Who is a Refugee?

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence and cannot return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They are considered "asylum seekers" until their claim for refugee status has been granted.



  • Ethnic and tribal violence

  • Political threats

  • Religious persecution

  • War and civil conflict

  • Human right abuses and torture



  • Inability to work legally

  • Long waiting times for asylum claims

  • Forced dependence on the government and NGOs

  • Lack of access to quality medical care

  • Stigma and discrimination

how does Branches of Hope Help?





1. Who are refugees under international law?

The 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees and its 1967 Protocol, being the only international legal norms applying specifically to refugees at the global level, define a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

However, critics of the Convention and its Protocol claim that the definition of refugees was actually intended to exclude internally displaced persons, economic migrants, victims of natural disasters, and persons fleeing violent conflict but not subject to discrimination amounting to persecution.

A core principle in these two legal norms is “non-refoulement”, which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution. It is a principle of customary international law, it also applies to states that are not signatories to the Convention and Protocol.

2. What is the situation of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide?

Due to regional wars, civil strife, poverty, and natural disasters, the number of refugees worldwide has grown dramatically in recent years to a total of 22.5 million people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Their political status in transit countries has been made precarious by flexible interpretations of the Convention and its Protocol, which allows for signed countries not to grant refugee status, only requiring them to allow protection claimants to seek asylum.

Their economic welfare is also generally uncertain, as most signatory countries allow only bona fide refugees to work if they can find employers while providing only self-employment or the barest of welfare support for asylum seekers.


3. How are refugees different from asylum seekers?

What distinguishes a refugee from an asylum seeker is that while the former is already recognised as such, the latter is still undergoing a process of status determination as a refugee. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “an asylum seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.”

In cases of en masse refugee migration (often due to political conflict), the reasons for fleeing are evident. As it is impracticable to conduct a thorough screening, such groups are often declared collectively as refugees even prior to formal application as asylum seekers.


4. Who are refugees in Hong Kong?

According to government sources, protection claimants in Hong Kong number more than 14,000, of which some 8,000 are awaiting assessment by the Immigration Department, 5,000 are waiting for appeal hearings before the Torture Claims Appeal Board, and 1,000 are undergoing prosecution hearings and judicial reviews. A further 800 are waiting to be removed after having their claims rejected.

Most protection claimants in Hong Kong come from countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

5. How is the Hong Kong government treating refugees?

Hong Kong has an extremely poor acceptance rate of 0.6% for asylum seekers, especially as compared with Europe’s 60%. The global average acceptance rate is around 43%.

From late 2009 to March 2018, only 120 asylum seekers have had their claims substantiated by the Hong Kong government, after which their status as refugees will be determined by the UNHCR. The waiting time for claims screening normally takes several years, during which claimants are not allowed to self-employ or be employed, with another long period of wait occurring between substantiation and their official recognition as refugees by the UNHCR.

While Hong Kong is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention and its Protocol, it has acceded to the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) which abides by the principle of non-refoulement. This has obliged the Hong Kong government to process protection claims based on torture, and not on obligations to legal norms on refugees.

Certain localist politicians have recently proposed Hong Kong leaving the UNCAT to do away with its non-refoulement obligations, but this proposal has been criticised by human rights organisations as being dangerous not only to asylum seekers but to locals as well.

Since 2014, the Hong Kong government has simplified the verification of protection claims through the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), which is supposedly aimed at preventing abuse of its non-refoulement commitment. But critics say these have brought on more delays in claims processing due to the government’s lack of training, with the knock-on effect of further encouraging so-called “bogus claims” of torture and persecution by labour traffickers overseas.


6. What are the basic needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong?

Shelter, food, education, training, legal support, and gainful livelihood are some of the most essential needs that refugees and asylum seekers have in Hong Kong. The scale of these needs is highlighted by the high cost of living in the territory, xenophobic and racist attitudes among the local population, and employment prohibitions on asylum seekers imposed by the Hong Kong government.

Non-profit organisations like Branches of Hope have been helping refugees and asylum seekers in various capacities, seeking to make their dire situations less vulnerable. These support services are sustained by donations from a wide range of private sector donations in Hong Kong and abroad.


7. What does the Hong Kong government provide for them?

While the Hong Kong government provides each asylum-seeker family with monthly stipends in lieu of permission to work, these are very meagre and do not go far in meeting the actual basic needs of the recipients.

These monthly stipends may be broken down monthly as follows: housing, HK$1,500 (US$194); utilities, HK$300 (US$39); food (supermarket coupons) HK$1,200 (US$155); and a few hundred HK dollars for transportation.

It also gives educational support only for refugee children 6 years old and above, leaving 3-5 year-olds with no preparation in crucial areas of early childhood education such as math and phonics.

Three to five year-old children can claim for a one-off grant (up to HK$3,885/year) to help cover education costs according to the Student Finance Office website. This grant is not enough and applications take a long time to process.

The same issues arise when families apply to have kindergarten fees paid by the Student Finance Office. The process takes a minimum of three months and families are asked to pay tuition fees in advance, even though they have no source of income to cover such fees.

8. Are substantiated claimants allowed to take up employment in Hong Kong?

There is no blanket permission for substantiated claimants to take up paid work in the territory. Individual applications would have to be filed at the Hong Kong Immigration by claimants and these are considered on a case by case basis.

Approval through this process has been quite low, with only 44 out of 108 applications approved, 10 were rejected, 15 pending further information from the applicants and 39 withdrawn or stalled. The processing of right to work applications generally takes two to five weeks.



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