Opening a floodgate to refugees would be a big mistake
Publisher: China Daily-Hong Kong Edition
Author: Victor Fung Keung
Story date: 09/12/2012
Language: English

The new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hong Kong, Philip Karani, asked the Hong Kong government on Dec 2, 2012 to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and enact laws and regulations to entrench rights of asylum seekers, such as the right to work.

Although Karani's intentions, I have no doubt, were noble and selfless, his calls were impractical and potentially harmful to Hong Kong. We must say no to his pleas.

There has been an average of 700 people a year, mostly from impoverished African countries, seeking refugee status in Hong Kong in the past four years. Their applications are being processed by the UNHCR. Successful applicants will move to countries which traditionally accept people who suffer from political persecution, such as the United States and Canada.

If Hong Kong signs the refugee convention, grants asylum seekers refugee status and the right to work in the city, I am certain that thousands of people, mostly from poor African nations, will find their way to Hong Kong as "economic refugees". Working in Hong Kong definitely would give them and their loved ones back home a better life.

Hong Kong's economic prosperity and liberal visa regime would attract thousands of potential "economic refugees" from Africa and south Asia who are not politically persecuted at home but rather lured by Hong Kong's relatively good employment prospects. This "magnet effect" could destabilize Hong Kong. The demand for housing, for instance, would worsen the housing problem in the city.

The Hong Kong government must stay firm by not opening the floodgates, or else the city would be swamped with "economic refugees". We must take care of ourselves first before considering helping others; or else both Hong Kong people and so-called asylum seekers would sink into Victoria Harbour and drown, figuratively speaking. We don't want to see this happening, do we?

Hong Kong already has done its part. After Vietnam was unified in 1974, 220,000 Vietnamese boat people fled to Hong Kong, the majority were resettled elsewhere, fortunately. The exercise cost the city HK$8.7 billion but Hong Kong asked for only HK$1.16 billion from the UNHCR and so far the UNHCR has repaid the city only HK$3.9 million. UNHCR has asked the city to forgive the debt. Forgive it not, I would argue, as it would set a dangerous precedent. The debt is taxpayers' hard-earned money, and the world community should repay us. Taking advantage of our generosity should not be condoned.

The acceptance rate of asylum claims in Hong Kong is only around 5 percent, which says loud and clear the bulk of people who seek asylum here are no more than "economic refugees" who aspire for better living conditions, as compared to those in their home countries. There is no reason why we should encourage these people to line up outside Hong Kong's wide-open doors. Albeit not high, the city still had an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent in October. Any chance of clashes between the locally unemployed and "economic refugees" should be avoided.

There is nothing wrong for millions of African and south Asian people to look for a better life elsewhere. But Hong Kong can't afford to open the gate. Hong Kong, an overcrowded city, has its own constraints. If Hong Kong starts accepting asylum seekers, I am pretty sure, thousands of people looking for work would flock to the city, which would threaten the city's prosperity and social stability.

Government officials should stay firm in rejecting Karani's appeal. Hong Kong already has done its share.

The author is coordinator of the B.S.Sc in financial journalism program at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Refugees Daily
Refugees Global Press Review
Compiled by Media Relations and Public Information Service, UNHCR
For UNHCR Internal Distribution