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Last December, Yuli Riswati, the Indonesian migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong, was deported for writing on the anti-extradition law movement. Supporters criticized the Immigration Department for political oppression in the name of deportation. On the solidarity assembly on 7 December 2019, Yuli told the public via phone that during the 28-day unreasonable detention in Castle Peak Bay Immigration Center (CIC), from being arrested until finally deported, she had been treated inhumanely, including a strip examination before a male doctor, which caused her depression. Worrying for other detainees whose deteriorating condition was kept unknown, she called for public awareness of the situation inside CIC. “Rights of CIC Detainees Concern Group” (“CIC Concern Group”) was thus formed by a group of friends acquainted with each other because of the assembly. Together with asylum seekers, who have been torturing by CIC and the Immigration Department and their concern organizations, they got in touch with many current and former detainees and provide them with assistance.
CIC is a detention centre designated for people suspected of or awaiting deportation, managed by the Immigration Department. This March, several lawmakers including Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, Shiu Ka-chun and the chairperson of Labour Party Kwok Wing Kin, paid an official visit to CIC. They discovered poor internal facilities, with only one big water basket and a shared water ladle for drinking; that only one male doctor is on duty in the clinic all the time, which is an insult to female detainees facing strip examination; and that there is no independent complaint mechanism, as detainees have to apply to the officers for complaint forms if they wish to lodge complaints with the ombudsman and the names of applicants will be recorded. In light of these, CIC Concern Group invited two former detainees, Father Franco Mella (known as ‘Gum Jai’) who has been engaging in the right of abode movement for years and members of legislative council to a press conference titled ‘Let the sun shine in the black prison’ on 1 June, revealing the inhumane environment inside CIC and the lack of transparency of the detention system implemented by the authority.
Unexplained arrest and endless detention: the mental torture of detainees
Ms. S came to Hong Kong in 2003 to seek political asylum due to the Nepalese civil war. Yet, she was unreasonably detained twice: first in 2007, when she was detained for a total of 4 months, for which she claimed compensation for unlawful detention and won damages from the court in 2016. The second time happened last September, while she reported herself to CIC as usual, Immigration officers arrested her in a sudden. When she asked for reasons, officers pushed her on the ground with their knees immediately and detained her for 3 months and 21 days. Till now, S still has no idea why she was detained. Fish, a member of the Concern Group, said it was most detainees’ shared experience that they were arrested and detained for no reason. For asylum seekers particularly, due to the language barrier, failing to understand questions of Immigration officers attracts arrests or even assaults easily. Without explanation, the period of detention is even endless. A former detainee known to Gum Jai was detained for 2 years. Although the court can award damages for unlawful detention, this applies to asylum seekers only, not to mention that most detainees have no means to access to justice. Even if one received compensation for ten or twenty thousand Hong Kong dollars after nearly 10 years, like S, the physical and mental torture suffered throughout the period can never be adequately compensated.
Ex-detainees all point to the mental stress during detention. In his visit in March, Eddie Chu found that the activity space for detainees is largely limited. Basically, they are only allowed to transfer from their sleeping rooms to the common area where 6 tables already occupy the whole space. Amy, another member of the Concern Group, explained that unlike in prison, no outdoor activity time is arranged for detainees in CIC, so they can only stay indoor, namely the designated space from 4/F to 10/F. She knew a Filipino migrant domestic worker who was detained before. The first thing she did upon release was to stand at a spot outside CIC and waved to her friends inside, because she knew that was the only spot one could see through the window from the cage. Cramped and endlessly detained, many detainees suffer from mental problems. A Pakistani man committed suicide recently in the centre after being detained for 8 months, told by ex-detainees. Some also report hearing screams every night. In response to media inquiries, the Immigration Department denied any case of suicide, but admitted that ‘CIC has no other related statistics’. It was due to the non-transparent detention system, in addition to the detainees’ inability to reach out, that the public has no means to verify these tragedies, Amy criticised.
