Asia's refugee impasse pivots to the children as birthrate spikes

Two refugee children with their parents, who fled Bangladesh, in Hong Kong earlier this month. More than 580 refugee children in the city have been denied the right of abode, making it impossible for young people to get jobs or leave.
Two refugee children with their parents, who fled Bangladesh, in Hong Kong earlier this month. More than 580 refugee children in the city have been denied the right of abode, making it impossible for young people to get jobs or leave.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • The number of stateless children born to refugees is rising in Hong Kong, where claims from asylum-seekers have more than tripled in the last two years, alarming residents and lawmakers.

While Europe grapples with an influx of people desperate to escape fighting in Syria, asylum-seekers from Asian nations such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Vietnam are flocking to Hong Kong. But human rights activists accuse the authorities of dragging their feet on the approval of claims, to avoid spurring a further influx.

Hong Kong has approved just 52 of the more than 8,000 claims since 2009. There are over 11,000 asylum-seekers in the city. "Our future is already gone, so we are thinking of our kids' future," said Mr Adjouma Ibrahim, chairman of the Refugee Union, who has been in Hong Kong for 11 years. "Our kids are stateless. We don't have travel documents - nothing," he told Reuters.

Mr Ibrahim is from Togo in west Africa and his son and daughter, despite having been born in Hong Kong, are among the more than 580 refugee children denied the right of abode, making it impossible for young people to get jobs or leave.

The refugees have become a sensitive topic for residents and politicians, with the media often blaming them for a spurt in crime.

While the government did not immediately respond to a request for comment, in a legislative document this year, it acknowledged the need to streamline the lengthy screening process. Over the past five years, it has more than doubled the number of staff handling claims.

Politicians have pushed for tighter curbs after the government adopted a screening mechanism in 2014 to select those meeting the refugee criteria set out in international law. "Hong Kong is a very convenient place and our government has been very generous to people who seek asylum," said Mr Dominic Lee, a Liberal Party official, who is demanding the repatriation of refugees and camps to house them. "This provides a huge incentive for these fake refugees to come to Hong Kong and take advantage," he added.

The debate comes as Europe struggles to handle the 1.25 million migrants who have entered since January last year. The United Nations is set to mark World Refugee Day today, with a call to governments to provide a better life for refugees.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Asia's refugee impasse pivots to the children as birthrate spikes'. Print Edition | Subscribe