Dearest Supporters –
A bittersweet feeling permeates our heart as we compose this year-end report. On the one hand, there are great accomplishments to announce, but on the other hand, celebration is unjustified whilst many beneficiaries face the L.O.C. dead-end in the asylum process, more on this later.
Thanks to your generous support, in 2010 Vision First expanded its reach beyond expectations. By engaging the community and developing partnerships, our tailor-made programs are currently assisting 235 beneficiaries. Our board of directors was reorganized in September, welcoming new professional talent to inspire and guide us to new heights next year. Besides running 13 home-shelters and a successful Sunday Food Program, we placed many children in primary, secondary and special needs schools, ensuring their generation isn’t jeopardize by their family’s misfortune. What makes VF shine is outreach that includes the ONLY Financial Assistance Program in the asylum field. The rational behind this effort is simple: everything cost money in the city and leave your wallet at home if in doubt. The power behind this program is YOUR donations that rose from 10,000 HKD in January to 50,000 HKD in monthly auto-payments! This is remarkable and undoubtedly makes a tangible difference in our grateful beneficiaries’ hardship. We guarantee that “what we receive is what we donate” and our honorary auditors ensure we are 100% volunteer-driven – without administrative or salary burdens. We wondered how to limit office rental, when a Benefactor rescued us with a rent-free CENTRE for Spring 2011. Finally, we report that thousands of fieldwork hours went to researching the asylum situation in shantytowns across the territory, where marginalized exiles struggle in neglect, outside public view. It pains us to limit our assistance to a 5% minority, but we are confident our influence will grow over the years.
In 2010 a dozen refugees were resettled to third countries (official UNHCR figures are unavailable), however desperation runs deep for hundreds of individuals. Out of 800+ UNHCR applicants, about 20 (2.5%) were recognized refugees. Out of 6600+ Torture Convention claimants, no one was yet accepted, though 40+ were deported. The remainder is in limbo, suspended in forced idleness and prohibited from working, leaving, even volunteering to assist others. Add hunger, destitution homelessness and depression to unequivocally remove economic migrants, who shun an existence devoid of employment. The Lack Of Credibility (LOC) stamp, marks UNHCR’s rejection of cases that don’t meet their criteria, to the bewilderment of those who believes that, despite objective evidence, humanitarian considerations succumbed to geopolitical directives. Granted these are complex issues and UNHCR faces an arduous task, we lament their 0% appeal rate, in sharp disaccord with the Court of Appeal’s international average of 30%. This is not only a remarkable statistic, but also a life sentence to those denied refuge. On the ground, we witness the devastating impact these decisions have, by plunging into despair those whose hopes are dashed, hardship guaranteed and statelessness endorsed. This is not as it should be! We believe cases are closed that must be recognized and, powerless before the outcome, we recognize Vision First must develop ‘durable solutions’ for our beneficiaries, otherwise condemned to permanent Hong Kong exile.
Were our eyes but sharp enough, we would appreciate how little we accomplished before the magnitude of our task. However, we strive day-by-day, while vigorously advocating for the HKSAR to administer the asylum process, so we might be proud of our society. As a refugee lamented, “Displacement is like death, one thinks it only happens to others”, and it could be anyone since only a tenth of the global population enjoys the rule of law. Our DREAM for a world that takes responsibility for those who suffer human-rights abuses and are forced into exile, starts with the material difference we make TOGETHER for the 235 exiles welcomed at Vision First.
During these past twelve months, Vision First has expanded its services, the number of people assisted, including the number of countries of origin represented, its scope, dedication and international commitment to the just cause of refugees seeking asylum in ‘safe’ countries. As part of our development, and to put refugee protection in Hong Kong in a wider regional context, in November, Vision First participated in the third Asia Pacific Consultation on Refugee Rights, organized in Bangkok by APRRN (refugeerightsasiapacific.org) This is a network of non-governmental organizations, refugee advocates and researchers concerned with the inadequacy of refugee rights and services provided to refugees in Asia-Pacific.