Inhumane environment plus humiliation by officers
CIC has been notorious for its inhumane environment. Shiu Ka-chun remembered when he was in the Stanley Prison, a foreign prisoner told him he would ‘rather stay in Stanley than CIC’. S recalled that only breakfast and dinner were provided; three 1cm wide cubes of soap were used for shower; no clothes were available for change, even if there were, the soap supplied was never sufficient to wash clothes, let alone there was nowhere to hang or dry. NN from Indonesia was detained in 2015. She said it was a rainy day when she was sent to the Centre. When she could no longer stand the same wet clothes for the 3rd day, she changed her clothes and covered herself with a blanket provided in the detention cell, but was then blamed by the officer. Fish mentioned while she brought some clean clothes for Yuli during her visit last year, an officer told her that was unnecessary as they already provided clothes, which is the exact contrary to the experience of detainees. What’s worse, most detainees don’t have visitors for daily necessities backup because they have no connection in Hong Kong and the visiting procedure is complicated. Visitors are only allowed if the detainee himself has external contact and informs the intended visitor about his detention number. The articles allowed to hand in during visits are strictly limited. The brand of sanitary napkin, the colour of underwear and even the size of hairband are all specified in a list. Some brands are already extinct today.
It is also a practice in CIC to ignore detainees’ medical needs. An Indonesian girl detained with S accidentally broke her fingers by a door. Finishing her finger connection operation, however, no effective medicine was available in the CIC clinic, and seeking medical treatment outside was prohibited. Eventually, the girl lost her two fingers. NN also repeatedly reported to the doctor and officer about her allergy to fish, but the meal supplied to her remained the same. Once she asked for some ointment to relieve her serious allergic syndrome but was blamed by the officer: ‘Why can’t you wait until the next day to see the doctor?’ ‘But I can’t schedule when I would get sick!’ said NN angrily. She thought one could receive treatment even in prison, and questioned CIC for no basis to deny her right to medical treatment
The poor attitude of Immigration officers is another problem CIC is infamous for. S described them as ‘treating us like animals’. No questions, just follow the order. NN said the officers always resorted to the ‘rules’, but when asked what rules exactly and where they could find them, there was no answer. She also told the press that officers would humiliate detainees for their condition of stay by saying something like ‘You beg for staying in Hong Kong’, ‘You are begging for a recognizance paper because you are poor’, or ‘That’s why you must follow my order.’ Kwok Wing-kin added that during his conversation with these officers, he felt that being assigned to CIC is a repulsive work for them. Moreover, all of them have received anti-riot training, which contributed to a discriminatory attitude against detainees and justified their ill treatment. Gum Jai explained that CIC was formerly managed by the Correctional Services Department (CSD), and was transferred to the Immigration Department in 2009. Anna, another member of the Concern Group, said for many ex-detainees, including S who was detained both before and after the Department is in charge of CIC, officers’ neglect of human rights arise only after the Department gained control. Eddie Chu gave the opinion that the Department has adopted the training of CSD, managing CIC as a prison in respect of both facilities and treatment of detainees. With more social activists sentenced to jail, the exploitation of prisoners’ rights has been revealed. While CSD’s management is full of loopholes, the Department has aggravated the problems by creating CIC, which is out of the CSD system and unsupervised. Chu described this as ‘a black hole within a black hole’.
Inside CIC clinic: a male doctor responsible for strip examination
The Immigration Department alleged that as they value the health condition of detainees, when sent to the Centre, detainees will be examined by medical officers of the same sex. However, many ex-detainees’ experience shows the contrary. Being sent to CIC, S was immediately pulled to the G/F washroom by 7-8 female officers and was strip searched. She was forced to face down and lied on the ground. An officer sat on her and even pushed her against the wall and the ground. Because of back, waist and arm injuries, she was sent to the clinic inside CIC for examination. A female nurse and a male doctor asked her to take off all the clothes except for the underwear. Although there was a curtain, a 3-inch wide gap was left so that the whole undressing and examination process could be watched from the outside.
NN was insulted in a similar way. While she was arranged for body examination, a male doctor asked her to appear naked and turn around twice. For the second time, the doctor even required her to turn more slowly for him to observe in details. Earlier when Yuli talked about her experience in CIC, she also mentioned that after two strip searches by female officers, she was asked to appear in the nude again before a male doctor for examination. From these experience, the Concern Group suspects that the male doctor in the clinic has always requested female detainees to take off their clothes unreasonably, using examination as an excuse, which is completely outrageous.
