By Refugee Union staff writer
After the historic registration of the refugee union as a society, refugees celebrated the event with pomp and color. They were very confident and optimistic. The few I talked to expressed their feelings with confidence. One refugee from Pakistan said “I am very happy today that the Hong Kong Police registered our Union. The police is very helpful, now we can use the Refugee Union to fight for all refugees without fear. We have a strong Union to push the government for changes.”
After the dust settled the Union called for its first meeting a week ago, attendance was strong, the determination to face the future with confidence, resilience of their attitude and hope was commendable despite the odds and challenges that lay ahead of them. A Bangladesh Refugee who has been in Hong Kong for more than 5 years commended Vision First for their role to awaken and inspire refugees to wake up and fight for their rights. He said, “Vision First taught us to stand up and fight for our human rights, they showed us how to push this government to change this inhuman and degrading refugee system in Hong Kong . We wrote petitions, went for protests and we saw some results. Food and rent was improved but that’s not enough, we still live like beggars on the street “.
Another refugee interjected and said “We will never get tired, we have nothing else to do, this is future and only hope, fight and fight and fight until the Security Bureau respects our rights as human beings.” The mood was somehow tense as every refugee wanted to put forward their ideas and contributions. I watched with bated breath as the jostling for space to speak played out, this was not the Refugee Union of yesterday, the members were fully charged to confront and address their problems.
Skilled and highly motivated they expressed their frustrations with the government, from lack of information about USM to their living conditions that each speaker had problems with. They lamented the attitude and lack of seriousness by the government to respond to their cries.
A refugee from Africa shot up and said, “Remember that the government did not choose to implement this system. It was forced to do so by the Court of final Appeal ruling in 2013. That’s why they carry out this exercise the way the Hong Kong Immigration does it. This put their unwillingness in play. It’s a system that is intentionally designed and perfected to achieve their goal. And their goal is to reject all our claims! Perhaps accept 1 in one-thousand!”
Everybody went quiet as they tried to digest that comment. Eventually an African woman spoke up, “I am not surprised that the government has not yet responded to complaints and issues raised by the claimants or NGOs who seek information regarding the USM. They are unwilling to address or even tackle the myriads of challenges that the system was meant to address. For them it’s business as usual”.
For next two hours the refugees resolved to collectively work as a supportive community to improve their welfare as well as try and reach out to the Hong Kong public to demystify the refugee stories out there. Everyone present resolved that there is need to strengthen the society for a stronger Union that will better absorb the shocks for the refugees as they embark on a tumulus journey into the uncertain and unknown future.
Eighteen months ago, on 19 May 2013, Vision First exposed the deplorable (and in our view illegal) living conditions of refugees residing in alleged illegal structures supported and subvented by ISS-HK with rent assistance paid to purported landlords from the government purse.
One and a half year later, little has ostensibly changed, except for Vision First being sued for defamation by ISS-HK. Despite overwhelming evidence presented to local and international media, including CNN exposing “Hong Kong’s shameful treatment of refugees”, civil society remains embarrassingly silent about the government abuse of vulnerable refugees.
A code of silence apparently paralyzes social workers, refugee workers and legal practitioners who work daily with the refugee community. These professionals are presumably concerned with human rights, protection and justice, however, to our knowledge, nobody visits the slums or reports on the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of refugees living in abject destitution. Why?
In the second half of 2014, Vision First exposed sixty-six (66) refugee slums where protection claimants are housed in blatant disregard of numerous laws relating to building structures, rental properties, health and hygiene, fire safety and others. It is perplexing that not a single government department stepped forward to address related problems. Why?
In this bleak environment Vision First is undaunted in its mission to counter refugee slums in Hong Kong and the deplorable treatment of hundreds of men, women and children forced into unacceptable living conditions. A handful of the worse slums were closed down when ISS-HK stopped renewing (questionable) tenancy agreements, though business is thriving in others.
This marked an apparent shift in policy. Prior to the slums being exposed, there seemed to be little concern for proof of ownership. Currently ISS-HK case workers only approve alleged illegal structures where landlords prove ownership of the land. Vision First takes credit for this small, but meaningful success that could be interpreted as an indirect admission of responsibility.
“I lived in this metal hut for three years” said a Bangladeshi refugee, “My case worker [from ISS-HK] took photos to show the bed and the fridge and the fabric covering the metal sheets. She didn’t want to see what was behind.” Such superficial and arguably misleading documentation might submit to the Social Welfare Department contracts and photos supporting adequate housing.
