HONG KONG (Reuters) - When "Steve" fled Pakistan for Hong Kong to seek political asylum in early 2003, he never dreamed he would be stuck in limbo for more than three-and-a-half years and spend 21 months of that time in detention.
"My brother and sister, they were lucky, they didn't come to Hong Kong. They escaped by Russia and went to Geneva," said the soft-spoken, 39-year-old former dress designer who says he was jailed and tortured for his political beliefs. He declined to reveal his real name for fear of reprisals.
"I was unlucky. I came to Hong Kong."
The former British colony on China's southern coast may be one of the freest and wealthiest societies in Asia, but it lacks laws and a coherent policy on asylum seekers and refugees, and many who come here for relief land in a political purgatory.
Hong Kong is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out the basic human rights to which refugees and applicants are entitled.
Ironically, the Asian financial hub owes much of its dazzling success to migrants, many of whom fled war or communism in China to seek refuge in Hong Kong. It also handled hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
This month, the issue has come back into the spotlight with a series of hunger strikes by detained asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia and Africa. Activists and experts hope momentum is finally building for the government to make a change.
"There's no legislation for refugees, yet you have a dogs and cats ordinance," said human rights lawyer Mark Daly.
"The heat on the government to come up with a clear policy is not going to diminish."
Currently, refugee cases are handled by the U.N. agency, UNHCR. The government, a party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, handles torture claims.
But critics say the review processes in both are opaque, claimants rarely get legal counsel and rejections are left largely unexplained, rendering appeals difficult.
To make matters worse, Hong Kong has no policy entitling registered asylum seekers to visa extensions while their cases are reviewed, which can take months or years.
"The crazy thing is that the Hong Kong government says: 'Well, you can make a claim here, but we're not going to admit you'," said chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Philip Dykes, who has handled several cases.
'THIS IS NOTHING'
That's what happened to "Steve".
After arriving in Hong Kong, he applied for refugee status with UNHCR. The agency gave him a letter to present to immigration to bolster his case for a visa extension while it considered his story.
But the immigration department swiftly rejected his application and told him he had two days to leave Hong Kong.
He stayed because, he said, returning to Pakistan was not an option. Within days, immigration officers came knocking. He presented his passport and the UNHCR papers.
"They said: 'This is nothing. You have to come with us'," he recalled.
He spent the next 21 months in detention.
Activists are pushing hard for the government to formulate a policy on asylum seekers. Earlier this week, in what some saw as a positive step, the city's legislature held a hearing on the plight of asylum seekers.
The territory grants visa-free entry to people from a large number of countries and argues that policies requiring better treatment of asylum seekers could produce a "magnet effect".
The number of asylum seekers has risen to about 160 per month from a third of that a few years ago, according to UNHCR. Daly and others have questioned the figures, though, and said that even if they are rising the overall figure remains small.
Either way, the U.N. agency said the "magnet" argument is dubious, and has urged Hong Kong to play a more proactive role in handling the cases and become a party to the refugee convention.
"Refugees are a reality of today and are often mixed in migratory fluxes. Governments can no longer avoid dealing with asylum and refugees issues," the agency said in a written response to Reuters' questions.
"In view of the fact that UNHCR is mandated to assist governments to ensure refugee protection, but not to replace them indefinitely, we expect that the Government would eventually consider more involvement in asylum and refugee issues."
China and Macau, another special administrative region like Hong Kong, are already on board. Activists have a hard time understanding why Hong Kong has not sought inclusion.
Meanwhile, people like "Steve" languish.
With his UNHCR refugee case closed, he is awaiting a decision on his torture claim. He has been given no indication of how long that might take.
"Everything is in limbo," he said. "I don't know what will happen."