The suffering of Hong Kong’s refugee population has mostly flown under the global media’s radar. That changed in 2016 when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the role that refugee communities in the Chinese territory played in sheltering him and appealed to the public to support their cause.

On Saturday, Olivia Cheng received a Foreign Correspondents’ Club Human Rights Press Award for her feature article investigating the lives of detainees in Hong Kong’s Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre. The article, “The invisible wall: Hong Kong’s refugees,” was originally published in February 2017 by Ming Pao Weekly Book B in Cantonese. Ricochet is proud to publish a translation of this award-winning piece.

Olivia Cheng receiving the Foreign Correspondents Club Human Rights Press Award on May 12 in Hong Kong.
Jayne Russell Photography

The invisible wall: Hong Kong’s refugees

According to statistics from the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees, 65 million people worldwide have been forced out of their homelands due to conflicts, of which one-third have become refugees. By the end of 2015, the number of refugees worldwide had reached a historic high.

“Asylum seekers, under whatever circumstances, will not be seen as refugees.”

According to the UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”

Officially, Hong Kong has no refugees, classifying all individuals who could fall into this class as asylum seekers, meaning those who claim to be refugees but whose application has not been accepted.

Debate on the motion to combat “bogus refugees” tabled by pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow in Legislative Council on Nov. 30, 2016.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

In response to a proposed motion combating “bogus refugees” at a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Legislative Council meeting in November 2016, Deputy Minister of Security John Lee Ka Chiu claimed that the UN Convention has never been applicable to Hong Kong, and the HKSAR government has adopted a strict policy of not granting asylum or refugee status to any individual under any circumstance. “Asylum seekers, under whatever circumstances, will not be seen as refugees,” he said.

Hong Kong is currently home to ten thousand individuals with outstanding non-refoulement claims (which seek protection against repatriation to a country that would pose a threat to the claimant).

Robert Tibbo
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

Robert Tibbo, the lawyer who represented Edward Snowden when he fled to Hong Kong in 2013, has argued that Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, functioning as international law, remains applicable in Hong Kong. If this is the case, and asylum seekers follow recognized protocols to claim refugee status, Hong Kong authorities have an obligation to protect them from penalties associated with illegal entry or presence, and to allow them a reasonable time period and all facilities necessary to obtain admission into the country.

Perhaps it’s easy to demonize those who come to us for shelter in difficult times, yet it’s all the more difficult to open our eyes and listen to their voices.

Debates surrounding refugees have erupted in recent years, due to an increase in internally and internationally displaced persons and awareness of the issue itself. While much of the global attention has been on refugees entering European and European-adjacent countries, Hong Kong has also drawn criticism for its treatment of asylum seekers. In 2015, the UN Committee against Torture released a nine-page report criticizing the HKSAR government’s violations of the articles of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.

A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Social Workers Association showed that the rights of detainees are routinely violated. The region has also faced backlash over the 2014 implementation of the so-called Unified Screening Mechanism to screen asylum claims, the Legislative Council’s “bogus refugees” motion, and the use of detention camps regardless of evidence as to their effectiveness or the status of the individuals housed there.

Perhaps it’s easy to demonize those who come to us for shelter in difficult times, yet it’s all the more difficult to open our eyes and listen to their voices.They have stayed and lived with us, and at the same time lost their hope, dignity and lives. Let’s take a deep dive into Hong Kong’s detention facilities and see what kind of world and system they live in.

Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre

Built in 2005, the 10-storey Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) located in Tuen Mun is the only facility in Hong Kong specifically designed for detaining immigration offenders before deportation.

Most of them are non-Chinese, ranging from illegal entrants to illegal workers, overstayers, and former prisoners who raise an asylum claim after release or while awaiting deportation. Authorities declined to provide the number of asylum seekers among those held at the centre.

CIC from afar.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

Gaining access to the heavily guarded facility is almost impossible. However, multiple sources have been able to describe the CIC’s layout, including a handover zone for detainees and a functioning fourth-floor hospital that includes five solitary confinement cells.

From the fifth to the tenth floor, dormitories are set on the side facing Castle Peak Road, with an area of 200 square feet for three to seven people, and another type of 500-square-foot dorm for up to 20 people.

On the other side of the building are three two-storey-high day rooms, where most inmates spend their time. Each has a smoking room, shower cabins (though limited), toilets, tables and chairs, and newspapers.

Inside the covered “outdoor” basketball court in CIC.
Picture provided by Immigration Department.

