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World Refugee Day at Kowloon Union Church

Jun 12th, 2012 | Refugee Community, VF updates, programs, events | Comment

So near so far …

Jun 12th, 2012 | Media | Comment

The Standard - Eddie Luk writes on May 25, 2012

Building refugee camps is among extreme suggestions being put forward as a way to handle a challenging group of asylum-seekers. It comes from a New Territories politician who says some of the 5,900 asylum-seekers – mostly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia – who claim to face torture in their countries mean trouble around his Yuen Long district, where many stay. Others recoil at the very idea of rolling back the years even in a limited way by creating camps like the ones that long blighted districts and islands – and society in general. For the days of Hong Kong handling refugees with a strong arm and behind walls and wire are a recent memory. The last of about a dozen camps that started to be set up for boat people in 1975 closed in 2000 after 143,000 mostly Vietnamese were resettled elsewhere, while 67,000 were repatriated and several thousands stayed here in a community largely created by refugee waves. Today, the United Nations goes about handling “standard” refugees who land here, while those claiming to face torture are handled separately by the Immigration Department.

A crunch is coming, however, for people in the torture-claim category even if it’s not the regimented life in a camp for them and, perhaps, their families. Trying to soften any new blows, claimants and the people who support them with food and shelter say it’s already a case of backs to the wall because they are forbidden to work. And with the 5,900 living from day today as cases are processed, they say, it’s no surprise a few are linked to crimes and illegal employment – topics that have become a minor clamor recently. The trouble is that claimants can drag out the screening process beyond reasonable time and thus delay final decisions. And few can await final decisions with confidence. Only one person has had a story of facing torture back home accepted by immigration checkers. Officers have booked 11,647 torture-fear cases in recent years. Among them, 1,716 were rejected, and we know 5,900 are pending. Of the other 4,030 cases, it’s likely some withdrew claims and moved on by choice.

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Stuck in HK’s bureaucratic purgatory

Jun 10th, 2012 | Media | Comment

SCMP – Simpson Cheung writes on Jun 10, 2012

A young African granted refugee status by the United Nations is angry at being denied an education and the right to work in Hong Kong. Amed (a pseudonym), 23, has been in the city for eight years, but since turning 18, no school has been willing to admit him. And as a non-permanent resident, he is not allowed to work. But providing education to refugees would make it easier for them to resettle elsewhere, community organisations say. For now, Amed is still waiting to be resettled in another country. He has been rejected by the United States and Canada, and has waited a year to hear from France. As such, he is forced to occupy his time by playing soccer, watching television, or window-shopping because he has no money. “How is it that I can be in Hong Kong without going to school for eight years?” Amed lamented. Among 146 UN-recognised refugees in Hong Kong, Amed arrived in the city in 2004 when he was 16 after fleeing a war in his home country, which he refused to name due to security reasons.

Two years later he was granted refugee status, but he has since lost all contact with his family. When he arrived, Amed was admitted to Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo) on an exceptional basis for an initiation programme by the then Education and Manpower Bureau. For six months he learned Cantonese and English and showed his talent by winning the most-improved student award. But he says he has since forgotten all the Cantonese. After the programme ended, he was told the government would not refer students over the age of 18 to schools, and that he would probably be leaving soon. So Amed personally applied to two schools, but did not hear from them. He also applied for courses ran by the Employee Retraining Board and the Vocational Training Council. But he was rejected because the law forbids him from working. Eager to learn, Amed thinks the government should provide him with an education. On his part, he has attended some English classes organised by non-governmental organisations, but he wants to study more advanced courses to improve his future prospects. “When you are allowed to go to another country, the knowledge you have gained in Hong Kong would make life easier,” he said.

Annie Lin, a community organiser with the Society of Community Organisation, said: “Those who are recognised as refugees should be allowed to work and young people should be allowed to study.” Currently, Amed is living in a Caritas shelter and gets HK$300 a month from the UN. The government pays his board and lodging. In a judicial review last year, the Court of First Instance ruled that the Immigration Department could review whether refugees could work on case-by-case basis. But no one has been allowed to as yet. The case would be appealed in September, Lin said. An Immigration Department spokesman says the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has not been extended to Hong Kong, and the city has no obligation to admit individuals seeking refugee status. He says education assistance is provided to child refugees on compassionate grounds and does not object to adults applying to any school on a self-financing basis. At the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a spokesman says the agency would protect refugees awaiting resettlement from being deported.