SWD officials are invited to join Vision First in a field inspection of the slums. They would learn that, for example, the new compound illustrated below (“Slum Number 67”) is comprised of metal huts with broken window frames and broken windows that cannot be closed because missing handles. Cooking and washing facilities are appalling and the toilet is several minutes’ walk from the hut. The grim reality its tenant endures is not reflected by the tenancy agreement and a photo of his bed.
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A splendid sunny afternoon was the bright backdrop for a group photo of refugee children, many born in the city with no prospect of local integration. A Bangladeshi father of two was first to arrive, “I sought asylum in September 2004 and ten years later we are counting every dollar in our pockets. We raise two children but cannot work. Every month we sell 500$ of [emergency rations] to pay for extra school [expenses]. We are like beggars because nobody will give us work.”
When everything else is lost, refugee parents give up personal dreams and aspirations, but will obviously not forsake their children who deserve every chance to prepare for the future, as challenging as that may be. An African father of three explained, “We only have hope. If there is only a tiny pinprick of light we must walk towards it. If it is [extinguished] there is only blackness, despair and nothing to live for. We can never go back because we came here to save our children.”
“Their grades are good even in Chinese,” says a proud South Asian mother, “But they miss two days of school because I don’t have bus money. I think they have the right to have a future because the parents they suffered to save their life. Why should they be punished for the problems that their parents [escaped]? I hope this action will make public to the suffering caused by not [being allowed to] work. Can a family live without work?”
The joyful exuberance exhibited by children at play was in sharp contrasted to the parents’ worries. They speak to Vision First and a news reporter in hushed voices seemingly not intended for the young ones to hear. Such prudence might evince a hopeful attitude maintained at home to tirelessly encourage children to bravely face a grim and disheartening reality.
Frustration runs deep and not a single parent genuinely shares the light-heartedness demonstrated by their children at this gathering. Years of delays and disappointed eroded trust in the system almost entirely. Holding a beaming daughter, a West African father explains, “Why does the government punish us and make life impossible? We must [focus] attention on the injustice of denying refugees [the right to] work, but making us pay thousands of dollars [in basic living costs] every month. Why are we jailed for working if we don’t get enough [government assistance]?
A South Asian mother joined in with a hopeful message for the authorities, “I wish and pray that the people responsible for our needs, especially for the kids’, will see and feel our struggles. At least they can open their eyes and remember that the young ones are our future.”
The struggling mother of three gorgeous girls added, “The mothers and fathers of these children are not allowed to work. I wish and hope that Social Welfare Department and Hong Kong government will help these children to have a better future. I hope someday these children will achieve their goal in their lives to prove that, even if they are children of refugee, they can have a good future. [They can] show the world that refugee children have the right to achieve their goal in this world.”
Difficulties start for refugee children before they are born and compound sharply during the rest of their stay in Hong Kong with no end in sight. Information about their age groups is not publicly available, so there is no official data on the number of refugee children and newborns. There are about 300 minors among Vision First’s 1600 current members, approximately 18%.
Vision First reports the following: as a direct consequence of stringent asylum and border policies, many children suffer early parental separation when relationships break down and one parent is left to care for the child, typically the mother. Single-parent children seem to outnumber those born to married refugee couples. Both groups face a specific set of hardships and the first challenge is obtaining a birth certificate from the Registrar of Births and Deaths.
1. Parents of newborns are asked an apparently innocent question: “What is the nationality of your baby?” This question however hides innumerable problems. Let’s say for instance the parents fled Mozambique. The child is technically stateless as the embassy would not have been notified for protection reasons. However, parents are pressed for a specific answer, or else birth certificates cannot be issued. The correct answer should be “stateless” and Hong Kong is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Person.
2. The housing, food, clothing and medical troubles faced by refugee children are largely the same as those encountered by adults, although there is a shortage of milk formula and an absence of diapers for babies. As welfare assistance is provided within a system that seems to encourage voluntary departures, it is here that refugees are caught in the middle and punished for being born in an undesirable family. It is debatable whether the authorities have taken children’s needs duly into account when formulating assistance policies across the board.
3. Problems grow exponentially after children enter the schooling age, which generally start at 3 years old, when most resident children attend kindergarten. It warrants repeating that refugees are not allowed to work and should therefore receive full cost wavers from the authorities that do not normally deny the right of children to attend school. What happens at hospitals should also happen at schools, with refugee parents necessarily exempt from all payments.
