The economics of asylum

Post Date: Feb 12th, 2012 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

I came to seek asylum in 2009, leaving behind a comfortable life after my home was sprayed with machine-gun fire one night. It was a deadly warning my journalistic reporting wouldn’t be tolerated by the authorities any longer. I escaped to Hong Kong and when cash finished, I had no choice but ask Hong Kong Government for assistance to keep alive. There has been much discussion lately about the Economics of Asylum. Many want to know how refugees survive. My life was upper-middle class in the capital city, with a large home, a car and four children in university. Having lost all of this, put my wife and family through misery and stopped my children’s education, please believe I’m speaking the truth. I am the most senior VF member. I asked for my name to be published, as I’m not afraid of speaking out, but they refused knowing how vindictive the asylum system is.

Before I start, allow me to quote article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution.” I fled my country in clear and present danger. It was a matter of hours before I would have died, like four colleagues blown up the following week. Without the protection Hong Kong is providing, I would be dead, so thank you from the bottom of my heart! While it is true there are those who abuse the system, there are also many in genuine need of protection. We have strong claims of persecution and are in urgent need of international security. I speak in the name of these people, those who wouldn’t be alive today without the support of Hong Kong. That being clarified, let’s see how our financial struggle unfolds:

Sharing a meal in the VF shelter
Sharing a meal in the VF shelter

1. When refugees are released from CIC (Castle Peak Road Immigration Centre), most leave without enough money for bus 52X to Kowloon. We hold Recognizance Papers that allows us to live but not to work here. We eventually receive food (groceries 3x month) and rent assistance (1000 – 1200$ month) from HKSAR. Thank you Hong Kong tax-payers!

2. Many refugees don’t get support for 3 to 4 months, during which they are desperate and beg for support anywhere they can find it, often sharing their countrymen’s supplies. We eat anywhere we can, grabbing rubbish from super-markets and wet-markets when hunger is stronger than shame.

3. When refugees find a room – the greatest struggle!!! – the challenge is finding friends, charities, churches or donors to pay for deposits and set-up fees. Housing is a nightmare for everyone and we inevitably experience homelessness at some point. Rising rents only make this harder.

4. Then we need to buy a fridge, stove and rice-cooker to deal with the rice and frozen meats we receive. Cooking requires gas canisters which are not provided. Our only option is to rely on charities for this assistance or make friends in the community to help us in our need.

5. Then there is the issue of extra rent over the 1000$ as the cheapest cubicle room is 1500$ without a room. And you’re lucky if you find one! There are utility bills that remain unpaid, often leading to losing rooms when landlords become angry. BTW rent assistance is the same amount paid in 2005.

6. Refugees need shoes, warm clothes in winter and, from time to time, socks and underwear. Other personal needs like haircuts, lady toiletries, diapers, baby formula and children needs are a difficult monthly challenge too. Last week VF launched a haircutting service. Imagine the relief as we’ve paid 40$ until now after growing our hair long for months. Families are those suffering them most, as single adults survive with less.

7. If our phone is broken, we need to buy a cheap one and calling cards to keep in touch with Immigration Dept, UNHCR, lawyers, NGOs and those who support us. Calling home is too expensive, but you can appreciate how tough it is for spouses and children left behind. Many wonder if dying with our loved one was better than enduring hardship as well as separation with no hope in sight.

8. Going to church/mosque is a weekly cost and not an optional one as worship sustains hope, often the only thing keeping refugees alive. Every troubled step we take is made possible by this hope.

9. Any transportation besides food collection, once to ISS and UNHCR, is out of our pockets. So if we need to make inquiries about food, room, assistance, doctors/lawyers, we need to beg. We also have to find money to visit Social Welfare Department, Legal Aid Department, law courts, with all the documentation charges like photocopies and translations for our asylum cases.

10. The food we get is a grave problem, worth of another letter that uncovers an iceberg of trouble for all the parties involved. Let’s just say that vegetables and fruit are seriously sub-standard and insufficient. We have no doubt the ISS shops cheat refugees on a daily basis.

