We report the story of Fred, a refugee from West Africa, who surrendered to Immigration at the airport and was held in administrative custody at Castle Peak Bay Detention Centre (CIC) for 70 days, despite notifying authorities he fled persecution and was seeking asylum.
Released from CIC, Fred was not told of the ISS-HK or the SWD, but was advised to approach a charity in Chungking Mansions for help. Here, a member of staff registered him, photocopied his papers and notified him that his case officer was busy. Subsequently, he was told that he could not be offered immediate assistance.
Hong Kong is bewildering for any tourist venturing into the streets for the first time. For indigent refugees it is far worse. Fred explains, “My real problem is that I know nobody, there are no people from my country and I need help. This charity told me that they cannot help me. They said that they only help old people, sick people and families with children. I don’t have a place to stay. I don’t have anything to eat …”
Fred reports that staff dismissed his plea for help by explaining that he was a strong man, and thus could survive by himself.
Fred was upset, “Maybe I look like I am strong, but I have no money, no support, no friends and Immigration told me that I will be sent to jail if I work. Strong or sick makes no difference I am still homeless and hungry. What I am supposed to do.”
Fred says a second case worker asked, “Where are you from?” and Fred invited him to look at the papers they had copied. He was then asked what his religion was, and bewildered Fred replied he was Muslim, though he didn’t understand why he was asked such a question. He was then told he should seek help from the mosque.
Fred was confused, “Since I came I didn’t go to the mosque. That would be hypocrite to go when I need help. I came here for welfare as you help refugees.”
Fred felt victimized and humiliated. He realized there was neither sympathy for his case, nor an intention to refer him urgently to the government for assistance.
Fred got the message that he was unwelcome and resolved to close his file at this Christian charity.
He asked them to give back the documents they had copied, but a case worker said he needed to write a request to close his case. Fred wasn’t amused, “When I registered you didn’t ask me to write. Now that I want to close my file I have to write a paper? Why do I have to register if you cannot help me?”
His last words there were the strongest, “No matter what happens to me, I will never come here! Just because I am strong and Muslim I should go to the mosque. I cannot accept this!”
Discussing the incident later with the Refugee Union, Fred lamented that he was discriminated against twice: first for his physical appearance, judged to be ‘physically fit to sleep in the streets’, then on religious grounds.
What is important to note is the expectation of new arrivals that they will be helped, as the name of this charity has been passed down from refugees to new arrivals. However, new arrivals are faced with the grim reality of a failed government assistance mechanism, for which new arrivals unreasonably need to wait weeks, sometimes several months, before being interviewed by the ISS-HK
The few charities that attempt to fills this obvious gap with limited resources, appear to relieve the government from its responsibilities towards new refugee arrivals, while also promoting stereotyping about who better fits the ‘vulnerable’ refugee image.
Refused assistance at the charity, and still unsure when the ISS-HK would ever call him, Fred approached the Refugee Union protest camp in Central where he was warmly welcomed.
The Refugee Union wrote a support letter for Fred and accompanied him to the Social Welfare Department head-office in Wanchai to advocate for an urgent registration with ISS-HK.
He was given an appointment with the ISS-HK on the following day.