“Mosul is an ancient city. It was actually called Nineveh before. Have you heard of it?” Alex told me. Most people heard of Nineveh, a Biblical city with a name that echoes across millennia, bubbling with history and myth and revelation and, most recently, a cycle of occupation and violence to match its historic stature. Alex continued, “Before the American occupation in 2003, we could go out with our friends and have picnics outside. It was safe. Some people used to go camping. It was totally safe. It was a good place.”
During 254 days of detention in 2014, Hong Kong Immigration officers at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre asked Alex repeatedly why he had left his country. “They suspected that I was a terrorist when they found out I came from Iraq. Then I told them about my past incidents, one with Islamic State, another with the US Army and then another with the Iraqi Forces. I told them life was worse than hell. I think they got scared. Imagine, they don’t know who you are and you have no documents and you’re telling them about life in a war-torn country full of massacres that I witnessed with my own eyes …”
After fleeing from violent conflict in Iraq in April 2010, Alex traveled from Turkey to Cyprus to Malaysia to Indonesia to Singapore to South Korea and finally, in 2014, he reached Hong Kong. Along the way he experienced a series of detainment, interrogations, beatings and the occasional act of kindness. As he described his experiences, he was describing the life of someone outside of the law, someone whose attempts at finding hope and peace are impeded by the structures set up to determine the validity of his claims, structures which deal with him and other refugees primarily as criminals. “What I have faced, what I have suffered, what I have seen … the pain that I’ve felt, it’s really hard to express.”
When a person applies for asylum in Hong Kong, they are administered by the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), a process designed to determine the validity of their claims. Alex had no passport to prove he was an Iraqi citizen, nor help from an embassy. He explained, “Immigration killed my case. They totally rejected my identity. They said my Iraqi identity is not accepted. They said we can only accept you as an ‘Arabic speaker.’ I mean, does that make sense? I asked them, where am I from?”
So there was Alex, a young man from an ancient city, who had once worked alongside his father installing windowpanes in Mosul’s quiet suburbs, now an undocumented “Arabic speaker” with no recognized history of citizenship or travel due to his decision to leave the very country which makes him a suspect. The choice to flee from violence and to put himself through hardship and uncertainty becomes not admirable and courageous, but suspicious. During his 9-month detention, Alex was humiliated, beaten, and kept in solitary confinement over ten times. He was losing his mind, losing his sense of self and purpose. Alex experienced his lowest points in Hong Kong’s detention system.
“The hardest times I faced were when they kicked me into the solitary confinement cell. That killed me from inside. It made me want to commit suicide. If you look at that cell there’s no window, there’s no one to talk to. It is full of mosquitoes and cockroaches walking on the wall and ceilings everywhere. The lamp in the ceiling was always on hurting my eyes when I tried to sleep. I used to ask the officers to switch it off and they refused. I felt lower than an animal. It felt like they were taking revenge against me for some reason.”
Why is a safe city like Hong Kong so undesirable for those seeking asylum? “In this city I cannot go here and there as I have no money. I mean if I have nothing to do where can I go, what can I do? In Hong Kong refuges are not allowed to work. We are not allowed to have income. We are not allowed to get a bank account, to do any basic things in life.” Then there is the question of hope. More than a decade into exile, Alex is no closer to what he set out to achieve. “I believe anything is possible in this world, but it is hard for me to expect any positive things in Hong Kong. There are a lot of refugees with good skills but there is no encouragement. It seems the government does everything to discourage us and crush our hopes. Basically, they don’t want us to be well.”
Despite this, Alex balances despair with optimism by choosing to face the reality of his situation and his role in managing his physical and mental health. After his release from detention, Alex chose to do for himself what no one could do for him staying positive, keeping healthy and helping those around him. He found a supportive community amongst Hong Kong’s asylum seekers and activists. Through the Refugee Union Alex has met “good people that give me real respect and make me feel like I’m human. There’s no discrimination. There’s no racism. There’s no animosity. There’s no hatred. That’s perhaps what makes me feel that life is still beautiful. Refugee Union has helped me a lot. It’s about how to relieve your stress, how they make sure to create fresh hope in life, not to increase tension, not to make you more depressed, not to make you want to give up. Forget about all your troubles, we’re going to try to help you or at least keep you busy and make you feel that life is still good.”
Even with a community of friends, however, there are limits to how much Alex can allow himself to feel free and at peace. “I really don’t want to focus on my case in Hong Kong any more. I will start to overthink. I will start to worry and get anxious. I mean there are a lot of negative things. It is really better for me just to leave this case aside. Six years in Hong Kong and nothing has moved forward. I lost hope in Hong Kong Government. I really don’t have any hope for another opportunity.”
The Refugee Union is gravely concerned about the tightening of security around refugees in Hong Kong. This only serves to worsen the conditions we suffer when applying for protection in the city. On 4 October 2018 a group of Refugee Union leaders submitted a petition to the Security Bureau ahead of a meeting of the Panel on Security (Legco) on the subject.
We stongly hope that the rights of refugees in Hong Kong will be protected while the Immigration Department improves the screening process (USM) by producing more credible results than the current 1% acceptance rate for the past decade.
The proposed tightening policy will pose a detrimental impact on the lives of refugees. We therefore stand against the proposal and call for humanitarian treatment by the Hong Kong Government. We hope that lawmakers and Government officials appreciate that no one leaves their home country unless their home is in the mouth of a shark.
We sincerely hope the Panel on Security will consider our needs and uphold the humanitarian virtues of Hong Kong.