11. Our 10 day food allowance makes no provision for breakfast, so again we have to find our own. The same for butter, jam, ginger paste, garlic paste, tomato sauce and all condiments.

12. When working it out, the minimum needed to survive is 50 HKD a day. Imagine doing that with zero!



  1. Captain Schettino

    I’m under house arrest. I stay at home all day. I can’t go anywhere because I don’t have money for transportation. If I go to a friend, I need to spend money, so I rather stay at home. It costs money even to get to the food collection. It is a 35min ride by bus. But if you miss it even once, they warn you. If you miss it again you will be punished and you can’t have food for 3 months. How am I supposed to eat in those 3 months??? I walk more than one hour to get my food. But when you get there, people are pushing, rushing… we don’t receive what we chose on the list. It is frustrating.

  2. I’d like to add that what we receive in HK is just a long time of temporary asylum to spend in agony while waiting for our life to be decided by the UNHCR Hong Kong or the HK government. In these years meaningful changes happened. We were sleeping outside and now with much difficulty we get some food and a very minimum aid with rent. But we still have no protection. The very same notion of asylum is breached. Then, they tell us we are in breach of immigration laws and we even risk prosecution if our claim is rejected… Why do we have to endure this?

  3. what you write is true. surviving in hong kong is tough. I finished the cash I had before I looked for help, so I had no money to pay the deposits in the rooms I found. Nobody would help me for many months and I was lucky it was not winter as I spent many nights sleeping outside. Now VF pays deposits for families and they have a busy shelter, but before there was no possibility like this. The food we get from ISS doesnt even last 4 days. The rice does, but everything else is gone in 3 days, so we cannot live without extra help and donations from charities. How can we survive without working? I receive 1000 for rent but my room is 1800. It’s impossible to find a room for less in Kowloon, so everyone needs to find a way to earn 200$ every week or we lose the roof over our heads. We didn’t come here to beg for help, but to find protection. If food and shelter are not available, how are we supposed to survive? The government knows these are legitimate expectations of genuine refugees. Thank you Vision First.

  4. Homeless Mohammed

    On a very cold night I went to Kowloon Mosque with nowhere to stay. I still had a visa, wasn’t registered as a refugee, but having escaped torture in my country, I had no choice. I tried to sleep in the mosque. The Iman came out and chased me away. He didn’t want to listen to me. He didn’t want to help me. I told him I was a devout Muslim and needed his help for one night. He shouted at me. He threatened me. Then he did the unimaginable – HE CALLED THE POLICE! The Iman had no pity of me and had me removed like a sick, old dog. Even the policemen could not believe how rude that so-cold holy-man was with me. They lead me away from the Mosque and showed me the entrance to Chung King Mansions. Then one kind officer took out his wallet and handed me 100 dollars of his own money. He asked me too find a guesthouse and helped me get away from the cold. I will never forget the kindness of that stranger who helped me without thinking twice, while my Muslim Brother Iman chased me away like a dog. Kindness is a gift from God to all human beings, but it is accepted by few.

  5. just smile

    two months to 4 to get ISS support but it was 2 years on the street with no friends to help with 32 time serenading to emigration and rejected. even getting help for house items most get it from crossroads where i am requested a heater for the winter and i could not get it until now for 3 years. brothers, brothers i lived with you long time and i know some work to survive. It is scaring and i know we have to take less than 30% of the normal salary. i suffered more than anybody, i was dying in the street, hungry and everybody was watching me and many things you will get shocked to know. i am not telling what happen with me to make you cry about our problem. i say this so that we can live better life with some income instead of begging, but everybody is selfish and every body wants everything. brothers we are big community and HK people need computers or painting house or repair some thing. we have all the skills, we have painters and computer engineers and many other useful skills, and ……elc. Why do we have to beg to survive? Dear HK people, we are refugees, not animals. you must to stop looking only at your own people, but look at the people who are suffering around you. this is your brother. this is the man that have same feeling your have. that can change your life. dont look at our color. dont look only at rich people. we are 300 persons with 600 hands, you can help us join hands. good luck to everybody