Two basketball courts, each connecting the day rooms of 5/F and 7/F, serve as the exercise ground — the CIC operation manual stipulates detainees should have no less than one hour of outdoor exercise every day.

Each detainee can be visited once per day, not exceeding 15 minutes, with a maximum of two visitors, whose names are registered on a visitors’ list. According to a source, detainees are allowed one three-minute phone call each week in numerical order of their detention number, with international calls charged at 0.20 HKD per minute.

Previously under the administration of Correctional Services, CIC’s management was transferred back into the hands of the Immigration Department in 2010.

A brief history of the Hong Kong refugee system

In March 2014, Hong Kong’s Immigration Department implemented the Unified Screening Mechanism, bringing other established forms of claiming asylum — torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and persecution claims — under the same umbrella as non-refoulement claims.

Prior to the introduction of the Unified Screening Mechanism, UNHCR was responsible for screening all three claims and for resettling successful claimants in third countries, while Immigration Department held jurisdiction solely over the deportation of rejected claimants.

Floor plan of CIC.
Illustrator: Lau Yin Kan Daniel

Hong Kong had no concrete refugee policy until the hearing for the Prabhakar case in the Court of Final Appeal in 2004. The judge ruled that Hong Kong should uphold the responsibility of screening claimants with “high standards of fairness” maintained throughout the process.

In 2008, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that the government’s screening process did not reach that particular threshold, lacked training for decision makers and failed to provide publicly funded legal representation. As a result of this finding, Immigration Department was obliged to review all rejected claimants in 2009.

Each case requires an average period of 13 to 25 weeks to process, with some claimants held in detention centres for over 10 years.

When the Security Bureau and Immigration Department lost two landmark cases in the Court of Final Appeal in 2012 and 2013 (the Ubamaka and C&Ors cases), the government was ordered to “independently . . . determine whether the claim is well-founded, obtaining relevant information and materials.” These rulings led to the establishment of the Unified Screening Mechanism.

After the policy’s implementation, the government took over the screening for all claims, with UNHCR only permitted to step in to resettle claims that had been accepted as legitimate.

Official figures show that 90 per cent of asylum seekers apply for a claim after illegal entry, overstaying, or both, but there are also cases of individuals opting to raise a claim upon arrival at the airport.

In recent decades, the government has received 30,508 torture or non-refoulement claims in total, of which 9,981 claims are still pending. Each case requires an average period of 13 to 25 weeks to process, with some claimants held in detention centres for over 10 years.

The government screens at a rate of approximately 2,000 cases each year. In stark comparison, in times of high refugee influx, Germany has processed up to 600,000 cases in five months.

Hong Kong’s rate of substantiated claims is the lowest in the world, with only 72 claims accepted between 2009 and 2016. In 2016, the Security Bureau conducted a comprehensive review in the hope of boosting efficiency.

Mr. K: The fighter on the seventh floor

K, a Ghanian detainee, was a long-term detainee at CIC.

K’s portrait drawn during visit.
Illustrator: Lau Yin Kan Daniel

After growing up in a tumultuous environment, K fled from debt to Mainland China years ago and set up a Chinese school there. When his visa was cancelled unexpectedly, he escaped first to the Philippines, then Togo, before finally using a fake passport to come to Hong Kong in December 2015. During visits, he showed a long deep scar spanning across his little finger, which was almost chopped in half by his creditors.

“I think I am never going out; this is prison, not a detention centre,” K said. His eyes, bulging and red, looked sunken and distraught. He has been fighting to find freedom and dignity during his entire detention. (K was incarcerated from December 2015 to May 2017, detained for a total of a year and a half.)

For a period of time, K acted as the mediator between detainees and CIC officers.

“Most of detainees on 7/F were transported here straight after raising their claims at the airport, and so was I.”

He stayed in the departure zone for almost a week before successfully
making contact with a local human rights lawyer in Hong Kong, officially marking the beginning of his claim. Like him, his floormates know no one there who might help them leave the centre. Technically speaking, they have never set foot on Hong Kong’s territory.

At the reception desk, staff openly displayed a hostile attitude, calling K “trash” and describing him as having “mental illness.”

Cosmo Beatson, director of the non-governmental organization Vision First, said it was nearly impossible to provide assistance to the population. According to records, 7/F once housed a maximum of 80 to 100 detainees.

In the eyes of officials, K is no doubt “a troublemaker,” due to his ability to rally support from detainees. At the reception desk, staff openly displayed a hostile attitude, calling K “trash” and describing him as having “mental illness.”

