2nd October 2023 – (Hong Kong) The issue of refugees in Hong Kong has become highly controversial, with many labelling asylum seekers as “fake” and accusing them of abusing the system. This overly simplistic view ignores the complexity of individual situations and the flaws in current screening procedures. Rethinking our approach with more nuance and empathy is needed.

These complexities are highlighted by recent events. Earlier this month, eight South Asian refugees were arrested after initially evading authorities on the Soko Islands and calling for help from passersby. Their actions raised suspicions and accusations of abuse, though details remain unclear. Also in September, dozens of Vietnamese asylum seekers apparently entered Hong Kong illegally, prompting calls to expedite repatriation procedures against those branded as “fake refugees.”

But hastily deporting them without considering individual circumstances would be questionable if legitimate fears of persecution exist. Each case differs and blanket grouping as pretenders merits caution. Refugee issues defy simplistic characterisation as clear-cut categories. While reforms are needed, we must avoid reactionary steps disregarding nuances. With care and wisdom, a more ethical refugee policy upholding both security and compassion is possible. But this requires open minds and progressive thinking.

Firstly, the common narrative that refugees are here just for economic gain is misguided. Of course some may start as economic migrants, but circumstances can change, preventing safe return home and leading them to genuinely require asylum. Others with valid fears of persecution are rejected under stringent standards they cannot meet. Branding all rejected cases as “fake” is wrong.

Each person’s circumstances are unique and we must avoid sweeping generalisations. Reducing them to a label denies them dignity and humanity. The reality is far less black and white than the “real versus fake” rhetoric used by some media and politicians with vested interests. This serves only to fuel racist attitudes towards minorities like South Asians, who increasingly face suspicion and online harassment.

More understanding of why refugees come here is required. Hong Kong is clearly not their preference, given meagre benefits and lack of long-term prospects. But for many it represents their only haven after exhausting options elsewhere. They simply seek a place of basic refuge after fleeing trauma and upheaval. Surely a society as prosperous as ours can accommodate those in such desperate situations.

Of course this brings up the question – why not seek asylum elsewhere? But Hong Kong is unique in Asia having no clear asylum procedures but also no forced repatriation. This creates an uneasy middle ground that leaves those who cannot obtain refugee status in limbo, neither integrated nor removed.

Still, uncertainty here is preferable to threats back home for some. Surely ending the limbo should involve giving approved refugees residency, not hastily deporting all rejected. Nuance in appreciating individual circumstances is vital.

Certainly reforms are needed for a more robust, transparent screening system. The current process has been criticized for appallingly low recognition rates of under 1%, far below global norms. Independent reviews of its fitness are overdue, given credible doubts over assessments. A system that ultimately rejects almost all applicants on policy grounds also needs rethinking.

Creating proper legal procedures would remove incentives to prolong appeals. Streamlining the process would reduce backlogs and hassles for all. But above all, the mindset viewing refugees as problems to deter must change. People seeking asylum are not “illegal immigrants” but human beings dealing with intolerable situations.

That said, Hong Kong understandably cannot accommodate unlimited numbers given its density and constraints. But it can handle modest, regulated intake without strain. Fears of our city being overwhelmed are exaggerated given the small numbers involved.

Other anxieties center around refugees as criminals or threats to public order and safety. Here too the hysteria exceeds reality. Crime statistics show only a tiny fraction of offenses involve refugees, most of whom simply wish to live in peace. Vilifying an entire community for isolated incidents is unmerited.

Still, better support services to ease integration and prevent isolation that leads some to the margins would address valid social concerns. As would shortening the limbo period to either grant residency or deport quickly after objective review. Clustering services in designated districts could also help oversight and social cohesion. But the ultimate solution must go beyond treating symptoms to address root causes. Ending conflicts that create refugees, combating climate change displacing communities, and reducing global inequality enabling safe futures in home countries is the only sustainable path. Hong Kong can advocate for and contribute to these efforts.

In the meantime, we must avoid further marginalising already vulnerable people. Labelling groups as “fake refugees” without understanding individual stories and the flaws forcing them here is unethical. A first step is discarding the dehumanising rhetoric that poisons public attitudes.

Creating support services and legal aid funding to ensure just procedures is also vital. As a wealthy society built on immigration, Hong Kong should welcome some of those forced from their homes through no fault of their own. This embodies humanitarian values that define us.

With visionary leadership and public education, Singapore-style integration of permanent refugees is achievable without compromising citizen interests but this requires ditching misconceptions of them as parasitic criminals. They are simply ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, looking for a fresh start.

Seeing the humanity in each unique story instead of hostile stereotypes opens possibilities for Hong Kong. With empathy, facts and moral courage, a city renowned for its openness can rejuvenate that spirit. Refugees need not be problems but assets, bringing dynamism and diversity, if given the chance. Our shared future depends on bridging divisions, not deepening them with inflammatory language.

With compassion and creativity, we can forge inclusive solutions upholding both security and decency. But this begins with rethinking conditioned attitudes. Outdated fears must not obstruct Hong Kong from doing its small part to ease global displacement. Refocusing on the values that made us prosperous reveals we can absorb more refugees without hardship. But first we must discard the misguided “fake refugee” narrative poisoning our discourse.