CULS Pro Bono: Justice Centre Hong Kong

Helen Taylor

Last August myself and 9 other Cambridge students undertook a 3-week programme at the Justice Centre Hong Kong (JCHK). The programme was advertised through the CULS pro bono division.

The JCHK is a non-for-profit organization that works to protect the rights of Hong Kong’s forced migrants. According to its website, the organization has helped more than 2000 refugee men and children since its launch in 20141. The focus during the 3-week programme was primarily on non-refoulement claims and challenging immigration authority decisions regarding these claims. Although Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention it has acceded to non-refoulement-related treaties and so – at least in principle – those coming from a situation of persecution or torture may have a right to non-refoulement2.

The scheme was well organized and the first week was dedicated to equipping us with the necessary training for the programme. The training comprised of sessions focusing on the legal framework on asylum, the unified screening mechanism (USM) in Hong Kong3 and also on more psychosocial issues such as the effect of trauma on asylum seekers. With regards to the legal side of the training, we were all struck by the number of flaws in the Hong Kong system. Reading the legal errors and illogical reasoning in some of the decisions of the immigration authorities, as well as hearing about the challenges that claimants face when going through the USM, makes the measly 0.8% acceptance rate of first tier decisions and 0.5% acceptance rate of appeals more comprehensible. It was also interesting to hear the views of lawyers qualified in the Hong Kong jurisdiction who considered the English asylum system to be far superior to the one in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s judicial framework suggests that improvement is possible. For instance, the Hong Kong judiciary is of commendable academic pedigree, there is access to legal representation, courts are independent and appeal/review mechanisms are in place. There is therefore some hope of progress.

Once the training week had been completed the 10 of us were divided into 3 groups and each group was assigned a caseworker who supported and guided the respective group throughout the remaining 2 weeks of the programme. We were grateful for the amount of responsibility afforded to us. We all got a significant amount of client-facing time. This allowed us to really put into context the information that we had absorbed from the first week and underlined the importance of non-legal skills such as building client rapport and trust. I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in international human rights law take any opportunity they can to work with the JCHK. The scheme definitely stands out as compared to other NGO intern experiences, where students are so often tasked with the more menial and administrative work.

Aside from the legal work, we were able to also learn about the policy and research areas of the JCHK. In particular, we heard from the policy team’s “Coming clean” project that challenges the Hong Kong government’s assertion that Hong Kong is not a source for human trafficking. The study exposes the worrying treatment of migrant domestic workers, reporting that 66.3% of cases showed strong signs of exploitation4. In particular, the exposure to policy as well as legal work demonstrated the importance of policy and advocacy: whilst the JCHK’s work helping clients through the existing system is invaluable, a more policy-orientated approach focusing on reform could lead to systemic change that could more thoroughly address the problems within the system.

The amount of effort that was put into the scheme made the experience working with the JCHK overwhelmingly positive. The summer programme was the first time that CULS had been involved with the JCHK. I hope and would encourage that students work to continue this relationship and that there is future collaboration between the two organizations.

  2. Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law that refers to the practice of not returning asylum seekers to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.
  3. The Unified Screening Mechanism is the process the Hong Kong Government uses to screen claims lodged by persons who fear harm upon return to their country of origin.