Stricter laws for torture claims to take effect in August

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Amendments to the Immigration Ordinance will take effect on Aug. 1, in Hong Kong's bid to implement stricter policies for the handling of non-refoulement claims.

Tighter policies for the screening and handling of non-refoulement claims, or appeals for protection against deportation, will take effect on Aug. 1.

A press release published on the government website said the amendments to the Immigration Ordinance will enhance efficiency in screening the claims and prevent some claimants’ “delaying tactics.”

The amendments are also aimed to step up the interception at source, removal, and detention of torture claimants.

In a move to fast-track the removal of unsuccessful claimants, the new rules would allow the Immigration Department to arrange repatriation for those with rejected torture claims even if the claim is pending appeal.

Employers who hire illegal immigrants, overstayers, or persons refused permission to land in the city, will face stiffer sanctions. The amendments will increase the existing maximum penalties of a HK$350,000 fine and a 3-year jail term to HK$500,000 and a 10-year jail term.

Directors, managers, secretaries, and other officers of the company who hired them may also be held criminally liable.

Claimants will be also required to attend interviews if the Immigration Department should ask them to. If he or she fails to attend, the department can still decide on his or her claim.

While services for an interpreter during the screening interview can be arranged, the Immigration Department may direct a claimant to speak in a language that the department “reasonably considers the claimant being able to understand and communicate in.”

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For claimants whose physical or mental conditions are in dispute, Immigration may have the claimant undergo a medical examination. If the claimant does not consent to the examination, Immigration may decide not to consider the claimant’s disputed condition.

The amendment will also authorise the Torture Claims and Appeals (TCAB) Board same powers relating to language and medical examinations. The TCAB may also choose to shorten the 28-day notice period before hearings to not less than 7 days.

Claimants who pose higher security risks to Hong Kong may face longer periods in detention as the new provisions also allow Immigration to consider the length of the period in accordance with legal principles and detention policy.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Thus, people forced to leave their countries to escape war, conflict, or violence are not considered “refugees” or “asylum seekers” but are seen as undocumented immigrants.

Immigrants who file non-refoulement claims are not considered as ordinarily residing in Hong Kong, and they are not allowed to work. On humanitarian grounds, the government offers assistance to the claimants on a case-to-case basis for their needs while their claims are being processed.

Lawmakers have previously criticised the existing mechanism for being prone to abuse by some torture claimants.

Recent data from the Audit Commission revealed that 10,711 non-refoulement claimants have received assistance from contractors working with the city’s Social Welfare Department from 2019 to 2020. The SWD spent HK$477 million for the aid.