The truth before our eyes

Post Date: May 19th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

We understand that some of those seeking asylum in Hong Kong work ‘illegally’ in certain sectors of the economy. Why does this happen? Are these people economic migrants who abuse the asylum system to work here, or are they genuine claimants who find themselves in dire need while waiting determination of their fate? The HKSAR seems to agree with the former. On many occasions the government stated that economic migrants masquerade as asylum seekers to enter Hong Kong, in larger numbers and in any possible way – which is why it hasn’t yet ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. It is evident to us that simplistic and air-tight distinctions are difficult to make; they are often baseless; and, in our opinion, quite unnecessary.

Those who enter Hong Kong to seek asylum (or learn about this opportunity here), struggle for many years awaiting the determination of their claim – without either the right to legal stay, or the right to work. As is well known, HKSAR provides most with basic assistance amounting to minimal rental allowance, several bags of foodstuff, basic medical services and limited transportation fees. While this may seem like an attractive and comprehensive package, in reality it is not. Several other needs that should be considered as basic and fundamental are not included. This is why charities like Vision First step up to fill the gaps. We have, however, limited resources and the number of people we assist is less than 5% of the local refugee population – specifically 316 members out of 6,700 to-date. The vast majority of asylum seekers do not have any form of support other than the insufficient aid provided by the government and the kindness of friends and strangers.

Since they are limited to assistance in-kind, cash is always a dreadful problem for those stranded in an urban environment, where fruits cannot be picked from trees and water cannot be drunk from rivers. Hong Kong citizens who occasionally befriend refugees are deeply shocked they live in a thriving city like ours without a single dollar in their wallet. How is it possible? It is not. So people are compelled to work to survive. While this may be morally reprehensible and legally punishable, our economy doesn’t seem to suffer from it. On the contrary, large strata of low-income residents are making considerable profits by engaging with asylum seekers. Refugees are not only people in need of assistance; they are also consumers. They have skills at times not readily available here. They gratefully accept jobs that picky young residents turn their back and nose to because dirty, dangerous, and demeaning, besides being grossly underpaid. Nobody came here to be exploited like this, instead they labour stoically to fulfill daily needs and reduce personal suffering.

Landlords are increasingly profiting too by renting to refugees tiny, run-down rooms that would otherwise remain vacant. Ethnic grocery shops earn stable income by providing (ISS) supplies to refugees. Afterwards, they might buying back the lot half-price in order to resell it to low-income residents who cannot afford wet markets, let alone Welcome. Low-wage and labour-intensive small and micro enterprises, constrained to lower cost to survive, hire asylum seekers for the day according to operational needs. No decent pay, no minimum wage, but at most 200 HKD for a punishing dawn-till-dusk toil in heat, danger and fear of arrest. The reality, apparent to us, is that Hong Kong needs cheap and occasional workers to power businesses with marginal returns, where profitability is only possible hiring this labour. Put sharply, this is a two-fold reality unfolded before our very eyes: refugees cannot survive penniless and the economy cannot do without them. Whether refugees work or not is incidental to their circumstances, their race and skills, the years they have waited, the debt they incurred fleeing and, indeed, the financial straits of families left to fend for themselves back home. Certainly Hong Kong appears to push them towards survival employment, or else…

Shakes, containers and yards in the New Territories refugees call home
Shakes, containers and yards in the New Territories refugees call home