(Published in the South China Morning Post on 14 January 2011)
However, a major problem is that the screening procedures of UNHCR and the government are inadequate, sometimes giving the undeserving refugee status, while denying the most deserving. They can also be unbelievably lengthy, taking five or more years to complete. If comprehensive refugee policies were implemented, and the process was speeded up, they could become a model of effective, humane government. At present Hong Kong’s approach towards asylum seekers doesn’t work. While it should uphold international standards and grant legal status to people seeking asylum, and eventually allow those it recognises as refugees or victims of torture to stay, it actually denies them durable solutions, indirectly benefiting the wrong people.
by Gordon Mathews & Francesco Vecchio
(Mr. Tim Collard’s letter to the South China Morning Post, 14 January 2011)
My father, Bill Collard, director of immigration from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, always insisted that Chinese illegal immigrants at the time were generally not refugees but economic migrants, and he was very clear and uncompromising about this. He waged a long and eventually successful campaign to have such illegals returned to the mainland provided they had not already settled in Hong Kong. He would have entirely agreed with the current director’s position as implied in the report that it is important not to encourage “more people with questionable claims to take a chance on coming to Hong Kong”.
Click to read Professor Mariam’s article published in The Huffington Post.
Refugees are the most resilient people: their very determination to survive against all adversity is testament to their tenacity and endurance. When stranded in Hong Kong, our beneficiaries’ most painful realization is they are POWERLESS to do anything to better their life, besides sitting and waiting, begging and praying. The consequence of stranding so many helpless and impoverished people on the street is depressing for an affluent, progressive, open-minded society. Because refugees lived productive and active lives in their countries, with jobs, careers and good prospects, they now find perpetual idleness exceedingly disheartening. We are often told that “lack of work” is the one most painful reality they can never get used to, compared to their previous life, in a metropolis famous for its workaholic mentality. There really is only so much time anyone can sit on a park bench without going crazy! Yesterday’s court order has made their waiting even harder, their future even more impenetrable. By denying refugees the opportunity to support themselves, the HKSAR is condemning them to poverty and exposing them to the social ills stemming from such a coerced existence.
The Court of First Instance ruled that the Director of Immigration has the right to decide on a case-by-case basic if refugees can work and we all know the answer is always negative. This verdict is most traumatic for refugees without resettlement options, condemned to remain stateless in Hong Kong, with their families and young children needy of everything. Yesterday we delivered 50 nappies to a mother who gave birth before Christmas. She was at her wits ends to solve her infant’s pressing requirements. She whispered in despair “What can I do? Do I have to steal food and nappies for my baby? I can’t just sit here in the cold and do nothing while my baby gets sick. What will the police say when I explain that I had no other choice?” Fortunately we were there, but there are a hundred more moms beyond our reach. Let’s be clear, the court didn’t deliberate on the 6600 asylum seekers, but only for the 105 Mandate Refugees, recognized as deserving international protection, who would hardly put a dent in the local work force, if ever they got a job. Today they learn that a two year court battle was lost and an appeal is as remote as unlikely. The judge spoke about not giving a ‘ray of hope’ to illegal immigrants, but he’s confusing his apples and oranges: illegal immigrants are here by choice and have an option to return home – refugees arrived by duress and have nowhere else to go. In our opinion, political and economic concerns trumped humanitarian decency and for Hong Kong refugees the descent into grief accelerates.
South China Morning Post – “Refugees denied right to work” by Chris Ip, Jan 07, 2011
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!
I’m a UNHCR asylum-seeker in Hong Kong. The Immigration Department forced me to sign a paper when I was released from detention. It threatens me with “THREE YEARS IN PRISON AND HKD 50,000 FINE IF I DO ANY WORK, PAID OR UNPAID”, so I’m scared I will be caught helping somebody and jailed for “working unpaid.” You cant appreciate what this means unless you personally know for sure you will be tortured and executed if deported back to your country. You don’t want this to happen and the fear paralizes your actions. I’d rather waste years in depressing idleness, than run the risk. There are too many obstacles surrounding a refugee’s life and it’s impossible for me to pursue my dreams of becoming a social worker. I don’t have money, I don’t have a work permit. I don’t have friends or family to pay for the studies. I can’t even get a loan. I became homeless when I fled my village; I became stateless when I escaped my country; I became rightless when released from detention and now I am hopeless – allowed only to eat, to sleep and to walk pointlessly these foreign streets. What’s happened to my life? How can I live like this?