A fisherman’s dream from Somalia to Alaska

Jun 9th, 2012 | Personal Experiences, Refugee Community | Comment

The people I work with are refugees. They come to Hong Kong to seek protection from the atrocities in their homeland.  They arrive with a big weight on their shoulders and pain in their guts, hoping for a better life from the one they left behind. Refugees are not recognized in Hong Kong.  This means they will never be integrated into Hong Kong society, unable to work or study. Refugees are most often resettled to a third country, United States, Canada or Sweden where they are welcomed and able to start their lives again.  But this process of resettlement can take a staggering 5 years plus. So they wait, doing their best to have their basic needs met.

I have had the privilege of working with the refugee community since 2004. I love my job. I work with people from all over the world – Somalia, Rwanda, Georgia, Iran, Congo, Egypt just to name a few. I see them arrive in such bad shape, carrying the trauma they have endured. Over time I witness their transformation into empowered individuals, ready to contribute and participate in society. It’s a pleasure to be part of this journey. With each individual I work with, I learn something; I too, grow from the experience. And I do my best to keep in contact with all of them once they are resettled and start their new life. One refugee who I keep in contact with is Geedan.  I met him in 2007 when I was working at Christian Action.  Geedan came to Hong Kong to seek protection from the troubles he and his family endured in Somalia. He always carried a smile and a positive attitude, no matter the circumstance. He was so determined to learn English that he would come into my office most days to share his stories. He would tell me about his family; his love for karate and the kindness he felt towards the people who were helping him restart his life.

I remember the day the UNHCR announced they would resettle him. He was told he was moving to Las Vegas. I thought what is a Somalian shopkeeper/farmer going to do in Las Vegas? But, the refugee community is so resourceful, determined and ready to start their lives again – nothing will stop them. Within a month of his arrival, Geedan applied for a job as a cleaner in a large hotel. He worked hard but the pay was low.  He was eager to have his family join him as soon as he can afford their arrival. Through his new community, Geedan learned of a way to make better money. He applied for a job as a fisherman which would relocate him this month to Codova, Alaska.  We have spoken often since the move.  He is delighted to have his new job and he looks forward to boarding the boat to start his new life as a Somali fisherman in Alaska. The people I work with are refugees. But not forever! They tread through the difficulties that face them. Not giving up, they are determined to start their lives again. They are strong, stronger than most people I know. With a little support they can shine and just look at that smile Geedan is wearing. I love my job! – Danielle (Centre Manager)

TREE – the tshirt project

Jun 9th, 2012 | Media, Refugee Community | Comment

Refugee set, and left, adrift

Jun 2nd, 2012 | Media | Comment

The New York Times, June 2, 2012

Around the world, some 42.5 million vulnerable people were forcibly out of their homes and on the move in 2011, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are growing concerns that those numbers will get even worse in the face of armed conflicts and political violence that are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, population growth, rising food prices, natural disasters and struggles for scarce resources. According to António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Africa and Asia are the most vulnerable regions. But new crises are appearing unpredictably — in the past year, thousands have been driven from their homes in Syria, Sudan, Mali, Yemen and Côte D’Ivoire — and will continue to grow. Since 2005, the agency’s caseload has expanded — from about 24 million, mostly internally displaced persons and refugees, to roughly 37 million at the end of 2010.

