According to the Immigration Department’s “Guidelines for Entry for Residents as Dependents” the processing time for dependent visas is six weeks upon receipt of all required documents. But, as nothing is easy for refugees, after they marry resident spouses, they often wait years, during which time they are subjected to intense scrutiny in order to counter sham marriages.
Vision First frequently receives complaints from refugee husbands frustrated with Immigration Department procedures that delay the issuance of dependent visas. It could be argued that requisite documents were not fully submitted, but applicant wives confirm that at times the same documents are frequently requested over and over.
In most cases the problem is not that visas are denied, but there appears to be a sort of informal “Marriage Stress Test” that couples need to pass. This theory postulates that couples are subjected to heightened anxiety to assess the genuineness of relationship, despite couples already having children.
Several conclusions can be made in this regard. One is that such ‘waiting time’ unfairly strains family resources as working mothers are compelled to single-handedly carry the economic burden. These long waits in fact punish Hong Kong citizens for marrying refugees. Second, financial hardship causes confrontations that might lead to divorce, thereby possibly erroneously skewing statistics to prove that refugee/residents marriages do not last and refugees are undeserving of dependent visas.
Third, in the blog “HKSAR fails to safeguard the rights of (some) resident children” we shared the story of families condemned to perpetual welfare because Immigration refused visas that would allow refugee husbands to earn a living. In such cases the mothers’ income failed to meet the financial criteria for dependent visas. A paradoxical situation then arises in which HKSAR pays for welfare and children suffer economically and scholastically because of failures in assessing the bigger picture.
The blog stated that “there are 100 children born to mixed-status parents whose families do not benefit from paternal support because visas are unreasonably delayed over two years – when not rejected. These biased delays and denials appear to violate resident children’s rights without evaluating the consequences on their development and its detrimental long-term social impact.” Rules and regulations should be formulated to assist citizens, not hold them back.
Here we present the story of Immanuel and his father. Immanuel’s permanent residence was established at birth through his mother Cecilia, while his father Yaovi still doesn’t have a dependent visa four years after their wedding. Yaovi sought asylum in Hong Kong a decade ago and explains that he cannot return to his motherland for political reasons. Immanuel is too young to understand that Immigration denied his parents’ application and consequently the options that will be available to the family in future.
While it is understandable that the Immigration Department has rules to follow, Immanuel’s father doesn’t have a passport and in fact, like many refugees fleeing in a hurry, arrived with the assistance of a middleman and never saw the document used to secure his boarding pass in 2006. However, in order to get his visa granted, he is apparently required to have a passport.
“How can I return home to get a new passport?” Yaovi laments “I fled my country for fear of torture and persecution and now Hong Kong Immigration wants me to go back and get a passport so that a dependent visa can be stuck in it. What’s the logical of that? Do they want me to get killed there?”
There are many legal considerations to be made, but at this point the debate could swing from a rigid immigration stance to a more humanitarian viewpoint. Noteworthy is that certain facts remained unchanged for eight years during which Yaovi suffered the culture of rejection that even blocked his passage through the only pathway to residence opened to refugees, namely, marriage with a resident spouse.
Immanuel speaks fluent Cantonese and is kind and polite even among new faces. He is a Hong Kong permanent resident who doesn’t understand that his father is the victim of administrative myopia that condemned him to perpetual welfare for technical reasons. A rigid decision was made to stick to regulations without evaluating the deleterious effect of forced unemployment on a husband and of perpetual marginalization on a father.
This protracted stalemate can only be ended by Hong Kong reviewing requirements for exceptional cases. It should be clear after eight years that Yaovi is here to stay and cannot risk returning to his country to satisfy immigration requirements. Immigration Department should consider issuing dependent visas to refugee spouses within a clear timeframe while making provisions for those who have no passport, in an age in which visa labels are no longer printed in many developed countries.
The number of foreign domestic helpers (FDH) applying for asylum in Hong Kong has apparently grown in the past years. Some commentators argue it is indicative of asylum abuse, as the 14-day rule to find a new employer weights too heavily on domestic workers who are fired or decide to change their employer. In many cases, workers unable to return to their homeland become visa overstayers.
It is easy to dismiss domestic workers as not meeting the acceptable criteria of protection claimants fleeing persecution to seek sanctuary in our city. Given their number they are consequently refused services to an acceptable level causing great immiseration. Since Hong Kong Immigration failed to identify a single Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi refugee 22 years of CAT screening, presumably the bias against maids from Indonesia is even stronger.