APRRN3 was attended 117 participants from 22 countries! The wide and diverse representation of members, who gathered in Bangkok for the 3-day conference, is in itself a sign of the increasingly common problems that regional countries face in regard to asylum. To this extent, discussions and debates focused on building regional networks and sharing best practices to ensure and enhance protection and collaboration with UN agencies involved with refugees. This is especially important in urban environments, where people seeking asylum are often left alone in precarious conditions at the margin of mainstream society. Four principal issues were recognized as regional reason of concern:
- persistent use of immigration detention as a mechanism to deter arrivals;
- lack of adequate conditions for refugees in Asia, including access to health-care and education;
- lack of gender sensitive policies and practices;
- urgent need for free legal assistance to refugees.
Toward this end, the contributions of the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network – directed by Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond – and the newly launched Asian Refugee Legal Aid Network were both fundamental. Vision First is grateful for the opportunity to participate and learnt from other organizations working in the field. As part of our commitment to understand regional dynamics of movement and asylum, in order to develop into a better service provider in Hong Kong, Vision First will advocate for and further contribute towards regional engagement. We will also continue to tackle inefficiencies in the present system and advocate for feasible changes in all areas of operation. Finally, in the best interest of both Hong Kong and refugees, we will contribute to widen options for durable solutions in Hong Kong and abroad. While at the moment these might just sound like New Year resolutions, Vision First remains firmly convinced of their importance and practicality, and we will tirelessly work towards their realization.
Dearest Friends -
Due to family obligations, I’m visiting a country thousands of refugees attempt to reach on a perilous journey that claims lives weekly – mostly unidentified, unrecorded and thus removed from global awareness. Here it is hard to comprehend the reality behind Vision First’s mission: that Asylum Seekers are the people who suffer the most vicious events mankind inflicts, yet courageously believe that, despite its horrors, life is still worth living. You have taught me that nobody chooses to be a refugee. Through loss of country, family, support and time, your exile is a terrible experience: disjointing, bewildering, disheartening and utterly lonely. Yours is an existence both geographically alien and mentally hostile, a constant morning for relatives abandoned, family you couldn’t save and children missed desperately – through no fault of your own!
While words always fail, a noted psychiatrist explained it this way: “Imagine being a child in a loving, happy family. Your mother loves you, feeds you, smiles at you, hugs you. But you wake up one morning to find that she no longer appears to know who you are. She doesn’t smile. She doesn’t even look at you. You cry, you laugh, you make noises. She remains withdrawn and silent. All that was familiar and safe has gone.” What that child experiences is how you feel day and night: a fracture, a haunting, a shattering you are forced to endure because there simply is no other option.
I have ‘accompanied’ you for two years and, believe me, your welfare and future are my concerns every waking hour. Thank you for the TRUST you have shown. Thank you for SHARING your suffering, worries and hopes. Thank you for the INSPIRATION and purpose you give my life. We have only started this journey together, but I promise to work assiduously to improve your life in Hong Kong and, maybe, even facilitate your transition to a secure future elsewhere. This year was essential in building our relationships, deepening friendships and deciding which programs are most urgent. Together we have engaged the community, gaining essential support which will grow exponentially in 2011, when we open our FIRST OFFICE and shelters after Chinese New Year. Thanks to a benefactor’s invaluable gift, we will have a homebase to meet, brainstorm and develop our services. Vision First is yours! Our center is yours! Our programs, efforts and donations will better your lives and, hopefully, rectify some injustices suffered. We need your dedication to make our foudation a greater success, to jointly expand our humanitarian reach and put more lives on a tollerable footing.
It is Christmas today, but this is not a Christmas message. It’s a poignant opportunity to reflect on a remarkable year and realize Christmas is not a date, but a state-of-mind – it can be everyday for some or never for others. Christmas is realizing anyone’s suffering diminishes our collective dignity, as society will also be judged by how generously it supports the exiles it welcomes.
