One of the things that we existential psychologists take seriously is the existence of evil in the world. It is so painful for me when I become aware of how much evil and pain is perpetrated in the world for various reasons. The pain is such that I prefer not to think about most of the time. When I do take time to think about it, I am baffled, angry and exasperated with how much trauma and suffering is inflicted by a few upon so many, while it takes legions of heroic individuals to help just a few of these victims. It makes little sense to me. The philosophic and theological answers regarding free will provide me with limited comfort. What make some sense to me are the words of Viktor Frankl who taught us in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible.
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life, he can only respond by being responsible. A big part of what promotes my denial and avoidance is the sense of helplessness that I feel whenever I ponder the scope of the suffering that takes place. I hate this feeling of helplessness. Yet, it is the same helplessness that lawyers at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Center face on a regular basis. The unsung heroes and heroines at the HKRAC persist every day despite struggling with their own sense of helplessness. Often, they will take on refugee cases applying for asylum even though at the outset, they know that the case has virtually no chance of success. This also makes little sense economically. They invest significant amounts of time in these cases even though they know they will fail. Why? Why not? This is because they know that what they do is significant just because. They know that the meaning of what they do is not directly tied to the success of their applications. If they were solely dependent upon successful applications, then they’d all quit with despair. Even with successful applications, the journey is in many ways has just begun. In the words of one attorney, “you can’t control the outcome but you can give your client a good day.”
In addition to protecting the refugee’s legal rights and providing high quality legal advice, the staff members help to preserve their clients’ dignity. The briefs that they write are significant beyond the fact that they document the traumatic events that took place. Think of the vicarious trauma that the staff endures from hearing details of systemic torture and abuse that happen over and over again. The briefs are significant because they are a written record of the narrative of the suffering that has been endured. They are significant because otherwise, the suffering will be unheard, undocumented, and therefore invisible. They battle against the pain of insignificance. The applications may ultimately be unsuccessful, but their clients are nevertheless tremendously grateful that despite the evil that has been perpetrated upon them, there are others in the world who care enough to listen and bear witness to their suffering.
The attorneys not only document, but they create worth. Carl Rogers taught us that empathy dissolves alienation. Carl Jung said that schizophrenics cease to be schizophrenic when they meet other persons with whom they feel understood. Through the staffs’ patient listening and the attorneys’ attentive sifting through the stories of trauma, the briefs written are Books of Life. When successfully recognized, they provide a new chance at life. Regardless of the application result, the briefs helps to recreate meaningful existence for people whose lives have been ravaged by evil. And the amazing thing is, these highly qualified staff commit to this beautiful work for pitiful wages while living in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world. This blog is my tribute to them and my efforts to bear witness and honor the beautiful work that they do. Despite the pitifully low wages, there are deeply meaningful rewards. The staff shared one such reward with me recently when they recalled the jubilation of one of their few successful applicants. The applicant came into the office and exclaimed, “Stand Up, Now We Hug!” I imagine this being said with a heavy African accent. After years of struggle, what else can we say but “Stand Up, Now We Hug!” – Mark Yang
By Alison Gerard, Charles Sturt University and Francesco Vecchio, Monash University
You wouldn’t know it by listening to Question Time, but Australia is not the only country experiencing asylum seekers arriving by boat. Italy and Malta find themselves on the frontline of policing external EU borders against unauthorised arrivals across the Mediterranean. Malta receives the highest number of applicants for asylum per head of population in the EU. In Asia, tiny Hong Kong has been taken as a preferred destination by thousands crossing the narrow strip of sea between the former British colony and mainland China. Unauthorised border-crossing is a global phenomenon. Its varying causes however, are rarely tackled in Australian and international debates on asylum. We note the recent Houston report is almost silent on the country conditions of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. Countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka were either at war until recently or their people suffer generalised, daily violence.