Nonetheless, hundreds of domestic workers genuinely fear returning home where they might face cruel and inhuman treatment or persecution. They frequently make this agonizing decision despite, and at times precisely because of, families left behind, including children they might not see for a very long time and often abusive husbands they might not have chosen as spouses, who push them to remit money.
Refugee Union members, whom Vision First has learnt to listen to in recent months, clearly note that maids’ entry into asylum is neither entirely an economic decision – they are aware they could be jailed for up to three years for working – nor obviously a welfare choice, as clearly the assistance provided is inferior to the help they would get in home villages, or even retaining legal status in Hong Kong. Further, many former domestic workers avoid surrendering to authorities for years, for fear of being hastily deported, and thus enjoy no benefits at all.
Maids are often drawn into the asylum sphere for several reasons. One most commentators and employers are concerned about is that they are hardly just workers, but are also women, endeavoring to foster human relations in a setting that clearly aims to dehumanize their femininity. Dating between foreign domestic workers and refugees is natural as both groups are shunned by local residents.
Most importantly, when pregnancies occur, couples are oddly caught by surprise and the mothers, often abandoned by partners, realize the gravity of the unexpected situation. Even if the mothers were not married in Indonesia and don’t have children, they know that cultural, religious and social norms prohibit liaisons. Thus returning home with babies born out of wedlock and particularly with a darker completion, is taboo and an unforgivable sin.
Further, although the consequences might not be as radical as honour killings in other South Asian countries, persecution by some family members, including disgraced parents, present and former husbands and religious and social leaders is likely a guarantee.
Where love does not condemn domestic workers to the hell of asylum, it is money that blocks their options of returning home honorably. In order to secure a job overseas, foreign domestic workers frequently incur considerable debt amounting to several tens of thousands of dollars. This is money that is loaned, often by loan sharks, at time mortgaging ancestral homes, and necessarily needs to be repaid quickly to avoid incurring skyrocketing interest fees. After a few years personal loans transform into savage extortion unserviceable by a maid’s salary.
Debt-bondage is a reality many readily accept as a necessary step to keep maids in check and easily exploit their compliant labour. However, when they lose their job, death threats are frequently uttered by frustrated husbands who remain at home and are easily targeted by loan sharks and assorted debt collectors. Face is also compromised, whereby families send daughters overseas to earn good wages and failure becomes a family embarrassment. Some daughters run from fixed marriage prospects and Skype their families only when in Hong Kong to learn they will be welcome only as long as they contribute to the finances of the family they abandoned in the first place.
Refugee Union members explained that most foreign domestic workers would rather get another job than return empty handed to face insurmountable loans and humiliation. Additionally, the rule is that after three termination Immigration will not allow a fourth, leaving them with few viable options.
In light of cumbersome and unrealistically narrow visa regulations for domestic workers and limited asylum welfare, could it be that their entry into asylum is not unanticipated asylum abuse, but rather an intended consequence to avail employers of informal labour while also claiming that Hong Kong should stand firm in denying asylum because the system is being abused?
What appears clear thus far is that former domestic workers have serious and valid reason to seek protection with Hong Kong authorities, at the very least because this city plays an active role in inviting over 300,000 maids to assist local families. Is it reasonable to presume that not a single maid would face persecution when removed and thus should not be granted asylum in Hong Kong?
2014 has been a year of notable changes. This momentous year started with the government introducing an enhanced welfare package that anyone with a fair economic sense found insulting: rent assistance was limited to 1500$ (cage homes cost 2400$) and refugees remained exploited in slums. Meanwhile emergency food rations continued to suffer a mysterious 40% reduction in value.
The refugee community was unwilling to accept such dire conditions and established the Refugee Union to gain collective power and counter a state of oppression. In July 2014 the Hong Kong public, as well as local and international media, are increasingly aware of the social injustice that affects 6000 protection claimants. It is hoped that the authorities will formulate policy changes to meet legitimate demands.
Vision First was dissatisfied with palliative welfare enhancements that other observers described as welcome changes without calculating the economic impossibility cast upon refugees who are neither adequately supported, nor allowed employment. In our view, nothing less than sweeping policy changes will blot out the shame Hong Kong Government has brought upon itself in this field.
