Thursday, February 19, 2004

The lesser of two evils

I've spent a lot of time in the last few weeks trying to decide whether I think the treatment of asylum seekers is more inhumane in Hong Kong or Australia. I think Australia wins but Hong Kong certainly puts up a bizarre fight.

Many African nations have to deal with floods of refugees that number in the hundreds of thousands. In Ghana, for example, there are many Liberian refugees. Camps are set up to house them and provide for basic needs. They are also able to work outside the camps if they want to.

Australia deals with a trickle of asylum seekers that arrive by boat. They do a number of things to deter them. Firstly they broadcast the message to would-be refugees that Australia is full of poisonous snakes and vicious crocodiles. Not that this really matters because anyone arriving by boat is likely to be eaten by sharks before they land.

Secondly, the Howard government has done mean and tricky legal stuff to 'excise' some islands off the coast of Australia. Any asylum seekers arriving at these islands can not claim to have reached Australian land. The government combines this with a policy of trying to turn boatloads of asylum seekers back to Indonesia (the last stop on the trip to Australia).

If asylum seekers do get to Australia they are held in detention centres run by the same company that is responsible for managing Australia's prisons. The detention can be drawn out and conditions inside are reputed to be horrendous. Okay, okay so I think Australia wins hands down but anyway, on to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong recieves more of a trickle than Australia but the situation here is very different. Unlike Australia, Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees (China is but this hasn't been extended to HK). That means that no one arriving here can seek refuge in Hong Kong itself (except possibly under the Convention Against Torture - currently being tried out).

There is, however, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Hong Kong and about forty new asylum seekers arrive each month to make an application for refugee status. If they are then granted refugee status the UNHCR assists them to resettle in a third country. A significant amount of people attempt this because of Hong Kong is relatively easy to enter on a tourist visa.

The problem, however, is that the appeal and subsequent resettlement can take up to several years. The government forbids asylum seekers from working but otherwise turns a blind eye to their welfare. Approved refugees are given some financial support by the UNHCR but asylum seekers are left to subsist on the favour of churches and charitable organisations.

This is okay for some but the lack of a safety net means that many end up homeless. I know this has been a long entry but I hope it explains a lot about the work that I'm doing. Next time I'm going to blog something really positive about how well the food program and English classes and all have been going. I've learnt to glide gracefully through the red tape at work and I'm loving every minute.