Open and shut cases

Jan 15th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

(Published in the South China Morning Post on 14 January 2011)

Hong Kong‘s ineffective refugee policy turns away those most in need. The Hong Kong government, in its treatment of asylum seekers, is apparently trying to be humane. However, the effect of its policy is the exact opposite of what it intends, rewarding those who are most undeserving, and harming those who are most deserving. Why? There are some 7,000 people from South Asia and Africa seeking asylum in Hong Kong, making their claims to either the refugee agency UNHCR or the Hong Kong government. Some asylum seekers are fleeing torture, or political, ethnic or religious persecution; others are seeking economic advantage. Poverty in fact is closely linked to violence and persecution in developing countries, making it often difficult to separate the two streams.
A very few, lucky asylum seekers will have their claims decided upon favourably and will resettle in North America or Europe. The vast majority, however, will be rejected, will appeal, and will end up waiting in Hong Kong indefinitely, perhaps eventually to be deported or they will voluntarily return home. While claims are assessed, the Hong Kong government provides them with a very minimal life – HK$1,000 a month in rent aid, plus several bags of groceries every month and emergency health care, but prohibits them from working. Hong Kong’s policies appear, at first glance, to be reasonable. Understandably, the government does not want the city to be flooded with tens or hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum after hearing of generous aid polices. At the same time, the government is desperate to avoid having destitute asylum seekers starving to death on the city’s streets; thus, it provides a bare minimum of assistance.

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.

Visiting a shanty town in Yuen Long
Visiting a shanty town in Yuen Long
Economic asylum seekers flourish, while political asylum seekers suffer. Illegal work in Hong Kong is easily available and difficult to prosecute. So while those who come to Hong Kong to work can easily do so and return home after a few years, others are forced to work because of the lack of sympathetic refugee policies. Still others, especially those who have faith in the UNHCR and the government, believe that prosecution for illegal work would jeopardise their chances of being accepted as a refugee. So they refuse to gamble by working, but only wait, hovering on the edge of absolute poverty and brooding over the impasse to which their lives have brought them. In advising an up-and-coming entrepreneur from the developing world, one might justifiably say: “Come to Hong Kong and become an asylum seeker. You might make a good living!” In advising someone fleeing torture or persecution, one the other hand, one might justifiably say: “Don’t come to Hong Kong! You will be destroyed here.” Hong Kong’s asylum seeker policies most hurt those it most seeks to help.
Here is a solution. Screen prospective asylum seekers upon their arrival. Allow them to work for a limited number of hours per week to save on government aid, while enabling them to survive legally rather than forcing them to work illegally. Expand migrant labour schemes to let people choose whether to come here as asylum seekers or on two-year non-renewable work permits. If alternative routes to migration were available, people would no longer seek asylum as their only option. This system would ensure refugee protection while still providing Hong Kong with an inexpensive, readily available and flexible labour force. At present, cheap labour is provided by asylum seekers. In this, the current system has its benefits. It allows the Hong Kong government to deny permanent settlement to people it deems lack the skills to contribute to society, while providing the means to closely monitor the illegal population needed for the profit of many Hong Kong businesses. If this is indeed the case, then it may be that the present shortcomings in policy towards asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not only matters of unforeseen consequences, but a matter of entirely foreseen intent. Could it be that the Hong Kong government actively seeks for its policy towards asylum seekers to fail?

by Gordon Mathews & Francesco Vecchio
(Gordon Mathews is a professor of anthropology at Chinese University, and has led a weekly discussion group for asylum seekers over the past four years. Francesco Vecchio is a doctoral candidate in criminology at Monash University, Australia, researching refugees and mixed migrations in Asia and consulting Vision First)