Cramped quarters for asylum seekers in detention.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

One of the immigration officials divulged that unlike the eighth floor, which housed mostly Vietnamese asylum seekers, K’s day room 7C was a mixed hub of various nationalities. “Like a United Nations of refugees,” they said.

Data from the Immigration Department shows that CIC had 209 events of misconduct from 2015 to the end of August in 2016.

K recounted that in a quest for better treatment, the inmates of 7/F have undergone several peaceful hunger strikes and protests, unbeknownst to the general public. The Immigration Department would not confirm these details. Gathering all other floormates, K has requested to meet with Immigration Department officials many times, but to no avail. At the first such meeting, only one official from the enforcement section attended.

K wrote a joint petition letter, which was mailed to the incumbent
superintendent of CIC, Kris W.S. Kwong, the non-governmental organization Justice Centre and various other parties including the Legislative Council office and human rights lawyer Mark Daly, asking for a meeting.

8-page petition letter written by K.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

That meeting was ultimately canceled due to the fact that K was placed in solitary confinement, leading to other parties’ refusal to attend.

In the letter, K had questioned the legitimacy and reasonableness of his detention period, the lack of medical care and legal aid provided to him and the authorities’ inability to provide evidence to justify the prolonged period of detention.

Stuck in detention

In response to the accusations of unreasonable detention periods, the Immigration Department replied: “ImmD has already formulated detention policies based on sections 32 and 37ZK of the Immigration Ordinance to explain under what circumstances should an illegal immigrant be considered detained.”

There has been no current official record as to the average period of detention. Past governmental documents indicate that in 2009, only 2.2 per cent out of a total 238 detainees were incarcerated for more than 60 days. The total number of detainees in 2015 was 7,942.

According to the Justice Centre’s recent research, of 200 claimants surveyed, the average detention was 64.7 days. They were detained on the grounds of section 37ZK, “Detention under final determination,” which was actualized in 2012. Prior to that, individuals could only be detained for 14 days based on section 29. In K’s monthly review document, he was assured, “Your case will finish within a reasonable time in a foreseeable future.”

He complained further that officials were barring detainees from receiving the form to apply for judicial review. In reply, the Immigration Department said they “will assure that detainees are properly treated. . .” including receiving access to methods of complaint.

Despite his prolonged tug of war, K is actually one of the lucky ones. His application for government-funded legal aid was successful. Judicial review was filed. His lawyer has taken his case to the High Court. Bail was still not granted, however. His detention continues as his non-refoulement claim will be decided in an upcoming hearing for appeal at the Torture Claim Appeal Board. “My lawyer says under normal circumstances, I would be out already,” K recounted, clearly upset by the decision.

The thought of suicide constantly crossed his mind.

An internal document from CIC on the detention policies for section 37ZK lists 15 factors in favour of detention, including “adopting an uncooperative attitude, or unable to provide convincing or reliable answers when immigration officer questions or investigates his identity.”

Crushed, and suicidal, K deems himself “unfairly picked on” by staff in CIC. Once, when one of his floormates attacked him, it was K who was sent to solitary confinement. Within the small enclosed space, he quickly suffered adverse reactions. He desperately shouted for help, almost losing consciousness. On another occasion, an immigration officer attempted to confiscate a CD that held a recording of his screening interview with his lawyer and immigration officer, stating that it was “a dangerous weapon.” K refused and pointed out it was his personal belonging and evidence toward his case and staff had no right to confiscate it. In turn, several staff hit him with batons. He was then forcibly injected with a tranquilizer and confined for another seven days.

The thought of suicide constantly crossed his mind. “One time I took a sharpened tooth and tried to stab it into my chest.” He asked to see a doctor on multiple occasions, but his requests were ignored. He received no treatment, no medication, and no psychological evaluation. When he went to court, “the judge requested a medical report three times; all were refused.”

When asked to reply to the above accusation, the Immigration Department said it “will not comment on individual accusations” and that “the hospital in CIC provides basic medical services and healthcare. Treatment will be provided if necessary.”

A month and a half later, K was scheduled for a meeting with a psychiatrist for the first time and instantly suffered from a panic attack. He was then transferred to Tuen Mun hospital, where he remained for observation for two days. In December 2016, when he finally received a medical report, he was diagnosed with anxiety and stress disorder.

When he was interviewed, K had been detained for a year and two months, without receiving any indication as to when or how his case would be resolved.