Interviewing refugees who arrived by boat in Malta and Hong Kong, we found that many asylum seekers are aware of the dangers their journey will present but choose to travel anyway. In the words of one Somali refugee, “We run away from our country because any day you could die in Somalia. But you do not know when you are going to die if you travel. There is more trouble in our countries.” But this reason alone does not explain why wealthier countries witness increased numbers of people risking death as the only pathway to migration and a chance of a better life. The increase in asylum seekers arriving on Malta and Hong Kong’s shores is the result of visa requirements targeted at citizens of those countries producing higher numbers of asylum seekers, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia. If refugees are enabled to seek asylum only when outside their country of origin, but no safe haven grants them documents to safely travel to their destination, the only remaining option is to embark on unseaworthy boats.
In this light, Australia’s plans to outsource refugee obligations to countries with less geo-political muscle in the region are no solution. Refugees impeded from travelling to Australia do not stay put in their country of origin. They travel to, or end up in, alternative destinations where provisions for international protection may be lacking or weakly implemented, resulting in the increased vulnerability of asylum seekers. European states utilise “safe third country” and the Dublin II Regulation to evade their refugee protection obligations, leaving countries along EU external borders to cope with the influx. Malta houses refugees in conditions criticised by numerous human rights groups as unhygienic, isolating and over-crowded. Conditions in Greece have been characterised as tantamount to torture for returning asylum seekers. In Asia, countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and China are increasingly major destinations for asylum seekers. Extensive human rights violations against illegal populations in these countries have been documented.
Internationally, Australia’s insistence on offshore processing provides disgraceful leadership. The UK has been calling for offshore processing for some time under the auspices of “safe havens”. These would enable the UK to deport asylum seekers to an external processing site to await the restoration of stability in their country of origin. These plans set a time limit of six months. Current arrangements before Parliament have as yet no time limit. This is a paltry commitment to the Refugee Convention, particularly when Australia receives 2.5% of asylum applicants compared to other industrialised countries. Offshore processing will lead to legal uncertainty for populations of people easily identifiable as vulnerable. This impact is felt physically and mentally. Our research revealed that asylum seekers generally arrive in relatively good health. Their health rapidly deteriorates once they enter detention or are left on the verge of destitution in wealthy, industrialised nations, enduring protracted delays whilst refugee processing takes place. They are denied the freedom they aimed for, and that the 145 signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention claim to provide.
As human beings we may well understand the desire by many refugees to be reunited with family members. Unfortunately this right is in jeopardy across the globe. In Hong Kong there is no such right while the EU has introduced diluted forms of refugee protection for asylum seekers which do not include family reunion. The expert panel appear to be calling for a similar system with their recommendations to review refugee status determination in Australia. This impact can also be measured in deteriorating health, and in criminal justice prosecutions as people try to reunite with family using false documents or other means. Refugee arrivals will not stop. With these expert panel recommendations however, asylum seekers will continue to be construed as defying our rules, increasing calls for a tougher stance disguised as being humane.
Articles published in the Chinese “Oriental Daily” on 4 August 2012 – translated by Kashu Li
Interesting classes encourage inclusion into local life
It is only survival refugees asking for in Hong Kong, but now UNHCR and some NGOs could only provide limited support to them. A NGO which exclusively provide services for refugees has set up a shelter and organize interest classes and language lessons so that they could adapt to local lives, so that time is not wasted during their wait.
Vision First is the first local NGO which only focuses on serving refugees in Hong Kong. It’s shelter is located in Sai Ying Pun with more than 12 beds, facilities and furnishing are simple, but hygiene and tidy. Director Danielle Stutterd mentioned, most of the refugees are having a hard life and could not even support their own basic needs. For them, it is already very fortunate to get a place to stay at the shelter. Therefore, every one of them is disciplined. They take turns to clean up. It has been one year since the establishment of the shelter (August 2011) and there are never fights or theft. In order to foster social inclusion for the refugees, the NGO offers free interest and language classes. Susan joined a Cantonese class and has acquired basic Cantonese greetings, hoping to get along well with Hong Kongers. She even said “Leng Nui” (pretty lady) in Cantonese to reporters on scene!
There is a saying, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop” and I believe the opposite is even more true. As an asylum-seeker, I used to feel disempowered by Immigration Laws that bar employment. Coming from a country where everyone works for a living, I was forced to beg for every single dollar. After a considerable period of idleness, I concluded that in fact I wasn’t as disabled as my situation suggested. It dawned on me that I had to do something about it. I realized that I was very RICH, just not in money, but in knowledge. Following the adage, “the poor ask for more, while the rich ask for better,” I was determined to ask for better in Hong Kong - my prison without walls.
