BACKGROUND OF REFUGEES AND ASYLUM SEEKERS
IN HONG KONG
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that almost 66 million persons were uproot- ed from their homes by conflict and persecution globally in 2017. Those seeking safety across international borders as refugees topped 22.5 million. According to the Refugee Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1951, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Hong Kong is one of the few developed countries or regions that has yet to sign the Convention.
Because of this, Hong Kong does not accept refugees for re- settlement. Before the refugee status is granted, those seeking international protection are known as asylum seekers. Those seeking protection may also apply for asylum through the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Hong Kong did sign in 1992.
As of February 2018, there were almost 13,000 persons seeking asylum in Hong Kong, including those with pending claims, those who had filed an appeal, and those who have remained for other reasons. Among these 13,000, most of them are coming from South and South East Asia, with the rest coming from Africa, the Middle East, and other places of the world.
In March 2014, the government initiated the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). Since then, applicants for protection under either Convention have been screened by the Immigration Department.
If an application under the Refugee Convention is substantiated, the applicant becomes the responsibility of the UNHCR, which after verification will then seek a country willing to accept the certified refugee for resettlement. However, even recognition does not guarantee re- settlement. Successful applicants under the Convention Against Torture will be allowed to remain in Hong Kong, but have no chance of resettlement through official channels. Less than 1% of asylum seekers have been successful in obtaining recognition.
The United Screening Mechanism can be a lengthy process. An asylum seeker has to await the expiry of his or her visa. He/she then must surrender to the Immigration Department, which will issue a Recognizance Document. With this document, he/she can apply for social assistance and will obtain the legal assistance of a lawyer through the Duty Lawyers Scheme.
The whole process is not an easy one. It can take a few years or even up to a decade. This means that asylum seekers face more challenges such as daily survival, mental stress, cultural differences and powerlessness in regards to their future.
Refugees and asylum seekers do not have the right to work in Hong Kong. Even if they have professional expertise in their own country, here they are unable to contribute to the society. The Hong Kong government gives a monthly allowance through the International Social Service, but it is insufficient. With the high living cost in Hong Kong, $1500 for housing, $1200 in food card, $200–$300 for transport and $300 for utilities is not nearly enough. Some refugees and asylum seekers have to live in squatter huts or tin-roof shacks in remote areas in the New Territories under poor living conditions. In addition, monthly transportation expenses become another burden as they commute for refugee approval and procedures with government agencies. Some asylum seekers fled their country with their children and some are middle-aged. They are vulnerable to malnutrition and health problems in Hong Kong. Long term mental pressure builds up from being uprooted to a foreign land, being subject to prejudice, coping with the lengthy review procedures, and dealing with cultural differences encountered in Hong Kong.
Prejudice against Refugees
It is already difficult to leave one’s homeland. If you add living in Hong Kong with minimal allowance and facing social discrimination and misunderstanding, the situation is even harsher. Hong Kong people are not familiar with refugees. Most residents gain their knowledge about them only through newspapers and magazines. However, mainstream media often use terms such as “fake refugees” and “illegal immigrants” to refer to refugees, furthering the impression that these people are associated with “crime”, “unauthorized employment” and “welfare fraud”. Rarely is there mention of the difficulties they face, which is not really fair. They suffer various degrees of discrimination due to their skin color and ethnic identity, and lack of trust from their neighborhood and the community. Thus, they are pushed to the brink of despair. Being of a different race and unknown status in the society, along with the difference in language and culture, it is hard for them to communicate with local people and often they receive a lower standard of service.
Caring and Sharing
Refugees and asylum-seekers have great needs in terms of body, mind and spirit. But sadly there are very few local support groups for them. At present, there are only a small number of churches and non-governmental organizations that provide them with basic clothing, food, and financial assistance, as well as spiritual and pastoral care.