6,700 cases pending as torture claimants prove slow to screen

Jan 14th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

SCMP Phyllis Tsang - Updated on Jan 14, 2011

It would take 31 years to screen cases of people claiming to have been tortured if immigration officials were to continue at the existing rate. Only 214 cases were completed last year and 6,700 are still pending. The Immigration Department completed the 214 cases after the launch of a pilot screening programme in December 2009. All the claims were rejected. Of these, 108 claimants appealed, with 74 of the appeals rejected, the department revealed yesterday. Fifty-five of the claimants were deported from Hong Kong after screening, and 1,636 torture claimants withdrew their claims last year and returned home.
“We would like to speed up the screening in the coming years,” Director of Immigration Simon Peh Yun-lu said yesterday, adding that procedures were smoother now the scheme had been trialed for a year. Screening of torture claims was resumed after a series of court cases. Under the new programme claimants are provided with legal aid and a duty lawyer. An independent appeal mechanism is also in place. New torture claim cases recorded a 45 per cent drop, from 3,286 in 2009 to 1,809 last year. “Certified torture claimants and refugees are not allowed to work in the city,” Peh said, adding that a court ruling barring torture claimants from working in Hong Kong might be the reason for the drop.

Why do we keep on tormenting real refugees?

Jan 13th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

(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”.

Nonetheless, “hard-nosed” though he undoubtedly was about economic migrants taking advantage of a tolerant society, he was acutely aware that genuine refugees needed to be treated differently. He would have been appalled at our present government’s lack of common humanity in dealing with those whose claims of persecution and even torture have been validated. The director of immigration and his superiors are highly paid civil servants responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the community and they have powers of discretion to make exceptions to general policy when appropriate. If this were not required, a computer could just as well determine who stays and who works, and at a fraction of the cost.

Were true refugees returned to their place of origin it is highly possible they would be killed. Given that they have nowhere else to go, forcing them to exist on pitifully meagre welfare allowances, without the right to work year after year, is inhumane. It is also contrary to the spirit of international agreements on the matter, to which the Hong Kong government is a signatory. Hong Kong rightly aspires to “world city” status, but our government seems to be losing sight of the fact that this also implies some responsibility. It is necessarily difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain refugee status and very few do it. When these very few establish they were, and would still be, persecuted and tortured in their home country, and we allow them to stay on that basis, do we really need to continue to torment them in this petty, hypocritical manner?
Blanket distribution in Fanling
Blanket distribution in Fanling

Why do things always fall apart in Africa?

Jan 12th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

In light of the international dramas unfolding in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger (etc.) it’s is doubtless helpful to examine why the entire continent of Africa continues to force hundreds of REFUGEES to flee their homelands for the uncertainty of self-imposed EXILE in Hong Kong. It bears emphasizing the numbers reaching Hong Kong are tiny – compared to the odyssey at Europe’s besieged borders – however our community is less informed about the socio-economic and political background behind this human tide, than people in other world cities. The article below offers a broad picture of how Vampire States force the exodus of what an Ivorian friend described as, “the little people who chose to live another day rather than be killed!” Ultimately it is always GREED and HATRED that undergird this plight and we realize there is no easy solution for either. Vision First believes it is our social responsibility to not only provide material assistance to our members, but especially to advocate for their rights and share what we learn with the community. Today we join our hopes and wishes with all the Sudanese, who suffered through twenty years of persecution, on the dawn of Southern Sudan – may your suffering and struggle finally usher in your Independence Day!

Click to read Professor Mariam’s article published in The Huffington Post.

“Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades” while other developing countries and regions have grown. Africa was better off at the end of colonialism than it is today. According to the U.N., life expectancy in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Mozambique and Swaziland for the period 2005-2010 is less than 44 years, the worst in the world. The average annual income in Zimbabwe at independence in 1980 was USD $950. In 2009, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “T”) was worth about USD $300. In the same year, a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe cost 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars (with a “B”). The tens of billions in foreign aid money has done very little to improve the lives of Africans. The reason for things falling apart in Africa is statism (the state as the principal change agent) and central planning, according to Guest. The bottom line is that the masses of Africans today are denied basic political and economic freedoms while the privileged few live the sweet life of luxury, not entirely unlike the “good old” colonial times.