What did I have to offer? I asked myself. I had a story to share … but tell it to whom? Tell it to anybody who cares to listen. Wow!!! There you go, I had something to do. I picked up a pen and jotted down whatever entered my mind. Then I discovered the work I was fleshing out was taking form. A small voice inside me whispered, “Bravo, kept it up!” I burned the candle at both ends and knew it wasn’t fiction, but a true story, a life story – my life! As time passed, I became a veteran asylum-seeker, senior among many, and I was thankfully happy I kept busy. In December 2007 I completed my first booklet and called it: “The Life of an asylum-seekers in Hong Kong“. Writing kept me so busy I hardly kept track of my refugee claim. After the Asia Human Rights Commission published it, I was invited to talk about my experience at several institutions, including Hong Kong International School, Chinese University, Hong Kong University and Baptist University. These were wonderful opportunities to meet students, teachers and many people from all walks of life. It was a two-ways street of learning, I learnt from them, while they learnt from me. Especially meaningful was meeting Prof.Gordon Mathews (Globalization) and Prof. Christophe (Political Violence & Human Rights ) with whom friendship developed.
I never stopped counting my blessings. While writing, I also studied anthropology and improved my English. Moreover, I thought about the poor kids in my homeland who had no school, and therefore no education. Before coming here, I dreamed of founding a school to help the poorest children prepare for the future. In my country, following prolonged civil war, there is a large street community of women and children with no hope for the future. I wanted to help them, so I looked for donations to set up something. I must thank Crossroads International that donated more than what I asked for. They helped fulfill my dream of opening a primary school – thank you Begbies and all their staff!
As a Christian I realize my blessings cannot be counted. All along I have been involved with St. Andrews, which is my home away from home. They keep me strong in many more ways than just spiritual. My church is a big family where everyone is welcomed and treated equally. I help them lead the International Fellowship Ministry which caters to refugees stranded in Hong Kong. Through my ministry I really learnt to love my neighbors as myself. A big thanks to Vicar John Manear, Rev. Wing On Pang, David Brittel, Vivian, Shirley and all my brothers and sisters in Christ. No matter what your life circumstances are, living means interacting with people. I had the privilege to meet a great gentleman I will never forget all my life - the late Rev. Tan Chi Kiong. He was the founder of YMCA Hong Kong. Actually, he was like a grandfather to me, a man of great wisdom who encouraged my second Book “Africasia Alike” (soon to be published). May the Lord God rest his soul in eternal life!
Further, I have always thought it important to dress well, much to the surprise of who thinks I have a respectable job. Thankfully there are charities that offer quality clothing through community’s generosity. Also, Prof. Mathew provided computers to his refugee students and Mr. Vision First (Cosmo) always helps with my monthly costs, including offering internet access to keep me informed. Thanks to you all! There are many other individuals who helped me think positively during seven, disheartening years of asylum. They are counselors, Madam Betty Mok at UNHCR and Mr. John at Christian Actions. I went through terrible times and couldn’t have coped without their kind, professional help. I spoke at a couple of movie openings and met my favorite movie star – Jacky Chan – who signed the shirt I was wearing and still keep as a souvenir. Finally, my friend Judith Mackay of Globalink Hong Kong is not only a mentor in the tobacco field, but also a helpful friend in my protracted need. Always aiming to keep busy with every opportunity, I completed ten training modules from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (Global Tobacco Control) and won a Poetry Competition with “Sense of Asylum”.
I wrote this blog to encourage my friends who are struggling as refugees. May you stand strong, take heart and never lose hope in your darkest nights. While waiting in desperate inactivity, never feel useless and never, ever allow anyone to make you feel worthless. Being a refugee is not your fault. There is dignity to be found in our suffering and, far from being disabled, there is much we can offer the community. By keeping busy and actively engaging people, you can transcend the trauma and memories that hold you back. It takes effort. It takes courage. We can make the transformation when we put our mind to it. God has a plan for you – get up, go out and discover for yourself what his plan is!
