Hong Kong political activists should not expect to benefit much from US President Donald Trump’s executive order giving refugee status to Hongkongers on humanitarian grounds, as the vetting process will be too difficult to handle, experts have warned.
They made the prediction after Trump, in retaliation for Beijing’s decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, signed an executive order ending the special treatment for the city stipulated by the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.
As part of the order, the US promised to reallocate admissions to Hongkongers seeking asylum within the maximum quota set by an annual mechanism called Presidential Determination, which is based on humanitarian concerns.
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But the condition is subject to feasibility and consistency with the applicable law.
A spokesman from the US consulate in Hong Kong said they anticipated more details about the measure would be forthcoming.
However, Matt Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club, a non-profit organisation fighting against modern slavery, poured cold water on the promised asylum protection for Hongkongers.
He called it a political statement to show the US was concerned about the situation in the city and to push Beijing to back off from undermining its autonomy and freedoms.
“The US refugee vetting process is very long, cumbersome and challenging, not an easy process,” he said “Having worked with the US government myself, I feel like it’s more a political statement than reality.”
The Trump administration has slashed the country’s quota of refugee admissions annually since 2017, from predecessor Barack Obama’s 110,000 in 2017, to 45,000 in 2018, 30,000 in 2019 and 18,000 for 2020.
Last year, the US admitted 2,801 refugees from East or South Asia, representing only 31 per cent of the regional ceiling of 9,000.
From October until the end of June this year, among the 7,754 refugees admitted to the US, only seven refugees of three cases were processed from Hong Kong, and another two refugees from mainland China.
Friedman, an international expert in human trafficking, said he believed not many Hong Kong people would benefit from the new policy.
Instead, he advised those wanting to leave to eye other destinations such as Britain, Australia or Taiwan.
If somebody really wants to leave Hong Kong because of this, they would probably be better off going to other countries
Matt Friedman, Mekong Club
“For practical reasons, I suspect that’s not necessarily something that people from Hong Kong would greatly benefit from,” he said. “If somebody really wants to leave Hong Kong because of this, they would probably be better off going to other countries.”
Friedman said the US refugee vetting process was more difficult than other countries because thousands of asylum seekers every year hoped to settle there.
“You have to make a very strong case even though they say that you’ll get preferential treatment,” he said. “The US is a magnet for people who want to live the American dream. As a result of that, they are competing against all kinds of other people who have a similar desire to enter. It’s very competitive.”
According to the American Immigration Council, a US non-profit organisation advocating for immigrants to the country, under US law, a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” because of race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion or national origin.
It said refugees must undergo a rigorous interviewing process before admission to the US to ensure they meet that definition and prove their individual case of “well-founded fear”.
It’s not easy to obtain refugee status...The test is to show a real risk of persecution
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly
The council said applications for refugee resettlement in the US can be denied on health-related grounds, criminal grounds and security grounds. They may also be denied for polygamy, misrepresentation of facts on visa applications, smuggling and previous deportations.
Speaking to American media this week regarding giving Hong Kong residents refugee status, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the US had always been a place that welcomed asylum seekers, but he admitted the process had slowed down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a little bit slower, fewer people seeking asylum, and our capacity to process asylum claims has been a little slowed down by the virus that emanated from China,” he said.
“We’ll be back at it shortly, and I’m sure there’ll be people from Hong Kong – the United Kingdom has graciously allowed some 3 million people to come from Hong Kong. Australia has set up a set of rules, Canada too.
“We will make sure and take care of those freedom fighters who want to travel, who don’t feel like they’re safe, and can continue to do good work inside of Hong Kong, or in any other country for that matter.”
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly, who has 25 years of experience working on refugee cases, said in general it was not easy for asylum seekers to obtain refugee status, as the refugee definition was very complex.
“You would need very strong grounds to legally meet the refugee definition, and strong evidence to support it. The test is to show a real risk of persecution,” he said.
Daly said it was disheartening to see Hong Kong becoming a refugee-producing jurisdiction, from one that accepted refugees from other countries.
“Regrettably, with the continuing erosion of human rights in Hong Kong, credible claims to refugee status can be made within the Refugee Status Determination process in other countries,” he said.
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