My name is Odilon and I fled violence in my country to save my life in Hong Kong, where I am currently an asylum seeker. I arrived in early June 2014 hoping to find international protection as well as physical and psychological security. I didn’t expect to suffer great hardship without food or shelter for many weeks. I have to beg for assistance from penniless refugees to survive day by day. That’s very hard.
I don’t think it is right that Immigration Department delayed the issuance of my papers for several weeks after I surrendered as that caused me more suffering. In late July after I was issued with an Immigration recognizance form, I approached the Social Welfare Department in Yau Ma Tei, as I had no money, no food and no shelter. A refugee friend guided me there to get help.
The SWD officer photocopied my Immigration paper and said, “You must wait for maybe two months or three months.” I couldn’t believe what she said and I had no idea how to survive for three months because I am not allowed to work. I complained, “But now I don’t have place to sleep, I don’t have food. So what can I do?” She replied, “I cannot help you now. You must wait for ISS and ISS can help you.”
I told the officer that I had no money for food, but she said “I don’t care. You wait for ISS.”
I returned to SWD Yau Ma Tei twice the following weeks. I told the officer, “Now I am sick I need to go to hospital.” The officer replied that he could arranged the hospital. I told him that I was sick because I was sleeping outside and needed a place to sleep and food to eat. The officer replied that they can help with the hospital, but they cannot provide food or shelter. I was told again to wait for two or three months for assistance from ISS.
For the first time in early August I went to ISS Mongkok as many refugees I knew were assisted by them. The security guard allowed me inside even though I had no appointment. A staff took a photocopy of my Immigration form and asked me to wait. I noticed that many refugees went to that office to meet case workers and get rent and food assistance. I was hopeful that somebody would finally help me!
Later I spoke to a male case worker whose name I do not recall but with phone number 23924726. He said, “If you need emergency food, call me and I will give you.” I asked him, “If you give me emergency food, where can I eat, where can I sleep?” He replied, “Now I cannot help you. Maybe next month I can give you guesthouse.” I lamented, “I cannot wait till next month. I need help today.” He replied, “Now I cannot help you, maybe next month.” He did not give me an appointment or any further advice.
I never imagined seeking refuge in a developed and prosperous city and being made a beggar. Everywhere I go I am told they cannot help me. Everyone says that I must wait a few months. Now it has been three months and I am still sleeping in the streets. Sometimes I spend the night in Kowloon Park, other times at the Star Ferry. When I am lucky a refugee offers to share his bed, but that is only if it is raining and he has pity on me. Hong Kong is very cruel to refugees.
Newly arrived refugees are frequently arrested at work places where they attempt to earn survival money to pay for food and lodging because they do not receive government assistance. Exploitation in the informal economy compels these individuals into close to slavery conditions, often at the hands of unscrupulous co-national residents, to earn 200$ for heavy labour (loading, construction, recycling) and 100$ for light labour (washing, cooking, cleaning) from dawn till dusk.
Desperate newcomers accept such paltry payments that are considered sufficient to pay for food and lodging for a day. Clearly they are not economic migrants planning to remit savings overseas. They find accommodation with co-national refugees with whom they share food and rent. Bed spaces are typically rented for 1000$ a month and it isn’t unusual for two or three people to share a bed.
New arrivals gravitate towards the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui where they sleep rough and make the acquaintance of refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Africa – more refugees appear to be homeless than in previous years. Refugees help refugees, while residents look down on asylum seekers, particularly those from the same country, and don’t like to be seen associating with ‘paper people’.
Through networking at the bottom of the social ladder newcomers learn to apply for welfare (a process that takes 2 to 3 months) and are directed to sitting-out areas near the ISS-HK offices and food collection shops, where they connect with middlemen offering work as well as room and board. The informal economy redirects labour quicker and more efficiently than the authorities process indigent refugees who might have spent as much as 40,000 HKD and incurred debts to reach safety.
“Only bring yourself and leave your bags ashore” refugees are told when boarding illegal speedboats that ply the waters between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Luggage that had been carried a long distance is abandoned on the Chinese coast. With expressions such as “God will help me” passengers depart with nothing more than the clothes they are wearing and wallets emptied along a journey of exploitation. Once in Hong Kong, newcomers must work for food and lodging as well as to buy clothes and shoes.
