While Hong Kong offers free vaccinations to anyone over the age of 16, more than 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers have so far been excluded from the inoculation drive due to their lack of residency status – a decision that has sparked widespread criticism.
Despite the availability of jabs, the city’s vaccine take-up has been slow. Like others in Asia, the city’s early success in containing COVID-19 made the public less fearful of the virus, and more likely to choose to wait before getting the shot. The rollout has also been hampered by a growing public mistrust in authorities. Yet as unused vaccines pile up, officials still maintain that shots will not be offered to refugees or asylum seekers at this stage.
This week, rights groups slammed the government for failing to include these vulnerable groups not just in its vaccination plan, but also in wider coronavirus-relief measures. Since the start of the pandemic, authorities have frequently overlooked the community in the fight against the virus, leaving many struggling to access health services and support, according to advocates.
In a recent poll, the Refugee Concern Network found that 60 percent of respondents in the population are keen to get the shot. Over 80 percent also said their primary reason for wanting to be vaccinated is to protect the local community.
“Refugees and asylum seekers have been largely left out of Hong Kong’s public health response,” said a spokesperson from human rights NGO Justice Centre. “In the early stage of the pandemic, this community was not provided with hygiene products. There was no information on how this community can access healthcare services if they develop symptoms, or whether they can access community testing centers.”
Since the start of the year, the World Health Organization and others have urged global leaders to make the vaccine available to refugees. Only 51 out of 90 countries developing national vaccination strategies have included refugees in vaccination plans, according to a January report from the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Even when there isn’t a pandemic, life in Hong Kong is a struggle for refugees and asylum seekers. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, but is bound by the Convention against Torture. This means the government cannot expel those who are at risk of torture in their home countries. Asylum seekers are rarely resettled in Hong Kong, but are sent to a safe third country if their claims are accepted.
Yet the process of getting a decision on a refugee claim can take up to several years. Since asylum seekers do not have any legal status, they spend the time trapped in limbo, unable to work without special permission and barely surviving on subsidies and food vouchers that fail to keep them out of poverty.
The already-flawed system for asylum seekers will face new challenges moving forward. Last month, the government approved a controversial immigration law that advocates warn will “further undermine important procedural safeguards and human rights for expediency,” according to the Justice Centre.
Advocates are particularly concerned about measures that will limit access to interpretation services, increase the use of immigration detention, and require asylum seekers to give consent to medical examinations or risk having their cases thrown out.
The city’s legislature refused to convene public hearings on the law, despite repeated requests from civil society groups. Left out of public discussions, many in the community do not understand the new changes, and have expressed anxiety and confusion. Racist rhetoric has also appeared in legislature debates about the law, including references to “fake refugees” and asylum seekers being “malignant tumors.”
“Refugees and asylum seekers are first and foremost people,” said the Justice Centre spokesperson. “By denying asylum seekers and refugees equal dignity, our society also denies these brave survivors of horrendous rights violations equal access to justice and critical social welfare.”