“Man, you should see how the people live upstairs,” he remarked. As he talked, he sometimes appeared to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Most detainees experience breakdowns, he explained. “Some of them take painkillers every day, to self-anesthetize, which is all they provide for medication. Being detained naturally leads to depression.”

Neither the number of people with psychological conditions, nor the number of suicides in CIC are publicly available, according to the Immigration Department.

“It feels like I have been in the darkness for too long. I no longer remember the outside world.”

Tibbo, a human rights lawyer and barrister, described the long-term detention of K to be “unlawful” and “arbitrary.” “Considering his mental status, the government has violated ‘liberty and security of a person,’ article 5 of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.” He added, “Mandela Rules of United Nations might also be violated, which is applicable to any individual detained by any government, including solitary confinement, especially for those who suffer from unstable mental health.”

Unlike the oral application for protection with UNHCR, the Unified Screening Mechanism requires a “written signification” to start a claim. Yet 80 per cent of 7/F detainees cannot speak English well enough to complete an application, and K has voluntarily written letters for 20 to 30 fellow detainees. Of those, everybody has left. Only K remains.

“It feels like I have been in the darkness for too long. I no longer remember the outside world.” Detention is supposed to be temporary, and its facilities are not designed for long-term confinement. K wants to write a book on his experience after his release. He has a complete plan drawn out. The only matter is when he can start. (Update: K currently lives in Tsim Sha Tsui. While his torture claim remains pending, he received legal aid for the case of unlawful detention and it will enter into judicial review soon. The case is now being prepared by his lawyer.)

In September 2016, the Immigration Department added the right to live, Article 2 of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights, as one of the applicable grounds for the Unified Screening Mechanism. Many detainees hurried to reapply after their initial appeals for quick release were rejected. In two weeks, most of them had left. K stated that due to the fear of inability to provide evidence, many of the asylum seekers lied to avoid prolonged screening procedures.

For example, a Pakistani army deserter, who had previously fought against the Taliban, came up with a simpler story in the hope of early bail. As human rights lawyer Mark Daly explained, “the claimant has a responsibility to tell the truth, or else his credibility will be questioned, affecting his screening process.”

Michael Fenton visited K during his stay in Hong Kong.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

During his stay in Hong Kong, Michael Fenton, a retired Australian mental health nurse with 30 years of experience, visited the detainees in CIC several times.

Fenton observed that most people show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and pressures most likely aggravated by the insecurity of being abroad. “The longer they face this seemingly endless detention, the easier they tend to resort to drugs.”

The patients are not informed of the results of their own blood tests or of anything in their medical reports.

“Haphazard” is the word he used to describe the medical services in CIC. It is procedurally incorrect for the detainees to take medication without a nurse’s supervision. “They could run the risk of drug hiding or drug addiction, those with depression in particular. Six tablets of painkillers are distributed to each detainee, when taking eight at once could already be fatal.”

Moreover, he discovered that most people have no knowledge of the kind of pills they are taking, and doctors offer no explanation about the side effects, intake amount, course of treatment or even the name of the medication. The patients are not informed of the results of their own blood tests or of anything in their medical reports.

Muhammed: What happens after deportation?

Pakistani Muhammad Akhtar was behind bars for as long as 11 months in CIC and also resided on the seventh floor.

The word “non-refoulement,” meaning the prevention of returning refugees to a country where they face prosecution, is central to the Refugee Convention. Yet the definition of “refugee” is not always granted to asylum seekers, denying protection to those whose cases are denied.

From the launch of the Unified Screening Mechanism until August 2016, of 5,155 determined claims and 3,330 withdrawn, a total number of 3,397 persons were deported or in the process of deportation.

What happens after they are shipped back?

Muhammad arrived in Hong Kong on Oct. 25, 2015. Like others, he was sent straight to CIC. His torture claim was open for a week, then refused. He spoke Urdu and only a limited amount of English. He told H, his fellow villager in Hong Kong, that the Immigration Department never provided an interpreter during the screening process.

The smuggler that Muhammad had hired to get him across the border stole his passport upon his arrival at Hong Kong International Airport.

A permanent resident, H has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. Despite contacting the Pakistani Consulate, requesting bail, applying for legal aid and even spending a large sum of money to hire a private lawyer, none of H’s desperate attempts saved Muhammad from deportation.

“He is a very very good man, but I don’t understand why the Immigration Department said he posed a security threat to Hong Kong if released,” said H.

