Written by Christopher McNulty
Before coming to Hong Kong (HK) I tried to research the problems refugees and asylum seekers face in HK but was not able to find much documented on government websites. I was only really able to find media articles that had reported on HK refugees. When I arrived in HK the city is quite beautiful and lively with high rise buildings, restaurants on every corner and excellent public transport.
On my first day I attended the Vision First (VF) office. VF is a not for profit organisation trying to change the government’s ideology on how to deal with refugees locally. VF has well documented multiple cases of refugee housing that is well below humane standards and assists with human rights issues that occur to refugees in HK. An organisation which works with VF is called the Refugee Union (RU). The RU is a unified group of refugees fighting for a better quality of life for all refugees and their families.
On the same day I attended one of the fortnightly RU meetings. Refugees were discussing how they want to be able to work, have a good quality of life, and lastly, ensure their children are given every opportunity to succeed in life. The refugees explained that even after the government deems an individual as a legitimate refugee, they have to hand in their passport, they are not allowed to work, and will receive social welfare provided by the HK government. I did not believe what I was hearing. Asylum seekers escape their host countries due to the threat or fear of persecution and come to countries and regions such as HK to have a better life, only to find that there might not be great living conditions in HK. It is against the law to work in Hong Kong if you are a refugee (Chiu, 2012). Why wouldn’t the HK government want refugees to become permanent residence and contribute to the community instead of continuing the cycle of social welfare payments?
As the weeks went on I heard different stories of the reasons why refugees sought refuge in HK, from risk of persecution, to the risk of death in their country. A common theme seemed to emerged, that refugees saw HK was a great culturally diverse, rich destination that would be able to give refugees a second chance in life and a great place to raise their children while escaping persecution.
I think the most challenging part of my time in HK was visiting the slums where refugees were living in the New Territories. These houses (if they can be called that) are in no way liveable. Some huts are brick interior but then have metal sheeting to extend the living quarters. Other shacks are made entirely of wood and advertising boards. The images below show the primitive kitchen area where the occupants are trying to defrost a chicken and the toilet area nearby with wooden timber panels with no knobs utilised as a door. The lighting within the complex is portable lighting through visible wiring. The family had a baby boy and all I could think was how much this family would be trying to give every opportunity in life to their child and this is the living conditions they have to deal with.
The next house I visited was the shack that had burnt down the week before. Looking at the structure of the housing around the refugee home that burnt down, they were bricked houses which had minimum damage from the flames. Residents lived there. Looking at the burnt pile of possessions, it was clear that the housing was primarily made up of metal sheeting which is weak and had no chance of withstanding the blaze.
It was so sad seeing refugee families’ possessions destroyed in a fire. As refugees don’t receive appliances and clothing through the government, they have to find these items by going through the garbage and from charities. This means this fire would have destroyed all these families’ items which are hard to replace.
During my last week in HK I attended another meeting of the RU. They had just received notification from the Social Welfare Department (SWD) that they have investigated the matters raised by the RU, and advised the system is working correctly and there is no need to change. After hearing the response from SWD, I honestly believe there is a major gap between what SWD believes is occurring compared to what is really happening. From the houses I saw they are not liveable and no place to raise a family. Again, during the meeting, I heard numerous refugees speak about how they want to work and contribute to HK. These are motivated people who want to work but are not being given the chance. There is a continuous cycle occurring of refugees in HK because as refugees continue to come to HK to escape persecution, they become dependent on social welfare. As refugees have children they become dependent on social welfare, and their children, and so on. If laws are not changed, refugees will always be dependent on the government if not allowed to work.
In Australia once an asylum seeker is deemed a legitimate refugee, they have the right to permanent residency, social welfare, and most importantly the right to work (Department of Human Services, 2014). This means, in Australia once the government has deemed an individual as a legitimate refugee, they are entitled to become Australian citizens, and they are entitled to social welfare, including public housing and schooling. And most importantly, they are entitled to work. In comparison to HK, there are many differences between how both HK and Australia deal with refugees.
In conclusion, my time in HK has been quite an eye opener. The problems with refugees can be seen as well hidden from the HK public, including the international public. In saying that, over the last few years as the media have reported more on the problems faced by asylum seekers, the public have become more aware. Hopefully as more media attention occurs in the future, this will hopefully influence the public to influence the HK government to rethink the way they approach refugee policy in HK.