Following our advocacy work, we are glad that the authorities began waving kindergarten school fees starting from August 2014. Nevertheless scores of children are denied essential early education because some refugee parents are unable to prepay school fees from August to December prior to subsidy payments. Further, kindergarten uniforms, books, bags, transportation and meals are additional costs not covered by fee remissions. Such onerous burdens force desperate parents to scramble for cash, which might include working illegally, thereby risking arrest and imprisonment.
Financial difficulties at primary and secondary schools are lessened by full fee remission, allowances for books and internet and partial transportation refunds. However, piecemeal policies expect destitute parents to pick up the bill for many essentials, such as uniforms (about 2000$ each for winter and summer), shoes, school bags, meals, actual transport fees (including accompanying parents for younger kids), stationary as well as countless miscellaneous fees.
The cost of these shortcomings is expensive in human terms. Not only is there the grave issue of the criminalization of working refugees, but there is also the widespread vilification and humiliation of inadequately supported families. For instance, children are teased for having used books (something they get over), but they fall sick wearing summer uniforms during winter months. Refugee children eat bread and jam, not lunchboxes (something they overcome), but might skip two or three days of school a week for lack of bus money. Cutting government support short causes countless deleterious effects generally unnoticed and unreported.
It is hard to witness parents wipe tears of shame recounting how they feel they let their children down. There is little comfort parents can give children who return home to ask, “The kids teased me because I don’t have winter uniform and didn’t have lunchbox. What should I tell them, mummy?” as we were recently told. If the government is serious about stringently banning refugee work, it should at least be consistent in deploying policies that fully support refugee children’s compulsory education. Otherwise, refugees should be allowed to work for the time they need to pay school costs.
It is hard to understand contradicting government policies that punish refugee children through their most vulnerable years. In the long run few benefits will accrue and no savings will be made by authorities who will eventually have to deal with scores of stateless children that could have been treated with a little more foresight and a lot more respect.
I am Liza, a West African refugee aged 42, a single mother with two children and a founding member of the Refugee Union. I came to Hong Kong in 2011 to seek asylum after experiencing persecution in my country due to my political work, but this story is not about me.
I wish to share my thoughts about an informative visit in October 2014 to the Lo Wu Correctional Institute for women. I was very nervous about meeting this African lady that a friend in common had begged me to visit. Frankly I didn’t know what to talk about and even if she wanted to see me.
The inmate I visited is 35 years old and has three children she will not see for several years. It doesn’t matter what crime she committed as she admits having been naïve. She readily shared, “I made a mistake because I needed money to send my children to school. My family could not give me an education and for this I suffered so much. I wished for my children to go to school but I had no money.”
She told me freely the story of her childhood, her parent’s harsh life and the dire circumstances that landed her behind bars in a prison far away from home. She admitted that she acted stupidly to receive ‘big money’ in order to solve hers and her children’s necessities. But it didn’t work out the way she expected. She realizes now that she fell into a trap set by very cunning criminals.
My new friend recounted her story happily, surprisingly without bitterness or obvious regret. She said, “I don’t mind being in jail for such a long period because here I am achieving so greatly during my sentence and I am given opportunities that I never had before outside.” I was perplexed as I surely assumed that freedom is preferable to being in prison, so I asked her why.
She explained, “Here in prison I study various courses every day except on Sunday. For example: business management, human resources, speaking and writing English, computer classes and other social courses. I never had this chance all my life and I am finding that prison is a place for me to acquire some knowledge and improve myself. It’s a blessing in disguise!”
It was then that I learnt that inmates attend daily classes and even have to take exams. Those who succeed they are awarded certificates and graduate to higher levels in their courses. Then if someone fails, they can repeat the course and try again for the exam. Being in prison means they have no distractions and students can apply their time with full attention and learn fast with great support from dedicated teachers.
I learned that each year they attend new courses, depending on individual interests, needs, desires and priorities. The students can pick what they like and receive an education in the subjects that they think will be most useful after they are released. This is a great way for Prison Time to be productive time and for inmates to prepare for a better future and make an effort to turn their lives around.
At the end of our discussion my friend was so pleased because she said she will go out of jail well-equipped with knowledge, skills and techniques to apply nicely in sustaining her life and improve the future of her children. This is something she could not do before. Prison is turning her life around and eventually it will also have a positive impact on her family at large.
As the gates of the Lo Wu prison clanked closed behind me, a question popped into my mind: Why do convicted criminals have a chance to study in prison, while suffering refugees who escaped to safety in Hong Kong are prohibited from studying while forced to wait many years for a decision on asylum claims?