My name is Mr. Doulle from East Africa (Horn of Africa.) I have been living in Hong Kong for two years. The obstacles I have faced in my twenty-four years are too tragic and awful to share with you in this letter. Anyone in the Developed World would find it hard to believe, if they don’t work with refugees from war-torn countries, where the insanity of the powerful thinks nothing of the weak. My ambition is to become a social worker and I believe that with some help this dream will come true. I remember when I was a child and my mother sent me to shop at the market, I met many vulnerable people, some sick, some old, some desperately poor and I often helped them with a little money my mother gave me for shopping, as I knew they were at the outer edge of despair.
When I grew up I witnessed such a flood of people, entering my region from Somalia’s capital city devastated by war, that I hardly recognized any dignity and humanity left in them. But what fault did these refugees have but to be caught between the guns of two bloodthirsty enemies? Unfortunately I could not support anyone as I didn’t have money or power to help and the wave of victims was too huge to be counted, let alone feed or assist. However, when I came to know some of these families I grew fond of them. I was deeply disappointed I couldn’t find them homes or meals, though many were women, children and elderly. I realized my government was powerless to intervene and it troubled me that my community was not mobilizing to prevent the prolonged suffering of these refugees.
I started asking myself this question more and more often: there are many citizens who are helping these people on their own, because they care, so why don’t I assist? These community volunteers are not from the government, they are not social workers, so why can’t I do it too? You don’t have to be trained to help suffering people. You just have to have the heart and courage to stand up and make a difference. Maybe the government doesn’t care. Maybe most citizens don’t care, but some do and I want to be like them. I told myself: either I am one who helps – or I am not? The reality is that when I help somebody I feel so joyful. If I see somebody in need and do nothing about it, it affects me all night. I even can’t sleep because I failed to do what I could have done. For example, yesterday I passed an old man on Cheung Sha Wan Road who was carrying a box too heavy for his old age. I didn’t know how to offer my help in Chinese. I was afraid of scaring him or annoying him, so I walked on. I should have done something, because all night this man was bothering me in my sleep and I realized I missed the chance. My mind kept challenging me: why didn’t you help? What’s all these excuses? You should have helped!
When the war in Sri Lanka dispossessed the Tamil minority villages, I had no choice but flee my homeland to seek refuge in another country. I left in 2006 and eventually reached China 18 months ago and worked in a kitchen outside Shenzhen, until a twist of fate brought me to Hong Kong. One Sunday afternoon I was sitting on a bench by the Shangri-la Hotel when a Punjabi Indian talking to me in English. “Do you want to go Hong Kong?” he asked to my surprise, then explained that even without a passport he could arrange it for RMB 5,000. “You don’t believe?!” he asked realizing I didn’t take him seriously, having lost trust in these bogus agents. Then he called over a Pakistani and two Indian men, who told me they would cross the boarder in two nights and would call to confirm it was for real. Two years ago I lost HKD 75,000 my relatives collected, when a deal to reach Canada turned out too-good-to-be-true, despite the rip-off.
Now I know the 852 call could have been made from China, but then I believed the country code was proof the three had successfully been smuggled to Hong Kong. That was enough to convince me to take the risk. But where could I borrow the RMB 5,000 fee? I shared my frustration on the Tamil chat website KALAPAM and an online friend I’d chatted with for two years, agreed to wire it via Western Union. We’d only met on the internet, yet sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places! A week later I paid the fee to Punjabi Mr. Sing over a chapatti meal I was too nervous to enjoy, worrying what trouble I was getting into. Human smuggling is always risky business for the ‘cargo’: if things go wrong, the Snake-heads will do anything to avoid jail and the cargo’s wellbeing is their last concern, since payments are made upfront. I was lead to the six floor of a building near the Shangri-la, where I learnt Mr. Sing was just a broker, the first link paid to find targets, collect fees and pass them on to the smuggling ring. My heart pounded like it would explode, as a fake taxi drove around town picking up more ‘human cargo’ from other safe houses. We drove around for three hours, the taxi meter running into the hundreds of dollars, which nobody paid. I imagined they were taking their time to be safe. Maybe there were police problems. I feared we would be stopped and in such dubious company who knows what the police would think, besides the fact my renewed visa expired a year earlier.
