Thursday, March 11, 2004

The Police

For a month now, I've been teaching a twice weekly English class to asylum seekers. Most of the students are from Ethiopia and Eritrea and the class is very important to them because the UNHCR doesn't currently have a translator for their native languages.

Most of the lessons relate either to surviving in Hong Kong or interacting with the UNHCR. I've been making all the resources myself and today's lesson was titled 'Police'. This is an extremely important topic because when asylum seekers are stopped by the police the way they act can have some influence on whether they will be imprisoned or not.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong are technically illegal. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees and asylum seekers here apply to the office of the UN High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR), not the HK government. In the past, the UNHCR referred asylum seekers to the immigration department and they went on an official 'recognizance' arrangement, having to report to immigration once a month.

More recently, HK immigration generally refuses to put asylum seekers on recognizance. Instead, asylum seekers make their application to the UNHCR and then let their HK visa expire while they await the outcome. This means that most of the asylum seekers in Hong Kong (more than 1000 in my estimation) have overstayed their visas.

The government can not afford to lock up all these people and there really is no need to. When police officers stop asylum seekers they generally just check that they have a valid paper from the UNHCR and let them go. On the occasions that they send people into detention it is often the case that the asylum seeker was caught working. Once sent into detention, an asylum seeker's case with the UNHCR will proceed from the inside and UNHCR officers visit the immigration prison frequently.

The stupidity of this situation is that it is at the disgression of the police who they will detain and who they will allow to remain free. In a way, anybody involved in this whole mess is operating outside the realm of law. Asylum seekers are technically illegal and the police are technically neglecting their duty when they allow asylum seekers to remain free. My job thus involves aiding illegal immigrants and helping them to survive in Hong Kong. It's all a very messy grey area and any group providing shelter to homeless asylum seekers in HK (a desparate need) would be housing illegal immigrants.

Anyway, the police lesson was a lot of fun but it came too late for one of our regular visitors who was detained yesterday. This guy is quite young and he called me from the police station last night in tears. He might have been released except that he lied to the police and told them that his passport was with the UNHCR. It was actually at his house but he probably feared that the police would go there and arrest his friends who are also asylum seekers.

Despite this bizarre situation, my class today had lovely things to say about the HK police. In general, everyone agreed that they were polite and much less corrupt than the police in their own countries. Despite their illegal statuus, some students had even approached the Hong Kong police to ask for directions!