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Wednesday, December 9, 2015, 09:29

We should give recognized refugees the right to meaningful work

By Andrew Mitchell

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series discussing issues surrounding refugees in Hong Kong.

‘Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.” That is what the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote.

We should give recognized refugees the right to meaningful work It is a view that clearly resonates with many of us today, judging from the ubiquity of the quotation online. This should come as no great surprise, as the right to work is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and as such is deeply etched into the collective modern consciousness.

And yet, here in Hong Kong, refugees are denied this fundamental human right, even after their claims for asylum have been substantiated. Only with the express approval of the Immigration Department can recognized refugees legally work here. But in practice the approval is rarely ever granted.

As a result, nearly 150 recognized refugees here are currently dependent on government assistance while they wait to be resettled overseas (the SAR government does not allow any refugees to settle permanently in Hong Kong). The process can take several years to complete.

During this period the refugees are eligible for government assistance in the form of a monthly rent allowance of HK$1,500, which is paid directly to the landlord, and a monthly food allowance of HK$1,200 in the form of coupons. The allowances are woefully inadequate, and effectively consign the recipients to a life of poverty in the so-called “refugee slums” dotted around the New Territories.

Fortunately a number of local charities have stepped in to support the refugees. Christian Action, for example, operates a service center for refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to assistance with basic essentials such as shelter, food, clothing and toiletries, the center offers education and training support, as well as psychosocial and mental health services.

However, as invaluable as all these services are, they are no substitute for granting recognized refugees the right to work. For only by providing for themselves and their families can these people fully regain their human dignity.

So why, then, does the SAR government deny the right to work to recognized refugees here? After all, their numbers are so low that they would barely impact on the local workforce.

The answer to the question is actually very simple: Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations’ Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which clearly sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum. Among these rights is the right to work. So in the absence of any international obligations regarding refugees, the SAR government is effectively free to deny them their right to work.

The rights of refugees, however, extend far beyond the right to work. They also include, for instance, the fundamental right to claim asylum. And although this right is in fact ultimately extended to all refugees here, it is not always afforded to them on arrival in the SAR. In one example a refugee claiming asylum at Hong Kong International Airport was reportedly given a tourist visa instead. As a result, in order to initiate his claim for asylum, he had to first overstay and then hand himself in to the police. So, for this refugee, the road to asylum had to begin with a crime and a period of detention.

This state of affairs is clearly unacceptable, especially in a society which has to a large extent been built by immigrants and refugees. Therefore, as well as for the sake of all the recognized refugees here, Hong Kong must become a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention as soon as possible.

China has been a signatory to the convention since 1982. So, in essence, all the SAR government needs to do is follow the lead of the central government. Then, with just a flick of the pen, more than 100 men and women will once again be able to find, in the words of Dostoevsky, their reason for existence.

The author is the director of Oxford Blue, a company providing English language services in Hong Kong.

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