The police arrived to mediate the stand-off in what has regrettably become an all too frequent scene at the headquarters of the Social Welfare Department, the department entrusted with the physical wellbeing of about 10,000 refugees in the city. After listening to complaints, a community relations officer called out, “How many people are homeless?”
What happened next was symptomatic of the sickness that pervades our society – unnoticed and unassisted the poor agonize among the affluent. In the overcrowded and guarded lobby of the SWD, 20 unintimidated men and women raised a hand. “Homeless people are a crime risk as they might commit offenses out of desperation,” a concerned police officer whispered.
Nevertheless, this warning appears to be largely ignored in the offices of the Security Bureau, the mastermind behind refugee policies in Hong Kong. This semi-autonomous global city follows a precept that is plainly depicted in its distrust towards the poor that frequently makes the news.
Two visitors recently arrived in Hong Kong. One was the business magnate Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the fabled e-commerce company Alibaba. The other was the less prominent Jagadeep, who claims to be a victim of the “corruption that is eating away at India like a termite and is coming from the top”, as Indian Premier Modi lamented. Two visitors with two experiences worlds apart.
It was reported in the press that Jack Ma purchased a fabulous home on Hong Kong’s Peak for an eye-watering HK$1.5 Billion – the second most expensive property purchase in the history of the city. Government rules and regulations facilitate the entry into Hong Kong for the wealthy, who are shamelessly feted and encouraged to spend, purchase and invest to their heart’s content.
Jagadeep’s experience was less wonderful and included several weeks of homelessness. He was granted a one week visa which he was obliged to overstay to seek asylum, thus committing his first offense. He was then detained for a month and pressured to depart by the Immigration that is struggling with 10,059 asylum seekers shamefully homogenized into a melting pot of distrust, vilification and rejection.
It is a tale of two cities. Jack Ma surely deserves to enjoy the fruits of his success from the balcony of his new mansion overlooking Victoria Harbour. Part of his purchasing price was HK$12,750,000 in stamp duty paid into government coffers to fund policies that include the Social Welfare Department’s “Provision of Assistance-in-kind for Asylum Seekers and Torture Claimants”.
Like an anxious billionaire terrified of becoming poor in 20 years, Hong Kong Government is obsessed with hoarding HK$734 Billion in fiscal reserves and abstaining from alleviating poverty among those who today don’t have food and shelter. Shoulder to shoulder with 1.3 million impoverished Hongkongers, stand Jagadeep and 10,000 refugees who “we will continue to ensure do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong,” claims misleadingly the Security Bureau.
One of a hundred refugees who protested on 17 August 2015 at the SWD head-office begs to disagree, “The government pretends not to see our suffering. But they know our needs and our pain. They created this system. They know $1500 is not enough for rent in this expensive city. They know $1200 is not enough to eat for a month. They use (policies) to oppress refugees.”
A Refugee Union leader, who claims his basic needs are not met, exclaimed, “The government says we are not allowed to work. They say they give us enough rent and enough food, but they are lying. They delay (decisions on) our claims for 10 years and keep us here. We are dying. Hungry people are angry people. You can go ahead and lock all of us in jail. What difference does it make?”
More angry voices would not be suppressed: “You see our children? We are in starvation. You make us suffer”, “Hong Kong pretends to be an international city, but this is a ghost city”, “They just pay for a system that abuses and rejects refugees”, “They know what is wrong, they know what is right, but they are not thinking about us”, “You can drink our blood, but drink it small and don’t kill us!”
“We will fight for our rights until there is change” promised an empowered Refugee Union member. But Vision First has serious reservations this is achievable in the near future. It is heartbreakingly obvious that Hong Kong Government turns a blind eye to the destitute, resident and otherwise, while crushing refugees behind bureaucratic lies supported by preposterous assurance that nobody will fall destitute while seeking asylum in the city that Jack Ma loves.
Security Bureau replied to the Legislative Council Secretariat concerning 500 complaints letters lodged by members of the Refugee Union on the inadequacy of welfare support.
“Foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong, and visitors who overstayed their limit of stay allowed by the Immigration Department (ImmD) or who were refused entry by the ImmD upon arrival at Hong Kong (collectively “illegal immigrants”) are subject to be removed from Hong Kong in accordance with the Immigration Ordinance (Cap. 115). To safeguard immigration control and for public interest, they should be removed as soon as practicable.”
“Some non-refoulement claimants may not be able to meet their basic needs when their claim is being assessed. Since 2006, on humanitarian grounds, the Government has been offering in-kind assistance to these claimants to prevent them from becoming destitute (the assistance programme). Coverage of such assistance includes temporary accommodation, basic utilities allowance, food, clothing, basic necessities, appropriate transport allowance and counseling activities … The Government has enhanced the service package … since February 2014:
- Accommodation: the rent allowance grid per adult claimants has been increased to $1,500;
- Food: the budget for food for each claimant has been increased to $1,200 a month;
- Utilities: the allowance per claimant has been increased to $300 per month;
- Transport allowance: the allowance per claimant has been increased from $200 t0 $420 per month.”
