Refugees in Hong Kong

Refugees in Hong Kong have formed historic waves arriving in the city due to wars in the region. More recently those seeking asylum or protection based on torture claims are a fast growing part of the city's population, soaring since 2004 due to changes in the legal system for considering asylum and torture claims mandated by local courts.[1]

As of September 2017, there are about 14,000 pending or failed asylum seekers or torture claimants, mostly from South Asia, awaiting processing, adjudication, appeals, or deportation after failure to gain refugee status.[2]

Almost none of the asylum seekers or torture claimants are ultimately sustained by immigration authorities and judicial review to have a bona fide claim and granted refugee status or protection in Hong Kong.[3] A public debate surrounds the asylum system with criticism voiced about the high cost of supporting the living expenses of the asylum seekers and torture claimants, process abuse by those seeking asylum and protection who are without a bona fide claim to fear of torture or persecution, and the crime committed by applicants who typically wait for years to have claims adjudicated.[1][3]


A refugee is a person holding refugee status based on the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. An asylum seeker is a person claiming to be a refugee but who has not had his or her status determined in the prospective country. A torture claimant is a person claiming protection in the prospective country from being returned to another state where there are "substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture" according to the United Nations Convention against Torture.[4]


Turmoil in the region has been a cause of refugees waves to the city. The end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 resulted in hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees and the end of the Vietnam War brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Ultimately, of the refugee claims, 143,700 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in third countries while about 67,000 Vietnamese migrants were deported back to Vietnam. Only about 1,000 Vietnamese refugees were granted permission to reside and assimilate in Hong Kong.[5]

Since 2004 after a series of rulings by Hong Kong courts prohibited the immigration authority in Hong Kong from removal of any illegal immigrants as long as those individuals claimed persecution or risk of torture and awaited adjudication of their claims.[6] There was a dramatic increase in the arrival of asylum seekers and torture claimants after 2004.[7]

A March 2013 holding by the Court of Final Appeal held that determination of refugee claims is subject to judicial review. This landmark holding prompted Hong Kong to restructure the system for considering claims into a Unified Screening Mechanism in 2014.[8][8]

In the period from 2014–15, the number of asylum seeker claims has soared, rising by 70% from early 2014 to mid-2015 due to consolidation of claims for both persecution and torture under the Unified Screening Mechanism.[9]

Unified Screening Mechanism

Since 2014, the system for consideration of asylum and torture claims in Hong Kong is implemented under the common umbrella of the Unified Screening Mechanism and administrated by the Department of Immigration. This mechanism consolidates the process that had previously been divided with the UNHCR considering asylum seekers who claimed risk of persecution and the Hong Kong government assessing claims of torture risk.[9] Rejection of claims made by the department is subject to appeal before Hong Kong courts.[10]

Process abuse

The official government position as stated by an Immigration Department spokesperson in 2012 is Hong Kong has a "long-established policy of not granting asylum and we do not admit individuals seeking refugee status" citing fears that asylum seekers would abuse the system given the prosperity of the city's economy and liberal visa policy.[11]

The rate of success of torture claims is low. By 2013, the Torture Claim Assessment Section by the Immigration Department assessed 4532 claims, of which only 12 were sustained as substantiated.[7] The 2013 Annual Report of the Immigration Department notes that most torture claims are filed after either the claimant has been arrested for contravening Hong Kong law, notified of their removal from Hong Kong, or has had their claim for refugee status rejected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.[7]

The South China Morning Post has noted that some asylum seekers are motivated to make claims to illegally work in Hong Kong for years, which is the length of time it can take to process claims.[3]


As of August 2015, there are about 9,900 asylum seekers mostly from South Asia awaiting determination of their claims. Over half of the asylum seekers are from the following three South Asian countries: Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.[9]

