Written by Christopher McNulty
It needs to be considered that the way in which Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department (SWD) treats refugees can lead to refugees committing criminal acts. This will be explained by defining and discussing the criminological theories of opportunity and labelling and explaining how current SWD policies might lead refugees to commit criminal acts.
Opportunity theory can be defined as, “offenders having inadequate or inappropriate means or opportunities to achieve certain goals relative to other people in society” (White, 2014, p. 71). Considering refugees in Hong Kong using this theory, it can be argued that crime is generated by this type of treatment. For example, if refugees don’t have adequate means of living and opportunities to better themselves through education and work, there is a chance they will try to better themselves through ‘illegal’ activities such as work performed without authorization. As reported in the South China Morning Post, “asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their claim with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recognised refugees awaiting resettlement to another country and torture claimants are banned from doing paid or unpaid work” (Chan, 2013).
Looking at this through opportunity theory, it can take years for refugees to be screened and possibly resettle in another country and, while waiting, they cannot work to better themselves and earn money for their family. Using this example there is a likelihood that if a refugee family needed money for rent, food, clothes or the children’s school and if the only way to achieve this was stealing or working illegally, they would have no choice but to commit criminal acts to meet what most people would agree are basic daily needs, in this case, unmet by the SWD.
Labelling theory can be described as society labelling an individual, which in turn can cause the individual becoming influenced by the label and acting out that labelled behaviour (Holmes, 2012, p. 250). It can be argued that refugees can be stigmatised due to the current system and laws in place. For example, refugees can be seen by the Hong Kong public as being dependant on the SWD and not searching for jobs, as they are not aware of the current government policies which prohibit them from working. This type of stigmatization can cause refugees to be always seen by the public as individuals who are content being dependant on welfare and not wanting to work. This can lead to refugees believing social change will never occur and becoming influenced by the label and turn to conducting criminal acts such as theft and working illegally.
In conclusion, as shown through the criminological perspectives of opportunity and labelling, the current policies of the HK SWD can cause refugees to commit criminal acts due to them not enjoying adequate support and being labelled by the general public as continuously dependant on welfare and not looking for employment. To create a stronger relationship between refugees and the government, refugee policy needs to change to minimise the potential of criminal acts being committed by refugees trying to meet rent payments, purchase essential foodstuffs and making ends meet.
Currently in the media:
I jumped out of a back room window when the police came to my home to arrest me a second time. I had been detained, questioned and tortured before, but refused to stop campaigning at university against state violence and abuse of human rights. The voice inside me was too strong. I could not keep quiet about injustice and I paid dearly for it. I have been in exile in Hong Kong for 9 years.
Recently in Chung King Mansions a student asked me why refugees exploit the liberal visa regime and abuse the asylum system to work illegally (economic interest) and sometimes to sell drugs (criminal interest). What needs to be understood is how the system forces people into these directions by denying the right to work, failing to provide enough assistance and jailing refugees 15 months for working and 7 months for selling drugs. Isn’t this entrapment?
Refugees in Hong Kong are dehumanized, denied basic human rights, don’t get enough support to survive, no proper accommodation, not enough food … people in this kind of situation must find a way to survive and sometimes the easier way is the illegal one. It is not refugees who are abusing the system, but the system that is abusing refugees. Then the government conveniently brands refugees as deviant, as threats to society, when in fact refugees have no legal direction.
I was talking to a resident who agreed that refugees do not engage in serious crime, generally speaking. It is low level offences that hardly register with the public. True criminals don’t need this process, they have better, more lucrative and sophisticated ways to achieve bigger objectives. The crimes that vulnerable refugees commit are worth a few hundred dollars, or thousand at best. It is money we desperately need to pay rent, buy food, clothes and other necessities.
It is very important for people to understand this. Refugees are forced to commit crime. It is typically not their character. They did not come here to be criminals. For example I need money to pay rent. I moved into a windowless room in Mongkok the size of a single bed. I cannot keep a fridge inside and it cost 2000 HK$. I told my ISS-HK caseworker that he must pay the full amount because I cannot work. He refused saying that 1500$ was the maximum and I had to find the rest myself. Suffering these indignity day in and day inflicts a deep wound on our sense of identity.
When I analyze the problem, I realize that it is political and hard to explain people like the student. She thinks that most refugees are economic migrants as that is what she read. She has been exposed to government propaganda that protects vested interests and does not respect the rights of non-citizens. It is hard for people who didn’t suffer state violations to understand state protection failures.
When you meet somebody in Hong Kong within five minutes they ask, “What is your job?” They are appraising your net-worth, how much money you make. Socrates said that first you have to teach citizens values. Hong Kong should create worthy people, not just release them into a capitalistic battlefield where they fight against each other for a piece of the pie. Citizens should learn about social values and appreciated that every person is valuable, even refugees. That’s how I see it.
“I knew Lucky from Sri Lanka. We played football together. He was an excellent player. Then our lives were destroyed by the war. After we fled to Hong Kong I cannot say that it was easy for him. Lucky was friends with everyone, but smiling doesn’t mean you don’t have HELL inside.” This poignant remark from an old friend captured the spirit of the funeral service for refugee Sivarajah Sivatharan.
Fu Shan Public Mortuary is nestled in the green hills of Tai Wai, a peaceful location grounded in nature and connected to eternity though the smoke that rises unworried to the sky every fifteen minutes. Almost a hundred friends joined Lucky’s brother Sivaharan, who flew in from the United Kingdom, to bid a sorrowful farewell to a refugee who found misery, not protection in our inhospitable city.
The ceremony was attended by NGO workers and priests who work closely with the community. The general discussion was that life remained miserable; those stranded here for over a decade lamented the lack of progress. A veteran refugee remarked, “Nothing has changed. It is years that I am waiting and nothing good happens. When I arrived my son was one year old. Now he is 12 and he refuses to talk to me on Skype because he doesn’t know me. It breaks my heart!”
The Srilankan refugee community is quietly stoic and confidently brave. Everyone saw death in the face and overcame unspeakable horrors before seeking sanctuary in Hong Kong. The government understands it and the majority of substantiated torture claimants are Eelam Tamil, a minority ethnic group that suffered tremendously through a 26-year civil war and its fearful repercussions.
Lucky’s mourners questioned the circumstances and the responsible those who for years approved his home in a dangerous tin shed: the fixer who rented huts on property he did not own (Land Dept source); ISS-HK who failed to safeguard Lucky’s wellbeing and entered problematic addresses in service agreements; SWD who turned a negligent blind eye to the slums until the fatality. The distraught grievers had nothing good to say about a welfare system that oppressed them.
The Refugee Union denounced those responsible in an earlier statement. “We condemn in the strongest terms possible the heinous act of allowing refugees live in squalid, hygienically unsafe and deadly trapping unauthorized structures … The death of our friend Lucky was as a result of impunity, negligence, malpractice and outright discrimination.” The Union is requesting a Corner’s Examination.
A Hindu priest presided over the cremation and guided Lucky’s composed brother through the rubrics of an ancient ceremony. Father Blaise subsequently intonated the Lord’s Prayer that was softly supplicated by mourners whose voices were drowned by sorrow. Finally, Sivaharan pressed a button and the coffin glided silently behind a purple curtain into consuming flames. Rest in Peace, Lucky!