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International Refugees Find Themselves in Limbo in Hong Kong


A human rights group has called on the Hong Kong government to establish a legal framework for dealing with refugee applicants. Torture victims seeking asylum recently told tales of abuse in their home countries, and of the difficult lives they face on arriving here.

He does not give his name, but says he arrived in Hong Kong seeking asylum after fleeing his home in Cameroon, where government forces jailed him, beat him and made him drink his own urine - all because he was a member of an opposition party.

He thought he would find protection and security here. Instead, he says he has been ignored by the Hong Kong government, and given no living assistance. He lives the life of a vagrant, begging for passage on the ferries, eating spoiled fruit discarded by others, fearing he will be sent back home. "Then I was supposed to face life by my own self. No room, no shelter, no food, no money, none of these things. I will beg in the streets," he said.

The private, Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, or AHCR, says the problem is a lack of a legal framework in Hong Kong that would allow the processing of those seeking refugee status, or provide them assistance in seeking redress.

China has signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, but Hong Kong - a part of China with special status - has not. Therefore, the local government has no legal obligation to deal with refugees, and instead relies on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to process applications and provide assistance.

Hong Kong has signed the Convention Against Torture, which protects victims from being returned to their home countries, and pursuant to a court ruling in 2002, has established screening procedures to determine if any applicant has been abused. But to date, no one has been declared a torture victim or granted asylum in Hong Kong.

The AHRC hopes to persuade the government to sign the refugee convention, or at least to pass legislation providing refugees and torture victims who make their way here with the means to survive.

Mark Daly, a local lawyer who offers free counsel to asylum seekers, said it is time for Hong Kong to take responsibility. "It would be satisfactory for everybody if the Hong Kong SAR would join the over 140 jurisdictions that have had the convention extended to it [and] get on with reality, extend it to Hong Kong, get fair legislation in place and join the rest of the developed world in having fair procedures," he said.

The UNHCR says it has been pressing Hong Kong's government to sign the refugee convention for years, but a spokesman for the Hong Kong Security Bureau indicated that the government has no plans to do so.

The spokesman, who would only reply by e-mail, said that given its prosperity and liberal visa policies, Hong Kong could become liable to abuse if refugee assistance were freely available.

He did say that certain persons might be given permission to stay and assistance, but only in particularly compelling cases.

The man from Cameroon came to Hong Kong on a limited tourist visa, like many other asylum seekers, and now must dodge immigration authorities while he waits for his application to be processed by the UNHCR. The UNHCR says there are about 900 asylum-seekers and refugees awaiting resettlement here. The AHRC says about 50 of them are torture victims.

Between 1975 and 2000, Hong Kong was forced to care for more than 200,000 illegal Vietnamese migrants. Although the UNHCR promised to reimburse Hong Kong for the costs, the territory ended up having to foot most of the bill itself. The AHCR suggests that this might have played a part in Hong Kong's refusal now to open itself to refugees.

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