Taking a big picture approach, Vision First evaluates its programs and activities not for their benefits to a few hundred refugees who can afford bus fares to our centre, but for their impact on the whole refugee community. In this respect, it is increasingly less relevant, and certainly less gratifying, to provide limited assistance to a minority when the majority face agonizing hardship alone, beyond the reach of the NGO network.
This strategy led to the suspension of a 200$ cash program that was replaced by ISS-HK providing upfront travelling cash to all refugees; it prompted the closure of our shelter that compelled ISS-HK to settle scores of claimants in guesthouses; it organized slum-living refugees to request security deposits to rent basic legal housing; and it mobilized refugees to take directly to the SWD head-quarters as ISS-HK had no credible complaint mechanism.
In July 2014 Vision First suspended classes and programs that do not meet the strategic objective of transforming the asylum experience for the entire refugee population. To illustrate, we stopped fundraising for kindergarten fees, but obtained assurance the Education Department would waive fees for all preschoolers. Rather than closing glaring gaps in welfare provision, we aim to empower refugees towards self-reliance on the principle that nobody should be reduced to begging in Asia’s World City.
By walking a mile in their shoes, we evaluate refugee services according their real-world impact within the harsh environment of scarce assistance, punitive sentences for working illegally and the general impotence of charities on which the government expects refugees to rely upon. In this respect, we estimate that 150 million HKD in essential services are lacking, or 2000$ a month per claimant.
This questions the significance of Vision First raising one-percent of such a shortfall to fractionally meet the daily needs of a small minority, when thousands of men, women and children wallow in abject destitution. If meaning is to be found in our work, it must take a broad outlook and we call this new strategy TRIPLE A – Advocacy, Activism and Advice.
Advocacy has been our focus for two years as we merge deep relationships within the refugee community with a determination to become together a force for change. Activism was strengthened by occupation movements as well as the logistical support to the Refugee Union. Advice is emerging as a third vital lactivity as Vision First mediates refugees’ troubles with government departments, while empowering individuals to speak for themselves and remove ineffective NGO filtering.
2014 already witnessed a shift in consciousness within the refugee population. By developing advocacy, activism and advice, Vision First is confident of releasing the inherent potential of assertive refugees who will in turn motivate and mobilized the broader community to push for long overdue policy, welfare and ethical changes.
Following successful participation in a rally on World Refugee Day, from Fanling to Tuen Mun there is remarkable demand to join the Refugee Union. The Refugee Union appears to have planted a seed that might just develop into the best hope for its members to engage the government and become stakeholders in their future. A protester observed, “We are at the bottom of the pile and cannot fall any lower. Hong Kong has to respect our rights and understand that we are also human beings.”
The office of the Chief Executive of HKSAR acknowledged receipt of the Refugee Union petition requesting urgent changes to an unbearable welfare system that provides insufficient assistance while also denying the right to work. Such polices create a toxic environment in which 6000 individuals are suffering under the indifferent eyes of the local population and most civil society organizations.
Although immediate changes are not expected, the Refugee Union sent a clear and loud message to authorities that the present asylum system is unfair and unfit to provide either safety to those in need of protection, or humanitarian assistance to those who are hungry, homeless and destitute.
Further, the union unexpectedly motivated refugees to take pride in their status. As a protesting mother explained having never previously told her children that they are refugees, fearing local children would bully them, for refugees are widely viewed as lacking cultural capital and being socially different. By contrast, on World Refugee Day, she stood proud in the first rows holding hands with her children now cognizant of their status.
On World Refugee Day, for the first time refugees spoke for themselves. It was not a lawmaker or NGO leader who wrote and presented the petition to Hong Kong Government, but the Refugee Union itself. Many observers wrongly assume that refugees are incapable of persuasively articulating reasonable demands. Instead, the significance of this event will not be lost on those who witnessed self-empowered, self-motivated and self-reliant individuals stand up proudly and speak up against abuse.
It is hardly deniable that a wave of empowerment is sweeping the refugee community such as was hard to predict before the electrifying demonstration to Government Headquarters. There is growing discontent against the dysfunctional asylum process and at some point the authorities will have to come to grips with a reality that can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet of indifference.
