Seeking asylum in Hong Kong is an unpleasant experience particularly for new arrivals who receive no official guidance and no government welfare for several months. There is no intake process to evaluate vulnerability and assess the need for emergency assistance. Instead the assumption is made that new refugees will independently secure food, shelter, clothing, transport fares and other basic needs.
It is unclear which welfare principles the authorities adopt to abandoned stranded foreigners to their own devices after warning they will be jailed for 15 months if arrested working. Hong Kong government unreasonably expects that new refugees have the resources and capacity to be self-sufficient for up to 3 months when actually entitled to welfare from the moment they are released on recognizance.
Vision First has frequently reported that the current intake arrangements by SWD and ISS-HK are wholly inadequate and cause vulnerable refugees great distress: “CIC was heaven, I shouted at ISS” (16 Aug 2014); “Failed intake system alienates new arrivals” (12 Jun 2014); “Hong Kong needs a reception strategy for refugees” (16 Jan 2014); “Hong Kong needs welfare services for new arrivals” (13 Dec 2013). Although dozens of refugees have been settled in guesthouses, there seem to be no guidelines to prevent new refugee homelessness.
“My eyes and neck are hurting after sleeping in the park for days,” Mohammed said at the Refugee Union protest camp. “Yesterday I went to the hospital because my stomach was paining too much after eating bad food. I lost much weight since I arrived in Hong Kong as I don’t have enough food to eat. I don’t know what to do anymore because the UNHCR said they have no more power and it is up to the Hong Kong government to provide assistance.”
In August 2013 Mohammed fled the Central African Republic after surviving the genocide of his minority group. Many of his friends and family were not so lucky. He sought asylum in Cameroon where his life was still in danger, though he explains, “The living conditions there were better than in Hong Kong. I had a place to stay and food to eat. I can say that the UNHCR in Cameroon is much better than UNHCR in Hong Kong.”
Mohammed shares the misconception that the UNHCR is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of refugees worldwide, including Hong Kong. He cannot understand why it took Immigration two months to issue him papers and why he had to travel five times to Kowloon Bay to be told to return the following week when he was destitute. Only after begging to be arrested so he could eat and sleep in prison, was he provided with a recognizance form.
Mohammed took the document to the SWD in Yau Ma Tei thinking that his ordeal was over and he would receive welfare at last. Instead he reports being told by an SWD officer, “It is not possible to get service now. You must wait for ISS to call you. There are many asylum seekers to process and you have to wait two or three months before you can get assistance.” He notes that no inquiries were made about his health and living conditions.
Mohammed was angry and couldn’t imagine how he would endure three more months in the street. Irritated he asked the SWD officer, “This is not possible. For two or three months where am I going to stay? What am I going to eat?” The officer seemed unconcerned and indifferent to his suffering. The officer repeated that ISS was too busy and ISS would call him in two to three months. The following weeks, on several occasions, Mohammed returned to SWD begging for help and was told that it was not the SWD’s duty to provide these services and that he had to wait for ISS-HK to assist him. He was never offered any emergency food.
Homelessness is rough and distressing for refugees who cannot access SWD shelters that are reserved for residents. Mohammed learnt from refugees the few options he had: if the weather is good, there is Kowloon Park and the Cultural Center by the Star Ferry; if it is raining, there are McDonald stores and doorways around the Chung King Mansions area. The last ten days of Ramadan were the most comfortable as the Kowloon mosque remained open at night and the faithful were welcomed to spend the night.
When will Hong Kong government address the suffering newly arrived refugees endure?