Rising above prejudice

Post Date: Feb 20th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Why are Africans seeking asylum in Hong Kong considered “more refugee” than South Asians doing the same here? Talking to people, listening to members’ stories and meeting experts, we realize some case workers more willingly assist Africans than South Asians haplessly seeking protection on our racist shores. Given similar conditions of hardship, outspoken Africans are more likely to receive aid than timid Asians, as if the former were more trustworthy, the latter more untruthful. Why is that? Given a request for products like baby food , African mothers are 10 times more likely to obtain it than demure Asians. Why is that? Is it because mainstream news of war and persecution comes primarily from Africa and few citizens watch Srilankan or Pakistani satellite TV? Is it because of media-conditioned sympathy towards malnourished “poster children” in African refugee camps appearing more deserving? Is it because the global north exploits the image of Africa as a poor, needy continent? Is it because western powers feel the guilt of their colonial legacy? Is it because missionaries accept quick conversions without questioning contemporaneous Salats? Is it psychological deference to Black stature vis-à-vis Brown meekness? Is it because of local racism against anything non-native? Glossing over this complexity, the truth remains masked behind the economic excuse of limiting resources for the smaller community, since South Asians outnumber Africans 8 to 1.

It is unfortunate that government, media and public views – “The Territory is besieged by economic migrants!!!” – are shared by certain professionals who should be at the service of all claimants, irrespective of their gender, ethnic or national background. Even more regrettably, client selection is often based on the likelihood claims will be accepted by UNHCR. It should be noted, many South Asians do not apply at UNHCR because they consider it pointless. Not because of their cases’ weakness, but because they would rather seek help from compatriots, than beg from outsiders. Their traditional culture and unwavering spirituality predisposes them to suffer silently, rather than request help from unsympathetic strangers. To complicate matters, South Asians rightly assume their applications won’t be taken seriously (some wait 5 years for first interviews, others are never called) which reinforces the spiral of distrust.

Conducting outreach in the New Territories, we meet refugees from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some regions of India who are simply too proud for charity, too shy to ask, too ashamed to thank. Obviously this doesn’t make them less needy than Africans, but demonstrates that customs prevent proactive help-seeking, until trusting friendship is established. Once befriended, they first talk about grinding poverty at home and the imperative to escape abroad for the sake of their family, which still leaves them some dignity. Only after we spend considerable time with them, will they confide stories of rape, torture, violence and persecution which they would never divulge otherwise. Endemic poverty, deadly feuds, political tyranny and generalized violence are not acceptable UNHCR criteria for asylum, despite being the same situations African and Asian refugees escape. Nobody flees their homeland for one single convention reason. These drastic decisions are always precipitated by an inability to buy protection, avoid corruption and sway authorities in a crisis where POVERTY unquestionably plays a major party. That’s the reason why wealthy exiles swiftly secure citizenship abroad and, conversely, we never meet rich refugees suffering through asylum and resettlement.

Only a handful of South Asian are recognized refugees in Hong Kong. The vast majority doesn’t have chance and is stoically resigned to their fate – whereby a difference in citizenship corresponds to a difference in treatment. Nevertheless, they are equally deserving of our support and, above all, of our respect. Somebody’s country of origin is not an acceptable reason to deny services a fortiori, despite vulnerability and need. Provided there are UNHCR/CAT applications, service providers must respect the access granted by Immigration and honor their own duty of service and protection. In other words, leave to the competent authorities the screening and refrain from explicitly or implicitly judging the merits of cases. If vetting economic migrants is one’s preference, then a career at Immigration would clearly be more satisfying!

A life scavanged from rubbish dumps
A life scavanged from rubbish dumps