “A ‘my country first’ approach just cannot work in a pandemic that knows no borders.”
The rationale for effectively withholding vaccines from this population seems both illogical and discriminatory. Hong Kong has secured more than enough vaccine to fully vaccinate its population, so the issue is not one of supply. Equally, take-up of the vaccine has been far below government expectations or hopes (currently sitting at less than 20 per cent of the eligible population), so the issue is not one of prioritisation. But most compelling of all is the reality that vaccination against Covid-19 should never be about immigration status but about public health and safety.
The health and well-being of everyone in Hong Kong is interdependent, so withholding vaccination to this community undermines the efficacy of the overall public health response. The government’s decision further denies this community the opportunity to become contributing members to our society through continuing to play an active role in combating Covid-19.
Our church has worked for over 15 years with refugees and asylum-seekers in Hong Kong and I count many as personal friends. These are people who come to Hong Kong as a last resort, typically fleeing life-threatening situations or other persecution, and primarily seek safety and survival. Contrary to recent rhetoric, they are not a “malignant tumour” in society but human beings with a right to equal access to justice, health care, and critical social welfare. Citizenship should be irrelevant in a human crisis.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said this week: “We will try our very best to encourage the public to get vaccination … so we can meet the biggest demand of the public, which is to get out of the pandemic that has lasted more than 15 months.” As this is the government’s objective, it’s time for it to act in the interests of all members of the public and welcome refugees and asylum-seekers for vaccination.
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