Hong Kong election puts asylum seekers under surprise spotlight

With just 11,000 asylum seekers in a metropolis of more than 7 million, Hong Kong has rarely paid attention to these arrivals from abroad, until this year's recent election campaign.

The increased frequency of official press releases on asylum seekers, combined with recent heated public rhetoric has however created a great deal of misinformation, according to activists.

“What has been most shocking has been the pro-establishment parties putting up banners around Hong Kong with false stats [on asylum seekers and crime],” human rights lawyer Patricia Ho said.

“The government should set the record straight and say: No that’s not entirely correct.”

The Justice Centre, an asylum seeker advocacy group, has recorded an increase in articles linking asylum seekers to crime in a local media outlet singled out for praise by the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

The Oriental Daily had published 257 articles by mid-June in 2016 which linked refugees and crime, compared to just 18 in 2015.

More than 80 per cent of asylum seekers are from South or South-East Asian countries including Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, according to data from the Security Bureau, the government body responsible.

Government and immigration department press releases making the same connection have also increased, despite the absence of police statistics to back up the claim.

The figures for 2015 show that 1,113 non ethnic-Chinese individuals committed crimes ranging from theft, drug offenses, assault, fighting in public places to serious immigration offenses, up from 665 in 2014.

However, the figure does not distinguish between asylum seekers and other segments of the non-Chinese population in Hong Kong.

“A year or two ago, if you’d ask any odd person on the street the response would have been: ‘We have asylum seekers?’ Nowadays it’s different ... they say they’re all false claimants, they’re out committing crimes,” Ho said.

The Security Bureau has spoken of “concern over social and public order issues brought about by the ever-growing population of claimants," referring to illegal immigrants or overstayers in Hong Kong."

But the bureau did not indicate the reason for the increase in press releases, or provide more detailed statistics showing an increase in crime by asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, public opinion does appear to have hardened on the issue.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong showed that 26.8 per cent of people felt negatively towards asylum seekers. In this group 61.1 per cent said it was because the group "made society unsafe.”

The same survey indicated that 66 per cent thought claimants were fake and 49.4 per cent thought they were criminals.

When asked about their stance on the issue, officials from the New People’s Party, which has been advocating for detention camps for irregular migrants and pre-screening mechanisms, declined to comment, citing tight scheduling ahead of the elections.

Despite negative views of asylum seekers, a large majority of respondents - nearly 81 per cent - indicated that they think people in Hong Kong should know more about other ethnic groups.

"[Their scaremongering tactic] is not working to such an extent," said lawmaker Alan Leong of the Civic Party. 

"It's no different from what Mr Donald Trump is pumping out in the USA. It's not a significant issue that is threatening life or death in Hong Kong."

Last update: Fri, 02/09/2016 - 19:00

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