The late filing of asylum claims by new arrivals is cited by authorities as evidence of deviancy and proof that ‘bogus’ claimants arrived with intentions other than international protection. While this might sometimes be true, foreigners project on local police experiences of brutality that related to victims being beaten, robbed and framed with fake charges by policemen in their countries of origin.
To delay filing is also a survival strategy rooted in the inadequacy of welfare for refugees. It is well-known that the assistance package provided by SWD fails to meet basic needs and that refugees must consequently earn a living somehow. New arrivals learn quickly that if they are arrested working as overstayers they will be sentenced to 3 months jail, but as registered refugees to 15 months. No right-minded person would accept a 15 months prison sentence where 3 months are possible.
In the words of a refugee, “If you have Immigration paper then you get no concession, you must go to jail for 15 months. But if you don’t have paper then you get 3 months sentence and after pleading guilty and cutting one third, you serve just 2 months. Also sometimes police make arrest of overstayers with little evidence and send them directly to CIC. But if you are refugee you must be go to court and then jail” It should then come as no surprise that savvy refugees work this reality to their advantage.
Further, it is reported that after the expiration of tourist visas, Immigration delays registering new protection claimants for several weeks with excuses ranging from the unavailability of interpreters to a backlog of cases. It could be speculated that there is a malicious intention to deliberately delay the process with the aim of postponing the engagement of government services, including welfare, as refugees cannot approach the Social Welfare Department without Immigration papers.
Without being conspiratorial, there is evidence suggesting there are opposing forces at play that disadvantage first attempts to seek asylum in Hong Kong. Delays in acknowledging claims, processing newcomers and rendering welfare services exacerbate the vulnerability of asylum seekers who then break the law by working only to be arrested with a view to quashing their claims and deporting them.
Are these the high standards of fairness that Hong Kong Government should ensure?
Seeking asylum in Hong Kong is an unpleasant experience particularly for new arrivals who receive no official guidance and no government welfare for several months. There is no intake process to evaluate vulnerability and assess the need for emergency assistance. Instead the assumption is made that new refugees will independently secure food, shelter, clothing, transport fares and other basic needs.
It is unclear which welfare principles the authorities adopt to abandoned stranded foreigners to their own devices after warning they will be jailed for 15 months if arrested working. Hong Kong government unreasonably expects that new refugees have the resources and capacity to be self-sufficient for up to 3 months when actually entitled to welfare from the moment they are released on recognizance.
Vision First has frequently reported that the current intake arrangements by SWD and ISS-HK are wholly inadequate and cause vulnerable refugees great distress: “CIC was heaven, I shouted at ISS” (16 Aug 2014); “Failed intake system alienates new arrivals” (12 Jun 2014); “Hong Kong needs a reception strategy for refugees” (16 Jan 2014); “Hong Kong needs welfare services for new arrivals” (13 Dec 2013). Although dozens of refugees have been settled in guesthouses, there seem to be no guidelines to prevent new refugee homelessness.
“My eyes and neck are hurting after sleeping in the park for days,” Mohammed said at the Refugee Union protest camp. “Yesterday I went to the hospital because my stomach was paining too much after eating bad food. I lost much weight since I arrived in Hong Kong as I don’t have enough food to eat. I don’t know what to do anymore because the UNHCR said they have no more power and it is up to the Hong Kong government to provide assistance.”
In August 2013 Mohammed fled the Central African Republic after surviving the genocide of his minority group. Many of his friends and family were not so lucky. He sought asylum in Cameroon where his life was still in danger, though he explains, “The living conditions there were better than in Hong Kong. I had a place to stay and food to eat. I can say that the UNHCR in Cameroon is much better than UNHCR in Hong Kong.”
Mohammed shares the misconception that the UNHCR is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of refugees worldwide, including Hong Kong. He cannot understand why it took Immigration two months to issue him papers and why he had to travel five times to Kowloon Bay to be told to return the following week when he was destitute. Only after begging to be arrested so he could eat and sleep in prison, was he provided with a recognizance form.
Mohammed took the document to the SWD in Yau Ma Tei thinking that his ordeal was over and he would receive welfare at last. Instead he reports being told by an SWD officer, “It is not possible to get service now. You must wait for ISS to call you. There are many asylum seekers to process and you have to wait two or three months before you can get assistance.” He notes that no inquiries were made about his health and living conditions.
