Asylum Seekers in Hong Kong: Trapped in a Cycle of Desperation and Crime

Two asylum seekers in Hong Kong were arrested for drug trafficking, highlighting the challenges faced by vulnerable migrants. Hong Kong's non-signatory status to the 1951 Refugee Convention exacerbates their plight, necessitating urgent action to uphold their rights.

Asylum Seekers in Hong Kong: Trapped in a Cycle of Desperation and Crime
Photography of people walk during rain, by Red F, via Unsplash, 2016, June 8.


Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence


In the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, where skyscrapers glisten and the economy thrives, a shadowy underworld exploits the city's most vulnerable. Among those caught in this web are asylum seekers, individuals who fled their homelands in search of safety and a better life. Yet, instead of finding refuge, many are thrust into the dark alleys of crime. On Tuesday, May 23rd, Hong Kong police arrested two asylum seekers for drug trafficking, uncovering a grim reality: drug trafficking syndicates are recruiting asylum seekers to peddle narcotics in Kowloon's vibrant entertainment venues. These syndicates take advantage of the precarious legal status of asylum seekers, who, with no right to work and limited means of survival, are often left with little choice but to engage in illegal activities. This alarming trend not only highlights the plight of asylum seekers in Hong Kong but also raises urgent questions about the city's approach to immigration and law enforcement.

Hong Kong's approach to asylum seekers is distinct due to its legal and political history. Hong Kong has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means it does not formally accept refugees for resettlement. Instead, those seeking protection are classified as "asylum seekers" or "non-refoulement claimants" until their cases are resolved. This framework exists because, while Hong Kong has not committed to the Refugee Convention, it did ratify the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, allowing individuals to seek asylum based on fears of torture or inhumane treatment. To satisfy international human rights law, Hong Kong’s procedure for handling asylum claims is known as the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), introduced in 2014. The USM evaluates the claims of individuals who fear torture, inhuman treatment, or persecution in their home countries. Those who are successful in their claims are referred to the UNHCR for resettlement, mainly to countries such as the United States and Canada. Despite these mechanisms, the lack of a formal asylum process that provides protective status or residency leaves many asylum seekers in a precarious situation, unable to work legally and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal syndicates.

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong face significant challenges due to their inability to legally work or live in the city, relying on a government allowance of approximately US$400 per month. This sum is insufficient to cover rent or living expenses in one of the world's priciest cities, intensifying their financial difficulties and making them more vulnerable to exploitation. Those who arrive in Hong Kong with children encounter further obstacles, as their children cannot attend school without legal status. Although the Immigration Department may consider school applications on a case-by-case basis for children over six, from 2021 to January 2024, only 573 out of 660 placement requests were approved.

From March 2014 to July 2023, 22,744 individuals applied for international protection in Hong Kong. The city’s stringent asylum policies have resulted in only 301 individuals being recognised as at risk of torture or persecution and subsequently referred to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) for resettlement. This low recognition rate highlights the significant challenges faced by asylum seekers in Hong Kong. As of June 2023, approximately 14,700 non-refoulement claimants were residing in the city, navigating a complex and often harsh system.

As we reflect on the plight of asylum seekers in Hong Kong, it becomes evident that urgent action is needed to address the systemic injustices and vulnerabilities they face. The city's reputation as a global financial hub must be tempered with a commitment to upholding the rights and dignity of all who call it home. Only through concerted efforts to reform asylum policies and provide adequate support can Hong Kong truly fulfil its duty to protect the most vulnerable among us.



Sources and further reading:

Clifford Lo. (23 May 2024). Asylum seekers in Hong Kong used by syndicate for drug supply, police say after arrest of 2. South China Morning Post.

(6 February 2024). Advocating for protection of refugees in Hong Kong through the UN’s Universal Periodic Review. School of Advanced Studies University of London.,and%20various%20other%20international%20treaties.

Deborah Wong and Louisa Tang. (7 May 2024). ‘Not a welcoming situation’: Over 15,000 refugees, asylum seekers lack legal right to live or work in Hong Kong. CNA.