Many refugees have started to think strategically about the Refugee Union’s accomplishments, mission and future. A ten-year veteran refugee, who never before participated in rights movements sent a Whatsapp message vividly expressing this new spirit of self-reliance:
“I have some strategic planning for the Union that I would like to discuss. It is divided into the following very important three areas that are required according to my research. Where are we know? The Union needs to review its strategic position and clarify its mission, vision and values. Where are we going? The union needs to establish its competitive advantage and its objectives. How will we get there? The Union needs to lay out the road to connect to where it is going. The Union needs to set is strategic objectives, goals, action items and how it will execute its plans.”
This year World Refugee Day was very different than previously. In the past, the day set aside internationally to celebrate refugees was invariably marked by stylish fundraising activities. The result was that refugee agency was inevitably underplayed, if not for their colourful diversity and extraneousness displayed to locals who perceived a hint of exotic in their otherwise mainstream existence.
While such diversity may indeed be worthy of exposition, the rationale supporting this strategy often collided with the best interests of refugees, who are often presented as victims needing our assistance to survive in our expensive and indifferent city.
Against this disheartening backdrop, the newly-formed Refugee Union resolved to take ownership of World Refugee Day and called for Asia’s World City to uphold refugee rights that are generally ignored and often grossly violated in the face of international treaties and domestic law.
For the first time, Hong Kong refugees organized themselves to draw attention to their plight and demand policy changes to address the abject poverty and social isolation they endure in the shadows. They claim that the current asylum system is as arbitrary as it is irrational. Nobody can be reasonably expected to subsist on fractional welfare for years without the right to work.
In developed countries asylum seekers are granted work rights if immigration authorities are unable to determine claims within a reasonable time. This is considered rational even in countries where levels of welfare do not immiserate refugees at 25% below the poverty line as they do in Hong Kong.
At some point Hong Kong Government must come to terms with the asylum paradox and, either meet refugees’ basic needs in full as required by law – no matter the cost – or grant temporary employment rights and reduce the burden on financial and welfare resources. The right choice seems logical enough.
Until that day, the refugee community will find growing solidarity in the Refugee Union that already authoritatively represents the rights and interests not only of its 350 members (100 asked to join at the rally), but of 6000 protection claimant who stoically await the overwhelmingly negative decisions on their claims.
Yesterday over 400 refugees gathered at Central Ferry Piers under the emblem of the Refugee Union. Four full busses departed distant villages in the New Territory to bring along those who demanded the right to speak out and to be heard. The protesters were a fair representation of the nationality that seek sanctuary here. For the first time, an Imam led Salaat-ul-Jumma, to sanctify the historical occasion.
In the spirit of unity, African drummers joined the rhythm of a Pakistani dhol to play with contagious enthusiasm for the entire demonstration that participants said was ‘an outstanding performance of vitality and energy’. As a deluge broke out, refugees danced together under cover to express unity in a bourgeoning quest for self-reliance.
Importantly, protesters chanted against exploitation and demanded work rights that most onlookers take totally for granted. Few spectators grasp the fact that to seek protection in this international financial centre is to become a reviled pariah.
“We want justice” called out men and women who experience the greatest unfairness Hong Kong dishes out on any social group. As many refugees cleverly argued, the economic predicament endured by refugees is so blatantly unconstitutional that it’s hard to believe authorities aren’t ashamed of this state of affairs. Turning a blind eye to injustice for too long leads to the very structural discrimination that plagues the asylum sphere. For refugees the future is now at stake.
The Refugee Union is resolved to change this shameful state of affairs for the simple reason that members have no way back and no viable way forward. Outspoken refugees are now telling their narrative in large number and expressing themselves with articulate clarity.
It is true that some refugees are happy with the status quo and hide in sheltered comfort zones. But even they surely realize the uncertainty of their status cannot offset the risk they may one day be arrested in the street or have their case unfairly rejected.
Increasing numbers of refugees understand the power they have been denied for far too long. United they have achieved what alone could never dreamed to obtain. And for this reason they are galvanized and sharing a gospel of emancipation and liberation – rusty chains are being torn apart.
On World Refugee Day 2014, a dream became a reality, and Hong Kong had a taste of what the future promises. The Refugee Union staged an event that was as empowering as it was inspiring. “We are coming out of the dark and soon everyone will see with their own eyes the result of current government policies” said a protesters as he marched proudly to Government Headquarters.
An interesting quest for self-reliance is underway.