Lakony Wilson DD (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’m young Somalian Refugee in Africa, I read about Vision First. I really love the way there working for refugee in Hong Kong. I have a lot of problems personally my country. One day to another day is always going on war here. Al shabaab group is killing people with out any thinking about it. Only killing people. I’m naturally researching about refugee in Africa.
Thanks Vision First for your good work for the refugee in Hong Kong.
The day u help human beings, you will get assistance from God.
It’s been three weeks, six lessons and we’re on to a new start. This year I took part in an amazing course at SCAD Hong Kong. SCAD students met up with a group from Vision First and studied photography together. A month ago we celebrated the project showing our work to the larger communities of SCAD and Vision First. It was at that meeting that I overheard someone from Vision First say how much they would like to learn painting. One thing lead to another and today Vision First has an Art Workshop on twice week.
The Art Workshop aims at creating a community for people interested in art. It’s uniqueness is in creating a space that every participant brings his or her knowledge and ideas to the table. Unlike traditional ways of teaching it’s not only the teacher who is responsible for the content of the lesson. It’s a place to explore and learn together.
Yael Bronner Rubin is an South African- Israeli artist. She has her undergraduate degree in art and education and is currently studying for a M.F.A. at SCAD Hong Kong.
The problem with wanting to help out strangers in need is that you can’t be too introverted, nor too young. While the latter can’t really be helped, shyness can be overcome by having a friendly and warm community, something Vision First definitely has.
My name is Jun, and I am a student about to enter Grade 10 at CDNIS. Introduced to this organization by my school’s CAS coordinator, I was apprehensive while walking up the seemingly endless flights of stairs, worried that I would be intruding on the organization’s work by being an awkward, unhelpful wallflower. Needless to say, I was wrong – every single person I have met since coming here three weeks ago has been kind, friendly, funny and embracing of quiet teenagers (namely my friend, Hilda, and I). Before volunteering here, I never recognized the plight of refugees in Hong Kong – having focused mostly on helping locals living under the poverty line prior to working here, it came as a shock that so many people were stranded here without government support.
As an organization, VF serves to provide this very support to refugees in need, collecting donations, organizing summer programs, serving meals, supplying medical facilities and much more, but I believe it does much, much more. From what little I have seen, every member, worker and volunteer here makes up a huge family of sorts, and I am so glad to have been able to work here. The work this organization does is admirable and inspiring not just because it provides things for people in need, but because it facilitates a safe environment where people from all around the world are able to talk, socialize and learn from each other, something that many charities neglect to do and provide. Instead of just providing provisional services, it helps members build experience and friendships to make their long, difficult stays in Hong Kong enlightening and worthwhile ones, giving them emotional as well as financial support. Never have I seen an organization that is run by the same people it helps, and never would I have been able to fathom this type of system existing, however my time here has truly helped me rethink old ideas on how people in need should be helped. Too often are refugees overshadowed by other areas of concern for the government, and there are very little organizations that aim to help these people, however after watching Vision First’s operations and way of helping people, I have renewed faith that one day, everyone in Hong Kong will live equally without fear of unfair prosecution.
As a volunteer, I’ve done work from designing a birthday cake for VF’s 3rd birthday to finding contact details for restaurants and fairs to making advertisements for books – it’s been a fun and enriching experience, and the awkwardness has all but dissolved. I’ve met different people, made new friends, and perhaps most important of all, been able to communicate with others without clamming up or suddenly losing the ability to form coherent sentences. Vision First is not merely an organization that helps people, it is a home, both figuratively and literally speaking. My experience here is something that I’ll carry to school as well as to life, and I’d like to wholeheartedly thank VF for providing me with this opportunity. – Jun
To me, summer consisted of sleeping in, hanging out, enjoying cold drinks in the afternoon. I didn’t think of anything more than to just enjoy the days off, and seldom even thought of the people who were struggling. This year, however, I decided to do something more worthwhile. The reason why we live the way we do is greatly impacted by the situation we were born in. I was lucky to be born a Hong Kong citizen, where the government provides protection for us. However, many are not as lucky as I was, and instead come from countries where their leaders do little or nothing to care for them. Refugees deserve help, from everyone who is able to do so. I wanted to do something to make a difference, no matter how slight, and just provide my efforts in helping a cause I believed in. Everyone is capable of caring for and helping others. My name is Hilda and I am a grade 9 student at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong. Today is the fourth week I have been volunteering at Vision First, a local nonprofit organization that provides aid and support for refugees. I hope what I have done, no matter how minor or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, will be able to contribute to helping refugees better conditions than they are in right now. Everyone has the power to change something; with combined efforts even minor aid can really become something grand. I am extremely grateful to have been able to work here and help refugees in need. – Hilda
We often read comments describing asylum-seekers and refugees as pitiful individuals who need our help to make a decent living. Sadly this polarizes opinions about who is responsible to look after those seeking international protection or whether harsh policies are justified to safeguard prosperity. While this discussion is important, it pivots disturbingly on the distinction between ‘genuine’ political refugees and ‘abusive’ economic migrants, the latter supposedly exploiting the asylum process for personal gains. However, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wisely said, “Let us remember that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal, and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one.”