Today’s environment is also more chaotic. Instead of negotiating with governments for humanitarian access, the agency often must deal with multiple actors, including warlords and rebels and breakaway regions, even less subject to international pressure, law or shaming. The risk for aid workers and the displaced has increased. There is also a crisis of political will. The international community, preoccupied with financial and domestic crises, has been less willing to help — whether with money or diplomacy or offers of asylum. Take the 7.2 million refugees considered to be in “protracted exile,” meaning they may never go home again. The report said that everybody involved — host countries, countries of origin and donors — “seem less able to work together to find solutions.” There are no easy answers, but certain strategies stand out. In 2010, 94 percent of all resettled refugees went to just four countries: Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United States, which takes more than any other country. Surely there are scores of others that can also open their doors. Better systems for predicting crises and quickly responding to natural and man-made disasters would also help. As ever, the best solution is for the world to do a better job of pre-empting conflicts in the first place.

UNHCR launches flagship publication on State of the World’s Refugees

May 31st, 2012 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

NEW YORK, United States, 31 May 2012

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned on Thursday that factors causing mass population flight are growing and over the coming decade more people on the move will become refugees or displaced within their own country. In comments marking the launch in New York of “The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity” (PDF edition) Guterres said displacement from conflict was becoming compounded by a combination of causes, including climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition. All these factors are interacting with each other, increasing instability and conflict and forcing people to move. In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, finding solutions, he said, would need determined international political will. “The world is creating displacement faster than it is producing solutions,” said Guterres. “And this means one thing only: more people trapped in exile over many years, unable to return home, to settle locally, or to move elsewhere. Global displacement is an inherently international problem and, as such, needs international solutions – and by this I mainly mean political solutions.”

Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya

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Lost in asylum or lost in analysis?

May 31st, 2012 | Advocacy, Media | Comment

The Standard, “Lost in Asylum” by Eddie Luk, published May 18, 2012

An informed discussion about refugee issues in the news is welcome, however several points need clarification in The Standard’s article. The story, while providing interesting information on specific crimes, fails to make a clear distinction between ‘South Asian criminals’ and ‘South Asian asylum-seekers’, regrettably bunching both in one damaging misconception. The examples chosen by the reporter to support his views are at best misleading – as he labels everyone “South Asians” – and are further murking the waters of stereotypes and intolerance. The fact that some asylum-seekers are hired by criminals may be true, but what does this say about the asylum process? Could a previously honest individual turn to crime after years of abusive marginalization? What desperate conditions is she forced to endure? What support does he receive in the country of asylum? How can she meet financial obligations when barred from working legally?

The harsh reality is asylum-seekers, after selling food rations and what is salvaged from garbage, are *forced* to offer manpower in the informal economy of 3D jobs. This is the dirty, dangerous and demeaning work that citizens turn their nose on, but needs to be performed for the economy to function efficiently. On occasion these tasks are controlled by triad societies, making the connecting between the world of asylum and the world of crime, that slips into predictable vicious circle. We can’t simplistically blame the supply where there is pernicious demand, especially when such demand is structural and pre-exists the arrival of asylum-seekers. In other words, when a CAT claimant commits a felony, he relieves a domestic gangster from dirtying his hand – the culprits might have changed, but sadly the law would still have been broken. One could argue that South Asian criminals accepting lower-than-local-pay says more about the globalization of crime than lawless asylum-seekers. Similarly the city has witnessed trigger-happy Mainlanders running amok on the streets, yet we don’t equate these with the big-spenders in the malls, though both entered under the same Immigration scheme. The analogy could continue with Thai massage ladies entering on tourist visas and other common abuses of the Immigration Ordinance. To this end, this article is unconvincing in shedding light on the criminality of asylum-seekers in general and South Asian ones in particular.