Dear President Obama –
Firstly, I wish to dedicate this OPEN LETTER to all those who fought militants in their country for democracy’s sake and, as a consequence, lost everything: home, family, business, friends and hope.
I am a 59 years old political activist from Pakistan. I was a businessman and an appointed member of a democratic, secular and moderate Pashtun political party [name deleted]. I was a successful trader of food grain in Peshawar for more than three decades and I enjoyed a happy family life. Thanks to my business I traveled extensively to Europe, USA, Japan and Malaysia. Our party strongly condemns the terror policies of the Taliban and those Islamic fundamentalist groups who militarized our region with our government’s secret collaboration. As a newspaper columnist I wrote hundreds of articles condemning my country’s misguided policies, both in local and English papers, in my country and abroad – which lead to several assassination attempts against my family. I was beaten close to death; my home was sprayed with bullets in the middle of the night; my car was shot at as I sped away for my life; I can’t recall how many threatening phone calls I received over the years. As is expected, these attacks cost me my business and profession. I have been in hiding for many months, unable to regain the position I one enjoyed in my community. Finally I escaped a kidnapping – which surely would have ended with my execution – only thanks to the courageous intervention of bystanders, who rallied to save my life at that deadly moment, ending ten years of political activism.
More than 400 activists and family members in my party were murdered in suicide bombings and target killings. Thousands of party workers have gone underground or abroad to save their lives and continue their protest against Pakistan’s military establishment and its conspiracy with the Afghanistan militia and Taliban who cross into our country with impunity. After a devastating attack on my family home, we were forced to leave everything behind and flee into exile. At my old age I have lost everything: my home is gone, my business collapsed and my wife is hiding in the mountains. My children have lost their education and today we all live in terror and fear. I now hide in Hong Kong together with my younger son, with no hope of seeing our family any time soon. The Consul General of the United States of America in Islamabad replied to my plea for help that regrettably he was unable to assist. Similar replies came from the Canadian and Australian Embassies, who suggested I contact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Finally, I was shocked when the UNHCR mailed a letter to my home – logo and full name on the envelope – which might have cost my life since every postman then knew I was seeking political refuge! Their advice was to flee the country, as I could not seek protection in Pakistan, but had to first escape to another country to seek asylum. This is like telling a man drowning to swim to the other side of the river, if his life is in imminent danger and wants to be rescued by the United Nation!
CIA World Factbook – Pakistan: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/pk.html
(Editor’s note: our member was hospitalized for alcoholism and has been sober for almost a year. Today he bravely faces the uncertainties of refugee life with no immediate solution to his many afflictions. Returning to his homeland is out of the question, foras his life is still threatened. His daunting struggle continues.)
It’s 2AM, I look around me and realize everyone’s going to sleep and here I am with no place to go. I search my pockets and count the amount of money I’m remained with “120 bucks, not bad”, I mutter to myself. I debate whether to get a room and get a good sleep but then what about tomorrow? Or rather today daytime – what will I spend on food and drinks. I carefully stand and try to see if I am really drunk or just in the mood. I discover that I need some rest and time is moving fast. I rush to the shop where I get my usual whiskey and buy some ten dollar whiskey takeaway. At least this will keep me going for the time being. I double check my cigarettes and lighter-everything is in check. I slowly make my way around the back staircase of building X. I know my way to where I have stacked my carton boxes, at least I will have a few hours of sleep before daytime. As I make my way to the fifth floor I pass a couple of youngsters smoking some hashish. I know the guys, since we all have similar situations, homeless, jobless and no plans for the immediate future. After greetings one of them gladly passes the “joint” and I smoke it in a hurry peering at every entry and exit as if the police may appear at any moment.