Currently there are 5800 claimants from South Asia and Africa who have declared they would face persecution were they returned to their country. Hong Kong Government screens these applications under the Convention against Torture and has recognized one single case since 2004 when screening started. On the other hand, UNHCR is presently considering about 800 asylum cases under the Refugee Convention, with a dismally low acceptance rate. Taken at face value, such low recognition rates suggest that most asylum-seekers are not genuine claimants. It is argued that if the majority of claimants are rejected, and many are working illegally, then these people are not escaping persecution, but entered under false pretenses to make a quick buck. This certainly is the impression we get talking to people who read less informed articles and view refugees’ motivations with suspicion. Claimants are portrayed as abusers even before their cases are assessed, further muddying the waters of stereotypes and intolerance.
Such widespread inclination to disapprove encourages Hong Kong Government to stick to tough polices, such as prohibiting employment, restricting education and, in our opinion, fast-tracking decision. This leads to asylum-seekers being barely tolerated by society and remaining confined in a state of precariousness. It is true Hong Kong Government provides them with minimal aid ($1200 rent assistance, emergency health care and monthly food rations), but it is hardly sufficient to meet basic needs. Hence money is desperately needed to buy clothes, shoes, calling cards, water and tissue. Asylum-seekers often have families back home who need their husbands and brothers to help financially. Also, the costs incurred for the journey can be extortionately high and need to be refunded if borrowed. For these reasons, some are understandably forced to work. We are told, ‘my wife calls me and speaks about the children. They need money and I need to work’. Unfortunately, to seek illegal employment is associated with having dishonest intentions. A common misconception is that if claimants work illegally, they are not afraid of arrest, consequently proving they were not refugees in the first place.
To challenge this culture of suspicion, asylum seekers must prove their genuineness not only with evidence, but also with their behaviour, despite the absence of a comprehensive safety net to protect from destitution. Further, most applicants do not have the knowledge to formulate an effective refugee claim. When interviewed by authorities they might candidly confess they came to work because ultimately, as bread-winners, they are responsible for their family. We should acknowledge that behind their suffering is a complex current of political, religious, social and economic adversity that propels them overseas. There are numerous cases in which economic deprivation is either inflicted or condoned by states unwilling to prevent it, which itself constitutes torture and inhuman treatment. However, asylum seekers often fail to distinguish economic hardship from its systemic causes. This certainly affects their claim, further lowering recognition rates.
Considering both refugees (149 recognized by UNHCR) and torture victims (1 recognized by HKSAR), is it possible that a global city like Hong Kong is home to only 150? Leaving politics and humanitarianism aside, what are the mathematical odds that with thousands of people seeking protection there are so few successes? We marvel at the mathematical improbability of Hong Kong Government recognizing one case in eight years of torture screening, while Western countries average 30% in refugee protection. Do low recognition rates truly confirm asylum-seekers beat a path to our door with fake stories, evidence and scars to cheat the system? In our opinion, what is probably lacking is political will. As long as refuge policies are founded on incomplete information and a primacy to shield wealth, we slip away from the spirit of asylum into the clutches of protectionism and nationalism. There is no image sadder than that of the rich man bolted down in his treasury, blind to the suffering of those knocking on the door seeking refuge.