Immigration bill amendment threatens fair asylum process, refugee rights group says

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The bill aims at improving the efficiency of handling asylum applications, but some denounce it for being unfair to claimants.

Photo by Ethan Lee on Unsplash.

Earlier this month, the Legislative Council gazetted an Immigration (Amendment) Bill which would affect the process of non-refoulement claims and the treatment of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Its first reading was held on Wednesday.

Under the current arrangement, the Immigration Department (ImmD) can only begin the deportation process after both the claimants’ appeal and related judicial review are rejected. The bill would allow the ImmD to begin the deportation process, including commencing liaison with authorities such as the claimants’ home country and other governments, once a claim has been rejected by an immigration officer.

The bill also suggests changes to other parts of the asylum seeking procedure, such as shortening the notice period for oral hearings and arming officers deployed at immigration centres. 

The amendment proposal asserts that “[t]he overall policy objective on handling non-refoulement claims is to ensure that claims and relevant appeals are handled as efficiently as possible whilst meeting the high standards of fairness required by law as set down by the Court, and to remove unsuccessful claimants from Hong Kong as soon as possible.”

Some do not agree with the government’s reasoning to the amendment. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APPRN), a Bangkok-based campaign group, issued a statement on Wednesday opposing the LegCo bill, stating it would contravene international standards and undermine the fairness of Hong Kong’s refugee screening mechanism.

“[The bill] breaches core principles of confidentiality during the asylum process, and potentially increases persecution and retaliation risk for the claimant. As the majority of asylum applications are substantiated on appeal or following judicial review challenges, the impact of this proposal must not be underestimated,” the AAPRN told Harbour Times.

APPRN also criticises Hong Kong’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the statement, citing that the city’s refugee recognition rate is below 1 percent, among the lowest in the developed world.

The campaign group called for the government to thoroughly review the bill and ensure the fairness and transparency of immigration procedures and treatments of claimants. Recommendations in the statement include establishing an independent mechanism to investigate complaints and monitor places of detention and improving claimants’ access to publicly funded legal assistance.

“We call on the Hong Kong Government to conduct meaningful and comprehensive consultations with stakeholders, including civil society organisations and members of the refugee community, prior to introducing any legislative amendments. Reforms to the Unified Screening Mechanism must be in line with international standards and Hong Kong’s human rights obligations.”

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