After a few puffs, I give it back and head to my destination. I reach the fifth floor and gather my cartons which are carefully concealed on the left side outside the small window. I place them beneath the upper staircase, here there’s enough space and dark where no one bothers to check apart from cleaning time at ten in the morning. I secure my valuables in my shorts, light a cigarette and lay down for a nice rest. After a few minutes I put out the cigarette butt, turn over and close my eyes. Suddenly I open my eyes, I look out of the window, its still dark, I check the time – its a quarter to six, I have slept for almost three and a half hours not bad feeling fresh, I return the boxes to their places and head out the building, I remove the whiskey and take a big gulp, I light a cigarette and head towards McDonald’s restaurant. Here I look like a regular foreign customers but the only time I visit this place is when I want to use the rest room. I wash my face, fresher up and promise myself I will take a shower later in the day. I walk slowly towards the 711 store, here I am bound to meet fellow drunkards who are always my Saviour. After a few greetings and jokes they toss me a beer……and for me the day has just began.
Refugees are not people to pity. The fact that they might have been persecuted in a way or another in their home country does not mean they have to go through it all over again in Hong Kong. The persecution might be different; no one endangers their life here, but they are victimized. They are portrayed by some refugee advocates as helpless, poor and needy people who cannot look after themselves. Some of their friends reach out to government offices to provide them with dignity, so that they won’t need to beg for human rights. While the intent is noble, the result, I believe, further exclude the people who seek asylum in Hong Kong from mainstream society. The refugees among us are not people to feed; they are people to treasure for their skills and experiences. Furthermore, the fact that some of them choose not to work illegally because they fear they would jeopardize their meager chances of being resettled in another country, in my opinion, does not say anything about the genuineness of their case. Lack of sufficient provisions to refugees in HK, their family situation (yes, even refugees have children at home, once dependent on their fathers and mothers who were forced to leave them behind), and the considerable amount of money people borrow to travel make work the only way out.
Refugees and asylum seekers the world over are often perceived in their communities as someone else’s problem. Few people are able to comprehend the trauma experienced by true survivors of torture, war and displacement. The issue of asylum seekers and refugees is one that is removed from our conscience, as we cannot comprehend the possibility of ever being in the same situation. Regardless of these challenges, Vision First is helping the community overcome these differences, encouraging the public to see through the politics and the prejudice, to stare into the eyes of the human face.
In this era of growing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) more businesses appreciate the potential of investing in the community and the awareness of CSR’s benefits is growing rapidly in Hong Kong.
The 2009 Oxfam CSR Survey of the Hang Seng Index constituent companies, highlighted the recent growth in CSR awareness of these 42 listed companies. The report states: “The global trend in CSR is progressing on both the voluntary and legislative fronts. Historically, this has been far more established in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, North America and South Africa, yet we are increasingly seeing Asian governments moving towards regulating CSR.”
This is good news for Vision First, other NGOs and for the people we serve. Together with our clients, we are wholly grateful to the community network which has developed around us in our first 18 months of operation. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, educators, architects and artists have contributed to support and create programs for our clients – who are growing in number ever week. As Vision First starts to spread its wings, the Hong Kong asylum seeker and refugee support network will grow to lift more vulnerable people out of their desperate plight.
Please contact us if you and your company would like to jump on board – thank you.
SENSE OF ASYLUM
Land without thunder
The land without storms and strangers
The home of all.
Where do I come from?
Father and Mother can’t hear me
Where do I come from?
Really where do I come from!?
No Motherland is foreign land
Where do I dwell?
Where is my River of milk and honey?
My stomach never asks no less.
Abundant is the milk of full breasts
No sleep I never cry for
Oh my country land
So far is the foreign land
I open my eyes and see,
Nothing of my own
Black and far is the foreign land
Blind to see no children
No children of the woman
Alone and frighten is me
Oh my brothers and sisters
Have foreign lands eaten you?
My voice is loud for you.
Oh my sweet Home!
How I miss you sweet home
I sleep awake
The eyes close no more