Finding a different narrative in Hong Kong 

Hi everyone! Thanks for taking a moment to read our page. We are looking forward to sharing the first photos of this project with you.

Perhaps by way of background, you might be asking – why refugees and why Hong Kong?

Photo: Tegan Smyth

Our starting point is simple: We are involved in the Hong Kong third sector and are well acquainted with many NGOs. There are dozens of not-for-profits that are doing incredible work with refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong. They all cover different needs, be it assisting with legal issues or putting a roof over someone’s head.

The problems facing refugees in Hong Kong are numerous – and it’s probably best to break down the issues one by one.

 

INSUFFICIENT MONTHLY ALLOWANCE

A recent article encapsulates just how little refugees are given to live on; in a city notorious for sports cars, sky-high rent and huge income inequality (via Hong Kong Free Press):

Under current laws, refugees are not permitted to work or volunteer. They must subsist on HK$1,500 per month for rent, HK$1,200 for food, and about HK$500 for utilities and transport. Children are allotted HK$750 for housing.

The average hourly minimum wage is approximately HKD$32 an hour. For foreign domestic workers, a special class of monthly minimum wage is allocated to them, which Unions state is ‘not livable’ – in 2016 it was just over $4,000. The difference for refugees and asylum seekers is that they receive even less than the lowest paid worker and are not allowed to work or volunteer. The housing allowance is conditional on a letter of guarantee from a landlord, so the net disposable allowance is more like $1,700.

Photo: Tegan Smyth

It’s no secret that renting in Hong Kong is expensive but HK$1,500 can’t even get you a so-called “coffin home“. In order to access the housing allowance, refugees are required to provide a letter from a guarantor, stating that they will pay for rent requirements that exceed the monthly assistance provided by the government. This is not at an easy task. Peter Maina, Secretary General of Refugee Union describes the ordeal for many refugees who are looking for housing:

“It’s next to impossible to get guarantors who are willing to make such commitments to the refugee community. This has resulted in many [refugees] being rendered homeless as ISS Hong Kong does not pay the rental assistance to the landlords.”

 

INABILITY TO WORK & VOLUNTEER

As it was highlighted by local refugee advice clinic Justice Centre, the right to work is connected to many other rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living and to security of family life. Being able to work is also fundamental to human dignity and enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights.

Depriving refugees of the right to work takes away their freedom to be self-sufficient, prevents them from using their skills, and exacerbates societal discrimination.

As Hong Kong has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, they have not signed on to recognise international refugee law. This reluctance by the government to step in to protect refugees and asylum seekers appears to be with the view that the situation will ‘sort itself out’, the longer it is ignored.

Instead, refugees arrive in Hong Kong seeking protection under the UN Convention Against Torture. What this means is that refugees – even if they have a well-founded fear of persecution, that would protect them under international law – are in a legal limbo. They are unlikely to be processed but cannot be sent back to their country of origin if there is a risk that they might be tortured.

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Photo: Refugee Union

Refugees can be stranded here for years awaiting the determination of their claims or for resettlement to another country. They are forced to rely on whatever assistance is provided by the government and prohibited from working. It is actually illegal for refugees to work in Hong Kong and many people serve around 15 months in prison if they are caught.

Although few other countries have set allowances allocated to refugees, this is because they are allowed to work. An inadequate welfare package and harsh penalties on any refugees caught working is a double jeopardy. It keeps people and their families in a cycle of poverty from which they cannot break out.

 

 1 PROTECTION CLAIMANT FOR EVERY 20 MILLIONAIRES

Stating that there is a refugee “problem” or “crisis” is completely overblown. Although in recent years, the refugee population has grown in Hong Kong, it only numbers around 11,000 people – less than 1% of the total population. To further put those  numbers into perspective, there are 200,000 millionaires in Hong Kong, so twenty millionaires for every single refugee.

Of the nearly 20,000 applications for asylum Hong Kong has received since December 1992, only 31 have been granted, a recognition rate of just 0.6%. This gives the Hong Kong the somewhat dubious honour of being one of the least generous protection systems in the developed world.

Globally, the average recognition rate for refugees is approximately 27%, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Greece, one of the first entry points into Europe for refugees fleeing war in Syria, has a similar population to Hong Kong but is processing four times the amount of refugees.

 

RACISM & XENOPHOBIA

In a study commissioned earlier this year by University of Hong Kong, only 4.7 per cent of Hongkongers hold positive views towards asylum seekers and refugees. Over a quarter of those surveyed had a negative view towards refugees but only 46 per cent of all those surveyed said that they knew about issues relating to asylum and refugees prior to the interview.

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Photo: Hong Kong Free Press

In March this year, outspoken lawmaker Regina Ip suggested that offshore detention camps, modeled off those employed by the Australian government, should be used to “deter asylum seekers from entering Hong Kong.”

These statements come hand in hand with a tide of xenophobia that has been going on since the beginning of this year via certain media outlets, political parties and government officials drawing a direct correlation between refugees and crime (despite a lack of official statistics to back these claims).

Some politicians are going as far to say that Hong Kong should pull out of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (“Convention Against Torture”), to combat Hong Kong’s “fake” refugee problem. The interesting thing to note is that if Hong Kong removes itself from its international obligations under this Convention, the lives of refugees are not the only ones that will be affected – so too will Hong Kong residents.

Inflammatory language at every level of public life will create a mass-hysteria and has certainly, as politicians and public surveys show, been highly divisive.  Refugee Union, the only refugee-led society in Hong Kong, aims to “safeguard the rights and interests of people seeking asylum”. It said in a statement to the press that refugees are the victims of racism and other forms of discrimination, and that they are unfairly depicted as “criminals, illegal and economic migrants, or abusers of the asylum mechanism who undeservedly enjoy free benefits”.

Just a few days ago, a pro-Beijing legislator tabled a motion before LegCo to combat the problem of “bogus refugees“, urging the government to step up cooperation with neighbouring regions to intercept illegal immigrants and set a time limit on screening non-refoulement claims. The motion was rejected by a hair’s breadth in LegCo on 30 November 2016 but the taint of inflammatory rhetoric remain.

Unfortunately, the point that seems to be missed at each occasion is the fact that a refugee population in Hong Kong is far from a ‘crisis’, although it is a crisis of response.

 

WHY WE NEED A DIFFERENT NARRATIVE

Considering all of the different daily realities for refugees, surviving conflict and persecution at home is merely the tip of the iceberg. Attitudes and laws do not change overnight but both may be shaped by persistence, engagement and education.

The attitudes towards refugees have to change and engagement in the issue the impetus to start the process. Refugees are survivors. They are deserving of respect and are to be recognised for their courage.

They are former doctors, nurses, lawyers and business people. They have families and friends. Hopes and aspirations. Most importantly, each of them has a story that is valid and worth telling.

We hope in this project to empower the different voices of Hong Kong’s Refugee Union, so people are given the ability to provide their own story, unfiltered. All too often, refugees are spoken about, but not to. They are the first to feel the full brunt of a hostile legal system but they are the most invisible in their pain.

Changing the narrative is an incremental change, but it is an important one. If a story can start a conversation,  it may also have the power to battle stereotypes by giving space and visibility for minorities to speak for themselves.

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