Taken for a Ride

The trickle of illegal immigrants into Hong Kong is turning into a stream. It will soon become a flood which overwhelms us unless the government takes resolute action now to control the situation.

Let’s get some facts on the table. There are now over 11,000 asylum seekers in our city, and the number is growing. The lead time for assessing their claims for refugee status is currently over two years and getting longer by the day. It is obvious that only a small number are genuine refugees, the majority are would-be economic migrants in search of a better life. There are several aspects of our present policies and procedures that aggravate the situation rather than mitigate it.

We also need to face some other facts. We are a modern, wealthy city with a reasonable standard of living and practically zero unemployment, in a continent where there is still considerable poverty. There are literally millions of people who would like to come and live here. At the same time, we are a responsible member of the international community and could not in good conscience turn away persons with a well-founded fear of persecution.

In other words, we are an inviting target and people who come here know they will be treated in a civilised way. For many the temptation is proving too strong, and the people smugglers are having a field day.

What can we do about it? Step one, we should take all new arrivals into custody, and detain them in a camp while their claims are assessed speedily and thoroughly. The present policy of releasing them all on recognizance and paying them a small monthly allowance is simply not working. It practically invites them to take up illegal employment where they are vulnerable to exploitation, or pushes them into criminal behaviour which adversely affects the community at large.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying is quite right, we cannot wait for a camp to be provided in Shenzhen (though I can understand and sympathise with Regina Ip’s suggestion), we will have to re-purpose quickly one of our existing institutions on the outlying islands.

Step two, persons determined to be genuine refugees must be allowed out of the camp and permitted to take up employment. In other words they become Hong Kong citizens unless and until they choose to go to live somewhere else. Those found to have no genuine claim to refugee status, and not at risk of persecution, should be promptly returned where they came from.

The present policy to accord people refugee status and then deny them the ability to live a normal life is an affront to their dignity and human rights. At the same time, allowing illegal immigrants to stay simply invites more to come and take a chance, while allowing thousands to wander the streets unassessed is unfair to Hong Kong people.

There is a wrinkle here which may bring the Shenzhen angle back into play. Those who came directly from another country and found to be without a genuine claim should go directly back. But what about those who went legally to Guangdong and were then smuggled into Hong Kong? Should their claims not be assessed in the mainland? After all that was the first place to give them shelter.

Step three, those currently out on recognizance should be gradually swept up into the new system.

There is going to be a strong critical reaction to such a package from all sides. Refugee concern groups both local and overseas will argue against detention on first arrival on human rights grounds. They need to get real: Australia is sending boats back to Indonesian waters; Europe has just done a questionable – but pragmatic – deal with Turkey; in the USA, presidential election candidates are competing to be toughest on illegal immigration. Paradoxically, the potential refugees themselves would probably accept the arrangement provided they had a genuine case and were confident it would be handled fairly and promptly. The Legislative Council would object to the additional expense for maintaining the camp and providing additional staff for speeding up the vetting. Most of those now freely wandering the streets will recognise the game is up and try to argue for an amnesty.

But the prime duty of the government is to devise urgently a package which protects Hong Kong people from unmerited gate crashers, while preserving our reputation as a humane society.