We refugees should not remain passive as others label us with their lies. This has become more problematic over the ten years I have been stranded in Hong Kong. If refugees don’t speak up, who will understand our difficulties and support our struggle? I believe we should connect directly with citizens, liaise more and share about ourselves and learn about residents. Like it or not, we are part of ONE COMMUNITY.
Few will deny that refugees are negatively portrayed in the mainstream media by government propaganda which constructs stereotypes, spreads prejudice and condones discrimination. To counter this negativity, refugees must create a platform of exchange that including people with different backgrounds of ethnicity, religion and language. We cannot remain silent.
Communication is the answer. We need to share our stories and tell other people about our culture, what defines us in the global community and in the place we call home today. My experience teaches me that citizens are generally very interested to learn about our culture heritage and ethnic diversity.
When presented with the right opportunity, residents are curious about refugees and ready to bridge the artificial and unnatural gap create by immigration laws – which by the way don’t make sense to everyone. How much do locals know about the lives and traditions refugees follow? How many have visited the countries we come from? How can refugees win hearts and minds?
By sharing our experiences and telling our stories, we can open their eyes to a broader worldview. We can foster understanding and encourage integration through getting to know one another. This is the true Spirit of Globalization, where every village connects amicably and collaborates fairly. It is a fact that more Hong Kong ladies are marrying refugees than ever before.
At times it may be deeply personal and emotional, but that is the nature of friendship. Residents need to get an idea of what we feel and we need to open our hearts to them. Communication is a two-way street. It is talking and listening at a deeper, trusting level. I encourage refugees to unite and reach out to the community to form friendships. It is a civilized response to the hatred and division flamed by the government.
To overcome discrimination, the Refugee Union should firstly promote greater collaboration and self-reflection with its members. Admittedly much needs to be done in this respect. We should then focus on the positives we offer, on the contribution we already make and the potential we have as an organized, empowered family.
There is clearly a need for assistance, fundraising and advocacy, but we must also endeavour to give something back to the community and create more harmony. Let’s not forget we enjoy Freedom of Speech, so it’s our duty to assure refugees have a proper voice in Hong Kong. It has been said before: Refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The brightest light sometimes comes from the darkest places.
The Home Affairs Bureau holds a “Recognition scheme for the provision of pro bono legal services. Several Refugee Union members were honored to be invited by a lawyer to attend the award presentation ceremony where the voluntary work of almost 300 lawyers was publicly recognized.
It came as a surprise that indeed Hong Kong Government recognizes the noble effort of lawyers who help the underprivileged to access justice. One only has to consider China where the legal sector and the Government are often in confrontation that result in crackdowns and detention of some lawyers considered enemies of the state. By contrast, Hong Kong is an excellent example of the government encouraging voluntary work to help the vulnerable.
It was an impressive display of humanitarianism. The majority of recipients were Chinese who offered a considerable amount of their professional time to assist the needy and the poor in the community. One would have imagined that most of the recipients would be foreign lawyers. I was impressed by the composition, noting however that only 25 hours are required to qualify.
For refugees such invitations are rare to come. Nonetheless our community knows very well and appreciate the importance of pro bono legal assistance. We owe these lawyers countless gratitude, as without them the asylum environment would be more repressive. With the help of these learned friends, refugees continued to make significant progress pushing the envelope in the name of justice.
With the assistance of the legal fraternity, refugees have not shied away from fighting and advocating for their often trampled upon rights. Further, the Refugee Union has provided a platform where we can freely articulate issues affecting our community. Despite our dubious immigration status, unionized refugees are taking legal advice on countering harsh government policies aimed at shackling us in destitution and despair.
We challenge government policies in the courts with at times positive results. Therefore on this day refugees applauded the lawyers of the Hong Kong Bar Association and Law Society who have over the years offered their voluntary services to advise and protect refugees.
The Refugee Union expresses its heartfelt gratitude to all lawyers who offer pro bono services.
“HONG KONG HOLDS REFUGEES IN A STATE OF CONTEMPT”
On 17 November 2015, the Permanent Secretary for Security, Joshua Law, delivered the Hong Kong Government’s report to the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture, in Geneva Switzerland. In our view, it was a narrow and biased self-appraisal that conspicuously overlooked widespread criticism and growing concerns about the fairness of the city’s asylum process.
Mr. Law articulated a very good case on behalf of the Government of Hong Kong, stating that “The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has always strived to protect human rights and the requirements and commitments under the Convention against Torture … and other international human rights instruments”.
Further, he surprisingly assured the Committee that Hong Kong “exceeded the requirements under Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture.” The report by Mr. Law highlighted another achievement: the provision of “humanitarian assistance to all the claimants (accommodation, food, clothing and other basic necessities, transportation and utilities allowances, medical services and education for minors).”
The Refugee Union maintains that the report is not only misleading, but also dishonest. It demonstrates to what length the Government is willing to go to project an image of a perfect “John be good” with the international community that has little direct knowledge or experience of asylum in this city. It is indeed disappointing that the Government’s rosy picture is entirely disconnected from reality, measured according to unpublished standards and unrated by agencies charged with investigating government performance.
