Hong Kong and Islamabad are considering deploying chartered flights to send back hundreds of Pakistani asylum seekers, the country’s top envoy in the city has revealed.
In a sign that it could become the norm for others, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong government also said authorities were discussing strategies with other countries to quickly remove those who had their claims rejected.
As of June, there are 2,997 claimants waiting to have their cases screened, with 655 of them from Pakistan, forming the largest group of asylum seekers from a single country, followed by Bangladesh and India.
“We are working on a special flight to take these asylum seekers back home. There will be a special chartered flight. Hong Kong Immigration is in charge and we are facilitating,” Pakistan’s Consul General Abdul Qadir Memon said, referring to those whose claims were unsuccessful or who dropped their cases.
He said details were still being discussed and the frequency of the flights would be decided “on a need basis”.
“The Hong Kong government is going to pay for it and we will facilitate, like giving them landing rights and approving the air routes,” Qadir said. The plan should be launched by the end of the year, he added.
The Hong Kong government is going to pay for it and we will facilitate, like giving them landing rights and approving the air routes
Abdul Qadir Memon, Pakistani consul general
A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department did not comment on the specific arrangement with the Pakistani government, but told the Post: “The department has begun discussions with governments of major source countries, airline companies and other government departments on enhancing removal efficiency.”
She also said the department had actively identified “various means to further enhance the removal efficiency, such as conducting large removal operations by chartered flights”.
In December last year and in February, the Immigration Department deported a total of 88 Vietnamese from Hong Kong by two separate chartered flights. “The Immigration Department is committed to removing rejected non-refoulement claimants to their country of origin as soon as possible,” the spokeswoman said.
Charted flights have been used to deport unsuccessful asylum seekers by other countries, such as the United States.
Commenting on the removal process, Isaac Shaffer, head of protection claimant services at non-profit organisation Justice Centre Hong Kong, noted that such cases follow the rejection of protection claims in a system where “significant doubts” had been raised about fairness, safety and robustness.
Hong Kong has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the developed world, standing at about 0.8 per cent, with experts blaming a high threshold being set.
“With such alarmingly low recognition rates, at present we simply can’t have reasonable faith that decisions … have been determined properly and fairly,” Shaffer said.
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From late 2009 to June 2018, out of about 18,000 people, only 135 saw their claims substantiated – most of them were from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Rwanda.
Shaffer noted there were concerns regarding the limited access to legal representation during the process of removal, in particular for those placed in detention.
“Increasing the volume and speed of removals in a context in which the vast majority of claims are refused should be of profound concern,” he said. “The gravity of the consequences of unlawful removals demand proper procedural safeguards. At present, this is simply not the case.”
Qadir argued that most asylum seekers were, in fact, economic migrants. But he noted that some had become victims of human trafficking in the city.
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Some “paid money to gangs to bring them to Hong Kong. If they borrowed money, they will be under pressure to repay it … And if they don’t repay it, their families and loved ones will be threatened,” the diplomat said.
Many were lured with promises of high-paying jobs but ended up enduring long working hours in the city and others were detained because they did not have permission to work.
Referring to efforts to tackle the problem, Qadir said: “We are cooperating with the Hong Kong government … On the enforcement side, we are targeting [trafficking] gangs … And on the policy side, we are working with civil society [in Pakistan] to raise awareness.”
Archana Kotecha, legal head at Liberty Asia, an anti-human trafficking non-profit group, noted that the screening mechanism for asylum seekers in Hong Kong should be able to identify victims of trafficking and provide proper assistance.
“There has to be a robust system in place, so victims can be identified and looked after, and investigations must take place,” she said.