Mohammed was angry and couldn’t imagine how he would endure three more months in the street. Irritated he asked the SWD officer, “This is not possible. For two or three months where am I going to stay? What am I going to eat?” The officer seemed unconcerned and indifferent to his suffering. The officer repeated that ISS was too busy and ISS would call him in two to three months. The following weeks, on several occasions, Mohammed returned to SWD begging for help and was told that it was not the SWD’s duty to provide these services and that he had to wait for ISS-HK to assist him. He was never offered any emergency food.
Homelessness is rough and distressing for refugees who cannot access SWD shelters that are reserved for residents. Mohammed learnt from refugees the few options he had: if the weather is good, there is Kowloon Park and the Cultural Center by the Star Ferry; if it is raining, there are McDonald stores and doorways around the Chung King Mansions area. The last ten days of Ramadan were the most comfortable as the Kowloon mosque remained open at night and the faithful were welcomed to spend the night.
When will Hong Kong government address the suffering newly arrived refugees endure?
On 15 August 2014, Vision First secured the release of a female Nepali national (“Nepali lady”) who sought refuge in Hong Kong in February 2014 and was detained at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (“CIC”). Despite holding a tourist visa to enter the city legally, she was refused entry, and instead was arrested and immediately transferred to CIC detention where she was arbitrarily detained for almost six months.
The Nepali lady had never previously visited Hong Kong and therefore the bases of her non-refoulement claims were unknown to Immigration when she was placed under administrative detention. It appears that Immigration ignored the Court of Final Appeal Judgment of Ghulam Rbani v Secretary for Justice (FACV 15 of 2013). This judgment holds Immigration duty bound to decide with reasonable diligence and expedition whether a decision on a non-refoulement claim can be reached within a reasonable time and, if not, to release claimants on recognizance.
The Notices on Detention handed to CIC detainees state: “Detention must be justified with sufficient reasons and for a period which is reasonable in all circumstances. Reasonable alternatives will be considered before detention is authorized. No one shall be subject to arbitrary detention. The power to detain must only be used for specific purposes for which it is authorized and its exercise must be justified on proper grounds.”
The Nepali lady’s monthly “Notices of Detention” stated the grounds for her detention:
- Your torture claim may be decided within a reasonable time in the foreseeable future;
- You may abscond;
- There are no justifying circumstances in favour of your release.
The notices inform that the decision was reached on the basis of the following factors:
- On preliminary vetting of available information, it appears that your claim may be one which can be decided within a reasonable time in the foreseeable future;
- You do not have fixed abode or close connections (e.g. family or friends) in Hong Kong to make it likely that you will be easily located if released.
Did Immigration have reasonable grounds to detain this refugee for almost half a year?
After one single screening interview, on 6 June 2014 the Immigration Department issued a Notice of Decision stating that the Maoist war was over; the violence her family suffered at the hands of members of the Maoists was “purely a criminal act”; her view that “the Nepali police will not take action against the Maoists is assessed to be not reliable”, and “it is not unreasonable for you to relocate to areas in your country to lower or negate the perceived risk upon your return to Nepal”. The Nepali lady justifiably did not accept this decision and on 20 June filed an appeal with the Torture Claims Appeal Board.
Did Immigration attempt to fast-track this claim inside detention and away from the public eye?
On 7 August 2014 documents relating to this case reached Vision First and one week later the Nepali lady was released from detention. Vision First is gravely concerned that for almost six months Immigration denied this helpless and highly vulnerable protection claimant her liberty and refused her requests to be released. Further, it is regrettable that the Duty Lawyer Service lawyer (name withheld), who advised the Nepali lady on her non-refoulement claim, did not apply by way of a writ of habeas corpus to secure her freedom.
The Immigration Department aims to meet the high standards of fairness required by the Unified Screening Mechanism, but ultimately its credibility stands or falls on implementation, not promise. When a highly vulnerable and uninformed newcomer such as the Nepali lady is summarily incarcerated and denied some of her constitutional rights, a dark shadow of distrust is cast upon the entire asylum process.
Quote: “This summer has seen a spike. It has been particularly busy,” said a police source, adding that the authorities were “very confident” they were catching all migrants after they landed on the west and south coasts of Lantau during the night.
Question: Why are migrants apprehended after landing? Wouldn’t it be easier for authorities to coordinate with their Chinese counterparts to stop the inflow in the first place?
Quote: “After the end of the civil war on the mainland in 1949, an estimated million people poured across the border, often using boats or even swimming. Although illegal, many were allowed to stay to help ease labour shortages.”