Asylum seekers live in low cost housing due to the basic level of rental subsidy provided by the Hong Kong government and extremely high cost of rent in the city. The centrally located Chungking Mansions is a popular living quarter for asylum seekers who find budget accommodation in the 15 floor residential block that is home also to foreign wholesale goods traders and backpackers.[12] Outside of the city center, asylum seekers also live in the rural villages of Hong Kong where cheaper accommodation is found.[13]

Cost and assistance

The total cost of assistance to asylum seekers in the 2013–14 fiscal year was HK$450 million (about US$60 million).[5] The government provides a rental subsidy, food and medical care to asylum seekers who are not allowed to work while claims are considered. Food coupons are provided every month.[14][15] Publicly funded legal representation is provided for asylum seekers that are unable to afford hiring a lawyer.[10]

The high cost of supporting asylum seekers was a reason for a proposal by the Liberal Party in 2015 to withdraw visa free entry for Indians. After lobbying by "Indian diplomats and prominent businessmen", the proposal was not carried through.[16] An electronic pre-arrival notification required for Indian nationals was implemented in January 2017 instead.


In the perception of the Hong Kong public, asylum seekers are associated with a high level of street crime.[9] Vision First, a refugee advocacy NGO, argues that criminal activity by asylum seekers is due to "Hong Kong’s botched asylum system" which provides "insufficient welfare assistance" and disallows working.[17]

An alleged rape in June 2013 by an asylum seeker sparked alarm in Hong Kong and subjected the handling of asylum seekers by the city government to widespread public scrutiny.[18] A 26-year-old Indian asylum seeker living in Rhine Guesthouse, a hostel at Chungking Mansions, allegedly raped another guest, a woman from mainland China.[18]

Over the course of 2015, a series of arrests of 84 suspects busted a major drug ring operating in Hong Kong. Most of the suspects were described as mostly "African men, mainly from Gambia" who had sought asylum.[19]


  1. 1 2 "How a tiny minority of asylum seekers in Hong Kong are giving South Asians a bad name". South China Morning Post. May 29, 2017.
  2. "Hong Kong appeal judges slam asylum seekers who commit crimes while waiting for claims to be settled". South China Morning Post. September 8, 2017.
  3. 1 2 3 "Treatment of torture claimants in breach of laws and treaties". South China Morning Post. January 27, 2013.
  4. "How does the Hong Kong current refugee policy affect the life of protection claimants?". Digital Commons @ Lingnan University. Lingnan University.
  5. 1 2 Choi, Christy (May 21, 2014). "Controversy over Hong Kong's asylum seekers harks back to Vietnam". South China Morning Post.
  6. "Legislative Council Panel on Security Unified screening mechanism for non-refoulement claims" (PDF). Legislative Council.
  7. 1 2 3 Annual Report 2013. Immigration Department. 2013.
  8. 1 2 "Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled on refugee law gateway issue". Oxford Human Rights Hub. April 1, 2013.
  9. 1 2 3 4 "These refugees stuck in Hong Kong can't get asylum, can't work, and can't leave". Quartz. August 15, 2015.
  10. 1 2 "The Unified Screening Mechanism: Hong Kong to Assess Refugee Claims Alongside Torture Claims". Oxford Human Rights Hub. November 20, 2014.
  11. "New UNHCR head urges Hong Kong to protect refugees and asylum seekers". South China Morning Post. December 2, 2012.
  12. "Chungking Mansions: Inside Hong Kong's favourite 'ghetto'". BBC. December 22, 2013.
  13. "Asylum seeker dies in village blaze". The Standard. January 30, 2015. Archived from the original on February 22, 2015.
  15. "Hong Kong refugees deserve basic right to decide what they eat".
  16. "Hong Kong: Indians will continue to enjoy visa-free entry". Rediff. June 19, 2015.
  17. "Refugees are turning to crime because of Hong Kong's botched asylum system". Hong Kong Free Press. August 25, 2015.
  18. 1 2 "Rape suspect appears in HK court". China Daily. June 5, 2013.
  19. "Drugs network 'eradicated' in Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district". South China Morning Post. July 12, 2015.
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