Asylum plea by Snowden would not be fast-tracked, says UN refugee office

Edward Snowden will not be given preferential treatment if he applies for asylum in Hong Kong, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ office.

And an asylum seeker warned Snowden may face a long wait should he seek protection.

“We prioritise older cases,” said Nazneen Farooqi, a protection officer at the UNHCR’s office in Hong Kong, during a press conference ahead of today’s World Refugee Day.

She said she was speaking hypothetically, as UNHCR does not confirm or deny the existence of particular asylum claims.

Farooqi said because the city has no asylum-screening system, applicants whose tourist visas have expired are usually detained at an immigration centre while their documents are verified. Applications can be made to the UNHCR for asylum at any time.

The period of detention usually ranges from a few weeks to a few months, but can be longer, the UNHCR says.

Ali Bahadar, 61, a former politician in Pakistan who has been waiting for his claim to be processed for more than three years, said: “Snowden should not be treated like a VIP. He should be treated like … all of us, who have been waiting in Hong Kong for as long as 10 years.”

Snowden, who arrived in Hong Kong on May 20, would have received a 90-day tourist visa. He has yet to announce whether he plans to seek asylum in the city and is expected to face an extradition request from the US. He has indicated that he may seek asylum in Iceland.

Snowden’s situation could pressure the Hong Kong government to improve its flawed asylum system, said Aleta Miller, executive director of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre.

“The eyes of the world are fixed on Hong Kong’s asylum policy,” she said.

“I see Snowden’s case as an opportunity to draw attention to the issues and demand that the government creates a fair and efficient system.”

Regardless of Snowden’s next move, the fate of the city’s 1,200 asylum seekers and 91 recognised refugees could be at a tipping point after the Court of Final Appeal ordered in rulings in December and March that the government should change the way it processes claims. The government currently leaves the UNHCR to assess applications. The court ordered the government to set up its own screening mechanism.

It also ordered the administration to take into account the risk of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment for people claiming protection under the UN Convention on Torture, which Hong Kong has signed.

Even when refugees are recognised by the UNHCR in Hong Kong, they can wait for years before being resettled in another country. Hong Kong has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not allow refugees to settle in the city.

“Only two countries in the world regularly accept refugees from Hong Kong – the US and Canada – and the quotas they give us are very low” Farooqi said.

Cosmo Beatson, director of refugee organisation Vision First said: “If an asylum claim is filed by an American citizen, we do not see why he should be treated any differently than any other refugee in terms of the assessment process. We don’t know if the political risk he might suffer is any different from the political risk of a Sri Lankan torture claimant.”

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