Question: Shouldn’t a parallel be made with the current situation, whereby demand for unskilled, low-paid, uninsured and disposable labour affects our economy? Could peak arrivals be correlated with labour shortages troubling Hong Kong?
Newly arrived refugees discover that Hong Kong is inhospitable and indifferent to suffering when released from Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (“CIC”). Upon gaining their freedom, refugees might be thrilled to leave prison behind and might not yet appreciate the benefits they enjoyed, namely, three meals a day, clean bed and clothes, companionship and air-conditioning.
On 19 July 2014, Adnan was released from CIC onto the streets of Hong Kong with an Immigration recognizance form and a stark warning that he would be jailed for 15 months if arrested working. The prohibition was impressed upon him repeatedly and Adnan was surprised to sign a document confirming his undertaking as he hadn’t fled East Africa with dreams of lucrative employment.
Adnan spent 108 days in detention, for which incidentally he will claim over 70,000$ compensation, and had learned about the host city and what to expect since there wouldn’t be a welcoming party for him outside the prison gates. He didn’t yet realize how much his well-being in a developed city would depend on resilience and survival skills gained in a third-world country.
In CIC Adnan was visited by staff of ISS-HK who eventually acted as guarantor after learning that he didn’t know anyone in Hong Kong. Adnan appreciated the unexpected assistance and was told that ISS-HK would meet his basic needs as he was banned from working. On 22 July he visited ISS-HK at the Prince Edward branch and his hopes were dashed when he was told, “You have to wait two to three months and after we will call you as there are many people before you.”
Adnan had been homeless for three days and was hungry. In shock he replied, “What are you saying? How can I live because the Government doesn’t allow me to work and I signed that I will go to jail for 15 months if I work? If you cannot take my responsibility, why you take my guarantee?” He complained, “This is not what you promised me. How can ISS guarantee my release and not give me assistance? Because I am human I have to eat. How can I live?”
Either by design or inefficiency, the Social Welfare Department together with their contractor ISS-HK appear unwilling to remedy the lengthy delay refugees endure before welfare is first provided. Considering the government’s significant resources, it isn’t unlikely that this highly vulnerable group is made destitute by design to maximize self-reliance (i.e. begging) before an inadequate welfare safety net catches their fall.
On 30 July at the Skyline Tower Immigration offices Adnan met his duty lawyer who then asked him to collect transport money from ISS-HK. A few hours later he was back at ISS-HK and produced the documents entitling him to the bus fare. To his disbelief he was told, “You have no case worker, how can we give you money?” Adnan felt that ISS-HK was toying with him and noticed the irony of a situation in which he had a duty lawyer, but had no place to sleep, no food and no bus money.
Unimpressed with such incompetence Adnan’s indignation rose and ISS-HK responded by calling the police to remove him. His file was transferred to the ISS-HK branch in Mongkok, where a day later he encountered the same ineptitude and again the police was called when he expressed his displeasure. “I understand how the system is going on” he laments “ISS guaranteed my release but now they just take salary like the duty lawyer and refuse to give me something to eat.”
Enlightened by hardship this perceptive and assertive refugee explains, “I have a mind. I understand that I have a duty lawyer that push my case. How much money do they pay her? But they don’t give me food? I don’t have the necessary to live, shelter, what I need to eat, but ISS has salary. That is what I am surprised! How can I live like this? They think I don’t need to eat?”
Adnan explains, “I am a technician for aluminum frames and glass. I can cut mirror glass so many sheets in one hour. In one hour I can cut ten mirrors! I can easily make money to survive, but I cannot work as a refugee. Inside CIC I had place to sleep, I eat three times, the machine wash my clothes, I play basketball every afternoon and now look at me … I am a homeless beggar!”
Hong Kong’s culture of rejection made a rapid impression on this young man. “I know the system” he elucidates “They punish you for coming here, so you don’t call others to come to Hong Kong. Me I understand this when they asked me, ‘Who called you to Hong Kong?’ They want to know if anyone told me to come, but I came by myself to save my life. I don’t know what I will do truly!”
“When I see the situation, it is true that in CIC at 9pm I sleep like a baby. How do I sleep in garden (Kowloon Park)? It is very hot. ISS has the power but they don’t know how to use it. God willing, I wish they give the power to somebody else who knows how to use it. This is the problem with the refugee situation here. ISS say to me ‘There are many people before you’ but how do they know my situation? I don’t have the necessary for life. How can I live? If they have too many new people they must organize. ‘CIC WAS HEAVEN!’ I shouted to ISS”.