This weekend, the LPC Amnesty International held its Annual Hong Kong Student’s Forum on Refugees at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. Our Amnesty International Group had organized a bus to take us there and a few students from LPC came to see what it was all about. There were two main parts to the Refugee Forum. First we listened to a talk by Victoria Wisniewski Otero, the current Advocacy Officer at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, and then we had a question&answer session with two current asylum-seekers in Hong Kong from Ghana. At first we discussed the main issues, definitions and problems related to refugees and asylum seekers. Ms Otero told us a lot about the mission and the work at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre: “HKRAC strives to ensure that all refugees in Hong Kong have access to high-quality legal aid, fair refugee status determination procedures and human rights so that they can begin to rebuild their lives.” Their mission is to “provide high-quality, pro bono legal advice to refugees in Hong Kong, protect their rights, and generate awareness” – for example by giving talks in schools and forums, like that day for us.
“We want to change the overall view on refugees”, Ms Otero clarified, “We want to shift their position from victims with needs to holders of rights.” She told us that Hong Kong has no laws concerning refugees. It is not part of the related UN Convention, and only holds a relatively small percentage of the world’s refugees and asylum-seekers anyway. However, for those, Hong Kong is still not the best place to seek asylum. Currently there are only 100 recognized refugees in Hong Kong, 700 to 800 new claims are made every year. Yet refugees are never aloud to ultimately stay in Hong Kong. Usually they are transferred to Canada or the United States immediately after being granted the refugee status. The asylum-seekers in Hong Kong mostly come from the Middle-East: Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria rank in the top of the list. Due to its harsh policies, Hong Kong is certainly never N°1 choice for the refugees, however they end up here anyway because of their limited choices. Smugglers often don’t tell refugees their travel destinations and transport them around half of the world before releasing them at a final stop. Hence, for many Hong Kong is already the 3rd or 4th destination and thereby only another point of a long and tiring journey.
Still, there are also some who come to Hong Kong right from the start. Hong Kong has a world-wide reputation for its safety, it is easy to get ahold of a tourist visa (which let’s refugees immigrate and then hide without problems), and Hong Kong also has the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre for direct help and support. All these are reasons to eventually end up in Hong Kong – even though life is still incredibly hard for refugees in this world metropolis. The main problems faced are lack of language skills, discrimination and, obviously, the lack of free legal representation in Hong Kong. “For the refugees seeking asylum, this legal attitude towards their situation leads to three things,” Ms Otero explained: “Deprivation, detention and dependence. You have to be aware that an asylum-seekers productivity and thereby self-esteem and self-worth decrease heavily during their journey as a refugee. Even when they are granted official refugee status, it is not easy for them to adapt a normal life style again. Alone the search for a job bears numerous difficulties. It is still a hiring stigmata, not to have been employed for so many years.”
Hong Kong, like many countries, doesn’t allow its asylum-seekers to work – neither paid, nor unpaid. Education for children is granted at best till the age of eighteen, yet the decision is made case by case. Some children have to wait for months to be integrated into a local school. Language is once again one of the main issues in the situation. Another problem Hong Kong asylum-seekers face is the issue of housing. They have a coupon of 1200HKD a month, roughly 120 €, to find a room to stay. However, unlike in Germany or other countries of the world; in Hong Kong there is a chance of around zero percent to find a room or even only bed for that price a month. Because of that, many end up sleeping on the streets. One of the two asylum-seekers from Ghana, Dixon, told us that he had slept under the Starfish Ferry Terminal for three years. Three years, every single night, in winter and summer, during typhoons and heat waves – one cannot imagine the desperation he must have faced during that time. All that was asked of him was to sign a sheet of paper every two weeks, stating that he was still in Hong Kong. That was all that was done for him. “If you are an asylum seeker in Hong Kong,” Dixon said, “there is really nothing else to do than wait. Wait and wait, for days, for months, and, yes, for years. In that time, really, if you made us decide between food and hope, we would abandon the food.”
Ms Otera additionally gave us a little more insight into the specific work that the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre does to help and support these asylum-seekers: “Around five to six so-called clients come to our agency every day. Appointments last around two hours, but sometimes that can go on for longer; for example when the refugees have trouble re-calling events or break down emotionally. We have a reception and an area with toys, so that mothers can bring their children to play, while they have their meetings.” Apparently especially in this toy section it comes to heart wrenching scenes over and over again, when the children have to go with their parents but don’t want to leave the abundance of toys and joy that they otherwise don’t have. Talking to the clients is always a hard job. Not only because their stories touch your most inner heart, but also because every word they say counts for the decision on their refugee-status. However, many refugees have been on the run for years or months; they don’t know anymore, when what happened exactly where. Some have even forgotten how old they are and assume they are younger, blocking their time fleeing out of their minds. “There are very specific cases, when their silence does actual harm to the refugees, in terms of their refugee status”, explained Ms Otera, “for example if someone is too ashamed to talk about being raped or seeing his mother or sisters being sexually abused – then we have no idea that that happened and they might be judged as less vulnerable than they would have, if they had told us these details!”
The legal support for the asylum-seekers is done by real lawyers. All expenses are paid for by donations, sponsors or law firm partnerships. Most lawyers work for real law firms at the same time as they “volunteer” for the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. There is also a law student program, where university students can help out; as well as a volunteer training program for people without a background in the judiciary that still want to get involved. Though the overall success of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre is still not very visible, every person they save from being sent home counts: “In 2011, 39 asylum-seekers in Hong Kong were recognized as refugees. 34 of them were our clients. Asylum-seekers that seek legal aid from an organization like ours are proven to be four to five times more successful that ones that make claims without legal support”, Ms Ontaro explained.
During the forum we had several more discussion sessions between us students, also on how we ourselves can help and what LPC Amnesty International could do to get involved in the support of refugees in Hong Kong. We also played an activity where we had to make the same decisions as “real refugees” within seconds and minutes, to simulate the pressure upon them. What is of personal value to you? What has the most value in terms of survival? What can you take as proof for your refugee case? And what is the most treasured personal item you have? We were asked to answer all these questions, pick from a list of things to take with us – and also pick from a list of family members, which ones were aloud to try to escape the conflict and which had to be left behind. Due to the time pressure, we couldn’t thoroughly reflect our decisions before making them, which later on led to many problems that got into the way of our simulated journey, e.g. if we hadn’t taken enough money or valuables to bribe all the officers we met on the way. This really made us all understand the dilemmas that refugees face and somewhat “experience” what it is like to be a refugee – on a completely hypothetical level, of course. Nobody can simply imagine what it is like to have to choose three from six children – and leave the other half behind.
I’m really grateful for the opportunity to get involved in this year’s Amnesty International Refugee Forum. I didn’t know anything about the situation of refugees in Hong Kong and learned a lot, especially from the Advocacy Officer of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. The stories told to us by the two asylum-seekers from Ghana were incredibly touching but also revealed the concrete problems that governments should address to enable a smoother process of granting refugee-status. Thanks to LPC Amnesty International for giving us this unique possibility and organizing the whole event!