“We will carefully consider all the views received, including the concerns expressed in the 291 + 209 cases enclosed in your letter, with a view to ensuring that the non-refoulement claims are screened in a fair and expeditious manner and deterring illegal immigrants and abuses to our current system. Meanwhile, we will continue to ensure claimants do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong.” (emphasis added)
“I will grant the applicant bail for the reason that I have given but I hope that the relevant authorities will address the problem that has been briefly described by me in very general terms. There are no doubt genuine cases for convention claims deserving of due process and consideration by the relevant authorities but it seems more needs to be done to weed out promptly the unmeritorious and unworthy claims. As I have previously indicated this is becoming a serious problem for the courts and the legal system in general, as well as for the community, and there is the added risk that the system in place is being abused not only by unmeritorious claimants but possibly by claimants with a more sinister purpose in mind.”
Hon. Judge Zervos granted the applicant bail as he was held in remand for more than double the time he would ever have been sentenced after trial.
Also Judge Zervos has made spectacular speculations as to why people overstay in Hong Kong and raise non-refoulement claims only later on.
This is a clear example of a very experienced lawyer and new judge from the DOJ who appears to have little first hand experience acting for a refugee. There seems to be scant consideration about the motivations and fears of asylum seekers after arriving in Hong Kong, where they know the acceptance rate is effectively zero percent.
“I didn’t plan to come to Hong Kong,” recalls an African refugee. “An agent brought me here in 2004 on a passport I never saw. We were scheduled to take a flight to the States, when he said it would be delayed and we should stay overnight. At the McDonald’s near Star Ferry, I got into a misunderstanding with him and refused to do as he wanted me. He asked me to hold his leather jacket. He said he had to make a phone call … I never saw him again. Two days later I turned 15.”
Now Tommy (not his real name) is 26 years old, and is an exceptional refugee who continues to excel against overwhelming odds in a hostile asylum sphere that reduces to depression more experienced and wiser individuals. The young man credits his success in overcoming unending difficulties to a determination to turn every challenge around, “I learnt to depend on myself to solve my problems as this is my life!”
It is understandably hard for him to speak about his past. “My father passed away before I was born and my mother when I was 5. I was raised by my grandmother who died when I was 8. Then I was captured by the rebels. I was a child soldier for 5 horrible years. It was hell … I am still doing counseling and taking medications. When the agent abandoned me I was suicidal. God did not let it happen. I was helped by a US missionary who took me to the UNHCR. He saved my life.”
After a few days, Tommy was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he spent ten trying days in the psychiatric unit. Upon discharge he was sent to a shelter where he experienced the failures of an underdeveloped welfare system for refugees in 2004. Eventually he was taken in by a church which still supports him. Tommy took education very seriously; he graduated from high school and went on to obtain a degree in business management.
“I couldn’t have done it without my wife, church and dad. He’s was my guardian, but I call him dad as I feel a father-son connection with him,” Tommy explains. “I met my wife at the church. She visited me in detention every week when I was arrested two weeks before turning 18. Immigration has given me a hard time ever since. I was ordered ‘Sign here. Don’t waste my time’ and nobody told me what documents they were. They refused to read back the statement before I signed them. Then my wife submitted my birth certificate and identity card. We got married in 2012, but my dependent visa was refused. Ironically my asylum claim remains undecided since 2004. Immigration doesn’t want me to have a normal life.”
Tommy obtained an African passport through the intervention of a maternal uncle who provided the statements necessary to confirm family ties prior to his abduction by the rebel group. The Beijing console interviewed him in Hong Kong, then a passport was issued without requiring travel to his homeland. “Immigration was not happy that I applied for a passport” Tommy said.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Tommy laments. “It is total injustice. I don’t know what applicants Immigration wants for dependent visas. I am not going to steal a local job, if that is what they are afraid of. I want to continue my studies overseas. I have two MBA offers, one from the UK and the other from Australia, and an MPA (Master in Public Administration) from the States. The church friends offered to pay for tuition, but I need a visa to prove that I am resident in Hong Kong.”
Frustration is palpable. “Immigration is trying to find faults in my application. First they tried to find faults in my wife’s documents, but they couldn’t. Now they say that I entered illegally as I came with an agent with a different passport. I had no idea what was submitted. I was a child. When the US consulate called Immigration, they were told, ‘This person does not exist in our system’. The consular staff then asked if my marriage certificate was fake as it was issued by Immigration. The line went dead when he asked for the officer’s name.”
More than three years after his marriage, the Legal Aid Department accepted Tommy’s application to judicially review Immigration’s refusal of his dependent visa. His lawyer is confident that the bureaucracy of rejection will crumble when the writ is filed at the High Court, because the legal grounds to condemn Tommy to a lifetime of welfare and marginalization may be challenged. It is regrettable that compassion is rarely shown to refugees who try their level best to integrate into society.