Moreover, the story’s arguments about asylum abuse are laughable. The evidence does point towards most CAT claimants delaying their case with stalling tactics, like failing to show up, presenting late evidence, calling sick, changing lawyers or phones, etc. However, is this malicious behaviour or a plausible survival strategy? Let’s imagine being in their uncomfortable shoes and facing such bleak prospects. For example, if you were a Tamil Srilankan and were about to be deported to face torture our ImmD doesn’t consider ‘likely’ would you cooperate with procedures? If you were a Pakistani fleeing tribal/Taleban/tyrannical persecution, would you facilitate your return into harm’s way? We might note these individuals are acutely aware every single torture claim of 1,717 was rejected, between Jan 2010 and Apr 2012, leading to immediate deportation procedures. They know there was one success in 2500 cases, which means the odds of success are an unreachable 2500 to 1. Indeed why are we surprised claimants resort to every legal stratagem to delay the inevitable? In substance, many stall their cases, not because they are unfounded (maybe some are), but because the system is flawed and designed to invariably fail everyone. This raises the question: how can 2500 claimants all be liars? Meanwhile, it’s understandable that anyone fearing for her life delays deportation, even if at times such behaviour might be construed as abusing the system. Why should we be surprised that 5.8% of rejected claimants were prosecuted for overstaying or illegally remaining? Rather it’s surprising the percentage isn’t higher with such widespread fear of returning home. Perhaps we might inquire how CIC detention numbers are rising and how many volunteered for repatriation. Predictably, until we see changes in CAT results we won’t see asylum-seekers rushing in to complete interview processes.

Refugee Health Clinic

May 24th, 2012 | Refugee Community, VF updates, programs, events | Comment

Always leading by innovation, Vision First is pleased to announce Hong Kong first “Refugee Health Clinic”. This new program includes medical examinations, medicines and referrals for refugees, whose suffering is frequently prolonged by bigotry and suspicion against darker skin prevalent at public hospitals. Indeed, the motivation behind this initiative is the racial wedge, contrary to the Hippocratic Oath, perpetuating a two-tier medical service that makes non-ID-card-holders feel most unwelcome at emergency rooms. These are the only facilities available to those who cannot book public or private doctors. After collaborative talks with Dr. Fan Ning an independent service was launched to meet refugees’ medical needs. The difficulties refugees encounter at hospitals are well-known and hard to address: racism, discrimination, cultural ignorance, hands-off examinations, welfare misinformation, cashier restrictions and the bitterly lamented “Panadol Solution”, i.e. one medication for any illnesses from cancer or sore throat.

Today we are proud to launch a pilot program to bring expert medical care to our members, first, and the broader refugee community, later. Dr. Fan Ning (Surgeon Yan Chai Hospital, President MSF Hong Kong) will set up a mobile clinic at our First Street center on alternate Saturdays (every Saturday from mid July) with volunteer doctors, nurses, essential instrument and medication. This primary care will include: medical consultation and examination, health education on hygiene and lifestyle, referral system, medication and follow-ups in person and by phone/email. An initial team of volunteer doctors and nurses will be expanded to meet the needs of members and non-members following a six month pilot program that will start on 2 June 2012. We are now looking for citizen volunteers to help coordinate this activity that will develop into one of our service backbones in the coming months. Finally, dear members, if you need to see the doctor, please SMS your case-worker to make an appointment – thank you.

I shouldn’t be alive

May 20th, 2012 | Personal Experiences | Comment

My name is Michael and I’m a Torture Claimant from East Africa. After witnessing the murder of my brother and sister I was sure the death squads wanted me dead. I said a hurried goodbye to my parents and escaped my country and became a refugee. I travelled for six months, crossed many states and went through hell before finding a safe place. The most difficult border crossing proved the last one. I tried three times and each time I was rejected. By then I ran out of money and options. I lived day by day with the kindness of strangers. I begged for food. I slept under flyovers. My life had spun out of control. I was thousands of miles from home and no choice but to continue. I prayed John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” I roamed the streets and sleep under lamp posts for safety. One night my last bag was stolen and I was left with just the clothes I wore and a passport hidden in my trousers. I was getting sicker by the day, unaware I was diabetic at the time.

