Australia’s refugee policies ‘a bad example to Asia’

patricia ho

A leading human rights lawyer from Hong Kong has warned that Australia’s treatment of refugees could set a dangerous precedent for other nations in the Asian region.

Patricia Ho has been involved in a number of high profile cases defending the rights of asylum seekers, human trafficking victims, sex workers and other minority groups.

She is currently in Melbourne for The Justice Conference, an annual gathering of Christians passionate about social justice issues.

The conference runs from 27-28 October and is sponsored by more than 30 churches and faith-based organisations, including Pilgrim Theological College.

At a time when the number of globally displaced people is at an all-time high, Australia continues to receive international coverage for its hardline refugee policies.

“Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers on various islands is clearly inhumane and degrading treatment, if not torture,” Ms Ho said.

“It sets such a bad example to Asia, as they get to justify (their human rights record) by saying that they are more humane than the Australian government.

“It’s just sad to see policy makers and their supporters turn a blind eye to that level of suffering.”

Ms Ho said she was heartened by the responses from refugee supporters in Australia who continue to advocate for justice.

“I was so encouraged by posters around the city of Melbourne saying that they welcome refugees,” she said.

“It’s such an important message to them – I can just imagine how that might touch the hearts of refugees who have lost so much.”

As a Christian, Ms Ho said her faith is integral to her work fighting for some of the most vulnerable groups in the community. She said the Biblical command to ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ means caring for people like refugees and asylum seekers, who are often on the margins of society.

“We just have to know them. We have to know their suffering, know their brokenness, know their needs,” Ms Ho said.

“Only when we know will we know what to do about it. Sending them on their way to inhuman treatment or even possible death is certainly not the way to go.”

Last year, Ms Ho was involved in a landmark case in which a Pakistani man successfully sued the Hong Kong government for failing to protect him from human trafficking.

The Hong Kong government’s official position is that human trafficking is not a serious issue in the Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong is one of the few places in Asia that does not criminalise human trafficking and forced labour, as the government argues that existing local laws already cover these crimes.

But Ms Ho said the reality tells a very different story.

“From my experience and communications with NGOs, I know the situation is serious,” she said.

“One report found one-in-six domestic workers in Hong Kong are subjected to forced labour conditions in Hong Kong – that is 60,000 people in the domestic work sector alone.

“Hong Kong has been placed by the TIP (Trafficking in Persons) report on the Tier 2 Watch List for the second year in a row. If they do not improve they will be downgraded to Tier 3, which involves sanctions by the US government.”

Because Hong Kong is an international transport hub, it is a source, transit and destination for human trafficking.

In recent years, a number of human trafficking victims from South America and Africa have been used as drug mules. Trafficking is also rife within the sex trade and construction industry.

While the fight to combat human trafficking in Hong Kong remains a significant challenge, Ms Ho said many success stories emerge from her work.

“One vivid memory was winning a challenge against the government’s detention policy and on the next day hundreds of asylum seekers were released from detention in one day,” Ms Ho said.

“Another was winning the challenge against the government for its failure to protect victims of human trafficking ­– the result is that they will have to legislate to make trafficking and forced labour crimes.

“There’s also the individual successes of refugees. When they are recognized as successful refugees and get to imagine a new life ahead of them, it’s a real privilege to be in a position to share that joy and know you helped in some small way.”

The Justice Conference will take place at Melbourne Town Hall from 27-28 October. To register for this year’s Justice Conference, visit

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