Now I believe I must study to become a social work, to help those who have lost hope and live in misery, isolation and rejection. I have the passion to help others, but I don’t have the money, power or education. I went to a charity NGO called Christian Action to presented my social work talent and I highly appreciate them for assisting me to attend a class once a week. I also wish to thank Vision First who gives me encouragement and support, as they look for an opportunity to turn my dreams into reality. Dear readers, I speak from my heart when I promise I can make a difference in the community, if you kindly support my social work studies. I believe it is essential for human beings to assist each other and meet the basic needs of the vulnerable among us, with particular attention to the most needy, those oppressed by poverty and hardship. My personal experience growing up in a conflict zone, encountering violence, torture, hunger, despair and death, gives me a unique insight into the needs of the refugees I will assist in future. Many have the education to do this work, but few have the understanding of a witness who survived these horrors himself. Thank you very much for reading my letter.
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.
Around 1am the taxi switched its lights off and drove down a steep hill, while we were commanded to keep silent. We were told to change into our best clothes, clean pants and shirt which wouldn’t attract attention in Hong Kong. We couldn’t bring anything but a backpack. We waited in an abandoned building by the shore, until suddenly orders were barked “Come! Come! Come fast!” We were directed onboard a small, wooden fishing boat, about 12 meters. The driver stashed the four of us cargo in the engine compartment, right next to the deafening diesel engine. We could fee the heat coming off the engine and were afraid of burns touching it. The engine hatch was locked tight and I got very scared. There was hardly enough air and I could only see a sliver of night through a crack between the old, rough boards. I thought I’d made a mistake. I feared I would never breath fresh air again. We were all very scared and I thought the old boat would sink in the swells. The fishing boat ventured across rough sea for a couple hours, slowly, dangerously, until it stopped at 4am at the pier of an old building, in a small, dark bay. At long last, the driver opened the hatch and commanded us onto a smaller speedboat, with two enormous outboard engines. The second driven was a young boy who hardly said a word. Probably too young to do any serious jail time if caught. He sped across the dark sea like a veteran seaman, while we keep low below the transom, as the salty sea splashed over us. Hope was rising in me, when abruptly there was absolute panic. The boy yelled over the roaring engines “Police! … Police! … Jump!” motioning frantically for us to jump into the sea. A helicopter swooped with a blinding searchlight over head. The noise of the chopper, the blast from the rotors added to the panic. We could see dark land a short distance away, but still the fear of jumping into the black sea was horrifying. For fear of being caught I plunged into the water and … thank God, my feet struck the bottom with my neck above water. The speedboat darted away into the night with the police in hot areal pursuit, but I doubt they could arrest the boy before he vanished into Mainland waters.
Early we’d been given simple instructions “See big mountain, you walk round, you walk round to road. On road, van waiting for you!” The helicopter never returned, it must have become somebody else’s problem. Expecting a police launch to appear and tracker dogs hunting us on land, we staggered to shore with water-log backpacks, without even feeling the cold November waters. There was no police boat. There wasn’t any patrol either. The peaceful beach was the first moment of tranquility since home that morning. With all that commotion, we figured we’d made it to Hong Kong and that surly that country park felt like a different world to Shenzhen. Soaked to the bones, mobile phones dead, we skirted the mountain to the road and – surprise! – there was a man smoking by a white van! As orange flares lit the bay behind us, the driver shoved us into the van and slammed the door shut. He hadn’t driven five minutes up the road, that a police cruiser came dashing down in the opposite direction, never bothering to stop us. Definitely they were looking for us, but we’d slipped through. Twenty minutes later we pulled up by the 7-Eleven in Yung Long, the door slid open, a simple “Bye-bye” was exchanged and this time the human cargo got its money’s worth. One of the guys called a friend who offered us a floor to crash on in Kam Tin. I still had HKD 100 in my wet wallet. In the morning I took a bus to Kowloon and found my way to the UNHCR where my registration was accepted and my case is still open today. When you are certain there is no more hope, that’s when God opens a door for you!
(a VF beneficiary)