Without cash to get smuggled across, I walked along the border looking for a weak spot. The boundary wall was ten meters high and always guarded. I was desperate to leave that country and determined to find a way across on foot. It was crazy, but I couldn’t just die in that country. My only option was to sneak through a military base inside which the wall wasn’t covered with electrified barbed wire. I studied the sentinels routines for two nights before I found the courage to try. I slipped into the militarized zone, keeping to the shadows, away from armed guards who rigidly watched straight ahead, not to the sides. I climbed atop a barrack and carefully cross the rooftop, treading warily over wires I didn’t know were “High Tension” until I slid off the roof reading the warning sign! Touching one would have electrocuted me and I’d stepped over several! With a construction plank I scaled the wall, reaching for the top with the tips of my fingers. Then I jumped to the other side hurting my ankles, but adrenaline kept me going. Tragically a border patrol spotted me and, since I was unable to run, arrested me. They gave me bread as I was so hungry I could hardly stand up. They took my photo and escorted me back to the other side in the morning. I had crossed the wall, but I hadn’t made it to safety. I was imprisoned, stripped naked, held in a tiny, disgusting cell until interrogation. I wasn’t afraid. When you are not guilty and that desperate, you are not normal. You don’t even feel human, you have no shame, no reason to hide anything. You live minute by minute aware you might not survive the night. The guards wanted to know how I crossed over, so I took them to the barracks, where I’m sure soldiers got into serious trouble. I demonstrated what I did and showed the plank I had used. They were astonished, but this time they didn’t let me climb for fear I would bolt over. They took a video of the entire process and there was a lot of shouting. I was jailed for many days, left dirty, naked and hungry. Conditions were so bad I looked forward to begging on the streets again.

When I was finally released I walked east for two days to another village. There was big construction works for a two-level bridge erected across the border. I figured this was the place for me to try again. I watched the area for one week, scavenging for food and sleeping in the bushes. It rained heavily, thick mud everywhere, it was miserable and grim. What worried me was feeling sicker every day. I knew it was now or never. During a thunderstorm, which kept the guards inside, I decided to make my dash for the border. I waded through mud until two guards spotted me and strangely ran away. I didn’t know why until they returned with what looked like a hundred shouting soldiers with flashlights and furious dogs. I ran for my life dumping my shoes to be more silent. There was no way of make it across the exposed, half-constructed bridge. I quickly climbed up a dark pylon and hung on a pipe like a bat afraid to look down at the pitch black waters below. That scared me to death as I cannot swim. What was worse? To crash on the sidewall, drown in the sea or get beaten to death? I clung for my dear life for hours. I prayed. I didn’t want to die on that bridge. I started to accept my horrible destiny and dreaded most the thought of being mauled by dogs. Hours passed. The guards looked everywhere, climbed a few pylons, never mind. The beams of flashlights passed by me, but never stopped and by some miracle I escaped detection. After three or four hours they left. Shortly before daybreak I dared to descended. I crawled across the rest of the bridge from hiding to hiding, dashing when hidden. The structure connects two countries and on the other side the security was better organized. They observed the commotion from a guard-house and must have assumed the intruder was arrested. I watched their routines and, timing them, dashed across to safety with my last reserve of energy – I had made it to safety.

Nerves shaking, muscles tensing with dehydration, I climbed a hill to find shelter in the trees. The morning sunshine woke me in a ditch curled up next to a snake. I leaped up in shock. I’m absolutely petrified by snakes! In a hungry, sickly daze I descended to a village where I ate from a stinky rubbish bin. I washed off mud and dirt in an open sewer, then stumbled to a nearby shop. There I took bread off a shelf, unwrapped it and ate it like a ravished dog, thinking nothing of those around me. When you are truly desperately hungry, then you understand what Gandhi once said, “To the hungry man, God must come in the form of bread.” An old lady came over to watch me. I was crying, my body shook uncontrollably although I was drenched with sweat. I cannot imagine what she thought and why she didn’t scream and call the police. She knew I was at the end of my rope and took pity of me. She paid for my food, gave me a pair of flip-flops and helped me board a bus. Two hours later I was in Yaumatei. I had entered Hong Kong and found refuge after half a year on the run. I am one of very few who managed to flee into Hong Kong without any documents. What happened that night still baffles me. There was no way I could evade a military search with dogs, but I did. There was no way I could hang on pipes for hours (heights horrify me), but I did. There was no way I could outsmart not one, but two border crossings barefoot and exhausted, but I did. When I later spent five weeks in Queen Elizabeth Hospital with diabetes and a string of related symptoms, I realized that I shouldn’t be alive to tell my story.

I later returned to the village looking for the old lady

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