Guest concludes that “Africans are poor because they are poorly governed.” The answer to Africa’s problems lies in upholding the rule of law, enforcing contracts, safeguarding property rights and putting more stock in freedom than in force. Much of Africa today is under the control of “Vampire states“. As the noted African economist George Ayittey explains, the “vampire African states” are “governments which have been hijacked by a phalanx of bandits and crooks who would use the instruments of the state machinery to enrich themselves and their cronies and their tribesmen and exclude everybody else.” (“Hyena States” would be a fitting alternative in the African landscape.) Africa is ruled by thugs in designer suits who buy votes and loyalties with cash handouts.

Things have fallen apart in Africa for a long time because of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, communism, tribalism, ethnic chauvinism… neoliberalism, globalism and what have you. Things are in total free fall in Africa today because Africa has become a collection of vampiric states ruled by kleptocrats who have sucked it dry of its natural and human resources. It is easy to blame the white man and his colonialism, capitalism and all the other “isms” for Africa’s ailments, but as Cassius said to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The fault is not in the African people, the African landscape or skyscape. Africa is rich and blessed with natural and human resources. The fault is in the African brutes and their vampiric regimes.

A room for two refugees in Shamshuipo: bunkbed, chair, storage and kitchen.
A room for two refugees in Shamshuipo: bunkbed, chair, storage and kitchen.

Refugees denied the right to work

Jan 7th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

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

The Court of First Instance ruled yesterday that the government had no obligation to allow certified refugees to work in Hong Kong, even if they suffer mental illnesses as a result of not being able to gain employment. The judgment dismissed the claims of five mandated refugees and successful torture claimants who have been in Hong Kong for up to nine years but have failed to find a host country to resettle them. The decision means they will remain here in limbo – dependent on social services and with no path to citizenship in Hong Kong. Two have been diagnosed with depression and another with post traumatic stress disorder, owing to their inability to work and provide for themselves and their families. Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung acknowledged that refusing to allow someone to work could amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and thus violate a basic human right. Nevertheless, he said the director of immigration had full discretion to grant the right to work on a case-by-case basis. Immigration had never given permission to work in this situation, the judge said in November. He said yesterday: “It is for the decision maker, but not the court, to make the decision. The court must not usurp the role of the director.” Cheung said that the Bill of Rights – which enshrines human rights in Hong Kong – does not apply to the applicants because they do not have the legal right to enter and remain in the city; they are allowed here temporarily. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly, solicitor for the applicants, said the ruling showed the judiciary was becoming increasingly unreceptive to human rights arguments. He noted recent High Court decisions to deny transsexuals the right to marry, and to allow the deportation of Edward Wilson Ubamaka to Nigeria where he could be prosecuted for a crime for which he has already served jail time. “Without the judiciary breathing life into the Basic Law and these human rights instruments, government power will remain basically unchecked,” Daly said. “I think it leads to bad – or no – policies because effectively they’re given carte blanche to do whatever they want to do.” The government had argued that granting work rights to refugees, even those whose claims of persecution and torture had been validated, would attract more people with questionable claims to take a chance on coming to Hong Kong. Cheung said the director of immigration was entitled to think that any sign of relaxation in the government’s attitude would be a “ray of hope” for illegal immigrants.

A VF Member happily resettled
A VF Member happily resettled

2010 Year End Report

Dec 31st, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

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.

Our promotional table at the Children Charity Carnival
Our promotional table at the Children Charity Carnival

Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network – Bangkok 2010

Dec 30th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

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 ( 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.

Group photo of the delegates in Bangkok

2011 Center and Shelters

Dec 25th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

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.

VF Center
102 First Street, Sai Ying Poon ... soon to be made famous!

Social work studies

Dec 21st, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

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!

Doulle social worker

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.

Human cargo

Dec 12th, 2010 | Advocacy | Comment

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.

Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei
Nighttime outreach in Lam Tei

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)

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