Muhammad used to live a simple and robust life in Attock City in northern Pakistan. As a taxi driver, he earned 45 to 75 HKD every day, barely enough to feed an eight-person family. He invested all his savings on a car trade, only to be left destitute, 200,000 HKD in debt. He chose to run for his life two months later. Shortly after, a gang of masked gunmen broke into his house and fired shots, and his elderly mother died from a heart attack brought on by the shock.

The smuggler that Muhammad had hired to get him across the border stole his passport upon his arrival at Hong Kong International Airport. The smuggler’s two other Pakistani clients who arrived with Muhammed were released after six months of detention.

Mohammad’s ID from CIC.
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

H was very concerned about Muhammad’s situation. “I said, I can use my name to vouch for him. If anything happens, they can arrest me. Please release him, even for a week. Please.”

On Sept. 21, 2016, at 2 p.m., Muhammad received a sudden notification of deportation for later on the same day. The last time he contacted H was in Thailand airport before his flight back to Pakistan. He lost touch for two to three weeks. During that time, as H recounted, Muhammad was kidnapped shortly after he reached the airport. In mid-October, Muhammad finally contacted H through WhatsApp. He said he was seriously beaten up, sent to hospital and then managed to run away. After calling the police, who were bribed by his creditors, he was stalked by them instead. He texted, “In Pakistan immigration no good, everything corrupted.”

A month later, H sent a message to a group of contacts. “Muhammad said no one could help: ‘If they want to kill me, let them do it.’”

Both H and Muhammad were left hopeless. For a long time, H didn’t reply to messages.

What happens to rejected asylum seekers post-deportation is still largely unknown. Very little in-depth data can be found. A 2011 study by the European Commission shows that while most participating EU member states monitor pre-departure phases, only 13 per cent follow what happens post-deportation. Internationally, many NGOs have long been aware of this issue, yet they lack the resources and capacity to address it. International Refugee Rights Initiative set up a Post-Deportation Monitoring Network, aiming to establish protections for the deported through documentation and lobbying governments for policy changes.

Immigration Department
Ming Pao Weekly Book B

The Hong Kong Immigration Department currently has no post-deportation monitoring mechanism.

Update: H flew back to Pakistan in early February this year to help Muhammad, who was taken to court for bribing police officers. If the charge is withdrawn, H will apply for a tourist visa for him. It might take a long time. “I am like his brother,” H said. “I will be there for him no matter what.”

Violence against claimants

“Please help me.” In the visiting room, sitting on a wheelchair with a thick pile of documents on his knees, A was pushed out by CIC officers.

He lived very much in solitude on the hospital floor. Putting his copy of his U.S. passport on the glass partition, claiming to be from Baltimore, Maryland, he told his story from the very beginning.

Three years ago, A joined the organization Black Lives Matter as financial and events coordinator after witnessing some friends shot to death by police. He actively participated in the series of protests and riots triggered by Freddie Gray’s death in another fatal case of police brutality. After filing a case with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, he suspected he was being being followed by the FBI and left for Hong Kong.

As A recounted, upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport he was arrested by a group of police and hit on the forehead with a rifle. Some said he was a “terrorist” responsible for the deadly shooting at Munich mall last year in July. After a two-week detention at Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, police charged him with “possession of an offensive weapon.” The charge was later withdrawn in court.

“My charge was already dropped, but they treat me as a criminal”

Before coming to Hong Kong, A was a tall, strong, able-bodied man. According to him, several police officers and immigration officers cornered him on the lower level of the magistrates’ court.

“Handcuffed to both of my arms and waist, applying triple-point restraint, they waterboarded me, and jumped onto my knees and ankles. . . .” On his way to CIC, one of the immigration officers called him a “Christian terrorist” and threatened that he “will be tortured here in Hong Kong.”

The Hong Kong Police Force later responded, “All security forces are deployed according to the situation, and to a minimum degree necessary for the completion of their legal mission. If the detainee requests or the judge in duty recognises a need for treatment, they will be sent to the closest hospital or clinic.” The statement also said that anyone can file a report with the Complaints Against Police Office, which will process claims with fair and just procedures.

William Pak Ho Fung, assistant director of the Enforcement Branch of the Immigration Department, stated, “If any officers exert violence on claimants, we will absolutely approach such matters seriously.” He added that detainees could file a complaint.

“My charge was already dropped, but they treat me as a criminal,” said A. He tried to mail outgoing letters to journalists (which were never received), and he suspected they were withheld by Hong Kong officials. Officers in the visiting room explained that procedure dictates that documents and letters given to visitors must first be inspected b