“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is indeed disappointing that the Government’s rosy picture is entirely disconnected from reality, measured according to unpublished standards and unrated by agencies charged with investigating government performance.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.
I am an organizer of the Refugee Union. Two weeks ago my phone rang late in the evening. I was startled as it was a bit late at night. Normally after 8 pm my phone is rather quiet, except for the WhatsApp group chats that streams in busily through out the evening into the late night.
It was our member David, “Brother please help! I am with a family that is homeless and has nowhere to sleep. It includes three small children and four adults. It’s winter, brother! The landlord threw them out in the street, but it’s very cold outside! Can I send them to the Refugee Union?”
“What?” I remarked incredulous. David pressed on persuasively, “Can the Union help them stay in our shelter just for a few days as they look for a home? I am concerned because of the young children.” I didn’t hesitate, “Yes. Sure … We can accommodate them for a few days as they sort things out.”
As the message sank into my mind the matter brought me face to face with a reality that members of the refugee community go through in their day to day life in Hong Kong. The only difference is that today it was a different group of people , these are Hong Kong residents. I was deeply touched by that conversation: here are refugees extending a helping hand to residents!
It was almost midnight and a large homeless family was coming over. I imagined that the young children were cold and desperate for a warm and safe environment to sleep. The family was in a McDonald’s restaurant where they sought shelter after they were thrown out into the cold night by their landlord. The parents didn’t have many options as social services are quiet slow to say the least.
That night, David had gone to a McDonald’s for a late night snack as it was too late to cook. As he enjoyed a burger, he overheard one of the kids asking his mum when they could return home, because they were uncomfortable sleeping on plastic benches. He paid attention to the unfolding scene as the kids pressed the parents to go home.
After carefully listening to the conversation, it dawned on David that he was witnessing a desperate situation. It was a conversation that any parent would dread to have with their children. And David has two young ones of his own. On inquiry, the mother explained that they had been thrown into the streets the previous night. She went on to say that without money for rent, they had slept at McDonald’s, where they hoped not to be turned away.
When they arrived at our office, I gave them the access code to the shelter and showed them our modest facilities. The following morning they were very happy and grateful that the Union had offered them a place to sleep. They were surprised and shocked that refugees could help other people – even Hong Kong residents!
For them David was god-sent as they had hit rock bottom. It has now been two weeks since we sheltered them. They have settled down very comfortably. However, they lack privacy and space as large family. This is because our members actively frequent the office throughout the day and late at night. But the family doesn’t mind. They feel welcome by our community.
During our Christmas Party we celebrated together as one family. We shared gifts, food and drinks as one people struggling to survive in Hong Kong. They shared the daily donations we receive from our generous supporters. At the Refugee Union there is always extra food and warmth for people struggling, irrespective of social or immigration status. Hardship sometimes draws people closer than blood.
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.