During his visit, Eddie Chu found that the CIC clinic is an outsourced medical centre with only one male doctor on duty all the time. Therefore, regardless of sex or religion, detainees will only be examined by this male doctor, causing frequent insults to female detainees.
No way to complain: the punishment of ‘solitary confinement’
The Department also alleged that detainees can lodge a complaint under existing mechanism if they feel grieved. However, it came to Chu’s attention that if detainees wish to complain to an ombudsman, they have to apply to the officers first for a complaint form. Every applicant’s name will be then recorded in a notebook. Fearing for score-settling, Chu saw no names on the notebook within a year. When he conducted the official visit in March, Chu noticed that detainees were obviously ‘briefed’ on keeping quiet in the presence of lawmakers. Still, a woman stood up and told them she was ‘so miserable and it was hard to stand’. What follows after a complaint is the punishment of solitary confinement.
Both S and NN were punished in a single cell. Once a senior officer from the Immigration Department patrolled the Centre, S raised her hand with an attempt to ask the reason for her detention and was then punished by solitary confinement. There is no window in the single cell, only a door with a gap for officers to observe and hand in articles. Any conversation is prohibited between the detainee and officers. There was only one moulded and urinated blanket for her to cover herself. ‘I was not even complaining. I just raised my hand (to ask questions).’ Because of raising the hand, S was detained alone for 20 days.
NN met a Vietnamese old woman in CIC who can only understand Vietnamese and was unable to communicate with the officers. As she had very long hair, once she requested for an additional hairband to tie her hair, but was scolded at by a female officer ‘like a dog’. NN stood up and asked the officer to speak slowly, as the woman was already old and understood no Cantonese, it was useless to scold at her. The officer blamed her for minding others’ business, called a male inspector accusing her of inciting others to make trouble, and asked her to apologize. NN refused and was confined in the single cell for 2 days. She was told that no food would be provided until she said sorry. On the 3rd day, she was transferred to a hospital room, where a doctor asked her to drink some medicine. When asked about what medicine it was, the officer just told her to drink anyway. NN refused. The officer blamed her again for being stubborn and said they would not send her back as she would teach others to act badly and create more trouble. The truth was some detainees actually went on a hunger strike for NN. An officer then came and asked her to write a letter persuading her fellows to eat, which finally ended the period of solitary confinement. Later, she heard from other detainees that since then, the attitude of the female officer was better.
Concern Group called for more pressure on the Department, which refused to respond
The Concern Group and several lawmakers had sent a letter to the Immigration Department requesting an explanation for the inhumane treatment received by the detainees, but were replied that the treatment was ‘just and appropriate’. No response had been made to ex-detainees’ aforesaid experience. The Concern Group listed nine demands in the letter, including improvement on CIC facilities such as air ventilation and drinking facilities, cancellation of name-recording practise for complainants and so on. However, except for setting up a drinking facility, the Department refused all. Shiu Ka-chun added that the only reason for the Department’s consent to the drinking facility was that CIC was caught using a water basket and shared water ladle for detainees on their visit. Anna from the Concern Group also stated that according to a newly released detainee, as many people are awaiting deportation under the pandemic, around 40 Thais and tens of mainlanders were admitted in April alone. A serious concern about the outbreak of COVID-19 inside the detention centre was raised.
Shiu further raised four demands, which include publicizing the statistics for the average detention time in CIC by the Immigration Department, ensuring the independence of ombudsman by the government, setting up an independent complaint mechanism to free detainees from the fear for score-settling, and detailed measure on how to prevent detainees from solitarily confined simply because they lodge complaints. The Concern Group requested the Department to set a time limit not more than half a year as the maximum detention period, to improve the detention environment to meet humane requirements, and to provide related training to frontline officers. NN stated that the first and foremost task is to stop Immigration officers from treating detainees in CIC as dogs. S expressed no expectation towards the government for reforming the system, as she felt the power of the Department is too large and they would never follow legal rules. Instead, she hoped more people be aware of and understand the condition of detainees as a method to put pressure.
While detainees in Hong Kong are facing inhumane treatment in CIC, those in Japan are also suffering from lack of food, malnutrition and poor ventilation. Read the petition letter by local concern organisations in Chinese and English.