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:
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!