Since the USM was launched in March 2014, it has failed to address the shortcomings it arguably intended to fix. The mechanism is no better at protecting refugees than previous systems deployed since 1992, when Hong Kong signed the UN Torture.
Convention – in twenty-three years Hong Kong substantiated 37 of over 18,000 asylum claims. The abysmal acceptance rate speaks volumes about the contempt in which refugees are held.
The politics behind USM have instead been successful in promoting the divisive terminology of “fake/genuine” refugees which has been regrettably manipulated by the media into public discourse. Rather than honestly analyzing its own failures and weakness, the Government has vigorously engaged in a massive propaganda to discredit refugees in the eyes and minds of the local community.
This strategy however might not be convincing for everyone. In fact, many Hong Kong citizens have become increasingly curious and interested in refugees and are asking very relevant questions. The Refugee Union has been interviewed hundreds of times especially by graduate students who find it perplexing how refugees are treated. We are asked: Why is the acceptance rate so low? Why are you banned from working? How do you support yourself with inadequate welfare? How does it feel to live such a hard life? How do you survive without hope for the future?
The Security Bureau through its periodic reports to Legco frequently emphasizes that the Government of Hong Kong does not have a system in place to screen refugees, since it is not party to the UN Refugee Convention. Therefore the Government is not obliged to recognize refugees, nor does it integrate them into society. Instead they should be removed from Hong Kong as soon as practicable. This is very confusing. On the one hand, the Government says it does not have a screening system in place, but on the other, it says that the USM performs such a role. It is no wonder that more and more journalism students are approaching refugees striving to make sense of harmful policies and the reality they witness through speaking to refugees.
The Government report claims that Hong Kong exceeds the requirements of the UN Torture Convention without specifying exactly what it does to meet the needs of refugees. To start, the welfare provided is grossly inadequate and can hardly sustain us. With an unrealistic rental assistance of HK$ 1500 and food coupons worth HK$ 1200 a month, which do not meet our basic needs, how can we make ends meet? It is simply impossible to secure basic accommodation for that price in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The majority of refugees live in squalid conditions crammed together in dilapidated buildings and slums.
There is absolutely no provision for clothes/shoes among other basic necessities. However refugees are forced to sign monthly contracts with ISS-HK stating that we receive clothes and shoes from the Government. It is not surprising that many refugees are forced to resort to risky behavior to bridge the gap left intentionally open by Government failure.
Some refugees provide cheap labor to the underground economy, others might push drugs, engage in prostitution, steal, beg and lie to survive under harsh and prohibited conditions. It is shameful that refugees resort to such survival strategies. But what other options are available to us? It is dishonest for the Government to present such a polished self-satisfying report when it actually fails to safeguard the health and wellbeing of eleven thousand refugees who live in abject destitution.
Education poses another challenge for refugees. The system requires parents to pay schools fees in advance each month before being partially refunded by the Education Bureau. Where are parents expected to obtain this money upfront? Public funding does not include the waver of kindergarten costs, an essential step for children to learn Cantonese. Is this another measure devised to force our social isolation?
Refugees do not enjoy basic human rights as the Government assures the United Nations. In fact, we suffer high levels of discrimination, marginalization and harassment. The Refugee Union strongly objects to the Government assertion that it exceeds its responsibilities in protecting refugees. We hereby invite Committee members to travel unofficially to Hong Kong to gather first-hand data.
The Government’s report to the UN Committee against Torture leaves a bitter taste.
28 December 2015.
A month ago Refugee Union celebrated its first anniversary as a registered society. It was a great moment of as members celebrate a union that has given them identity and a sense of belonging in a society that has generally turned its back on us.
Since its formation, the RU had one ambitious mandate: to safeguard the rights of the refugees. Armed with this mission it set sail despite considerable odds to achieve its objective: to empower members to selflessly assist each other and actively participate in all matters relating to the life of refugees and the development of the asylum sphere in Hong Kong according to the highest standards of human rights. We certainly had our work cut out.
One year down the line the first score card is out and we believe it is a positive one. We offered the refugee community a platform to fearlessly tackle the problems they face. The RU has engaged with the various government and societal bodies, including many universities and schools. RU has given numerous interviews to students who have taken a keen interest in our distressed lives. At our office new collaborations and partnerships have been established for the benefit of our community.
We have since received a surprising number of requests from schools, colleges and universities seeking to engage and partner with the refugee community. Individuals as well as organizations both local and international have shown considerable interest in our cause. These partnerships has translated into much needed support that has made us feel part and parcel of broader Hong Kong community.
In our first year, we have enjoyed an upward trajectory of support and acceptance, particularly in the aftermaths of the European refugee crisis. This festive season we have been honored by generous invitations to grace Christmas parties where food, drinks, gifts and cheer were in abundance. Our children enjoyed receiving many presents from various NGOs and schools who ensured they did not miss out on the festivity.
We sincerely thank all those who made us smile through way of donations, gifts as well as best wishes – THANK YOU.
Although refugees remain deeply marginalized and discriminated against we still soldier on with the hope that the authorities will adopt more thoughtful and considerate policies in managing the challenge of asylum with due consideration of the international instrument that are binding on Hong Kong SAR.
As we continue to wait for change, the Refugee Union will strengthen its struggle for respect and dignity for all persons in a refugee-like situation.