The Hong Kong government, in its treatment of asylum seekers, is apparently trying to be humane. However, the effect of its policy is the exact opposite of what it intends, rewarding those who are most undeserving, and harming those who are most deserving. Why?
There are some 7,000 people from South Asia and Africa seeking asylum in Hong Kong, making their claims to either the refugee agency UNHCR or the Hong Kong government. Some asylum seekers are fleeing torture, or political, ethnic or religious persecution; others are seeking economic advantage. Poverty in fact is closely linked to violence and persecution in developing countries, making it often difficult to separate the two streams.
A very few, lucky asylum seekers will have their claims decided upon favourably and will resettle in North America or Europe. The vast majority, however, will be rejected, will appeal, and will end up waiting in Hong Kong indefinitely, perhaps eventually to be deported or they will voluntarily return home. While claims are assessed, the Hong Kong government provides them with a very minimal life - HK$1,000 a month in rent aid, plus several bags of groceries every month and emergency health care, but prohibits them from working.
Hong Kong's policies appear, at first glance, to be reasonable. Understandably, the government does not want the city to be flooded with tens or hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum after hearing of generous aid polices. At the same time, the government is desperate to avoid having destitute asylum seekers starving to death on the city's streets; thus, it provides a bare minimum of assistance.
However, a major problem is that the screening procedures of UNHCR and the government are inadequate, sometimes giving the undeserving refugee status, while denying the most deserving. They can also be unbelievably lengthy, taking five or more years to complete. If comprehensive refugee policies were implemented, and the process was speeded up, they could become a model of effective, humane government.
At present Hong Kong's approach towards asylum seekers doesn't work. While it should uphold international standards and grant legal status to people seeking asylum, and eventually allow those it recognises as refugees or victims of torture to stay, it actually denies them durable solutions, indirectly benefiting the wrong people.
Economic asylum seekers flourish, while political asylum seekers suffer. Illegal work in Hong Kong is easily available and difficult to prosecute. So while those who come to Hong Kong to work can easily do so and return home after a few years, others are forced to work because of the lack of sympathetic refugee policies. Still others, especially those who have faith in the UNHCR and the government, believe that prosecution for illegal work would jeopardise their chances of being accepted as a refugee. So they refuse to gamble by working, but only wait, hovering on the edge of absolute poverty and brooding over the impasse to which their lives have brought them.
In advising an up-and-coming entrepreneur from the developing world, one might justifiably say: 'Come to Hong Kong and become an asylum seeker. You might make a good living!' In advising someone fleeing torture or persecution, one the other hand, one might justifiably say: 'Don't come to Hong Kong! You will be destroyed here.' Hong Kong's asylum seeker policies most hurt those it most seeks to help.
Here is a solution. Screen prospective asylum seekers upon their arrival. Allow them to work for a limited number of hours per week to save on government aid, while enabling them to survive legally rather than forcing them to work illegally.
Expand migrant labour schemes to let people choose whether to come here as asylum seekers or on two-year non-renewable work permits. If alternative routes to migration were available, people would no longer seek asylum as their only option.
This system would ensure refugee protection while still providing Hong Kong with an inexpensive, readily available and flexible labour force. At present, cheap labour is provided by asylum seekers.
In this, the current system has its benefits. It allows the Hong Kong government to deny permanent settlement to people it deems lack the skills to contribute to society, while providing the means to closely monitor the illegal population needed for the profit of many Hong Kong businesses.
If this is indeed the case, then it may be that the present shortcomings in policy towards asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not only matters of unforeseen consequences, but a matter of entirely foreseen intent. Could it be that the Hong Kong government actively seeks for its policy towards asylum seekers to fail?
Gordon Mathews is a professor of anthropology at Chinese University, and has led a weekly discussion group for asylum seekers over the past four years. Francesco Vecchio is a doctoral candidate in criminology at Monash University, Australia, researching refugees and mixed migrations in Asia