Newly arrived refugees are frequently arrested at work places where they attempt to earn survival money to pay for food and lodging because they do not receive government assistance. Exploitation in the informal economy compels these individuals into close to slavery conditions, often at the hands of unscrupulous co-national residents, to earn 200$ for heavy labour (loading, construction, recycling) and 100$ for light labour (washing, cooking, cleaning) from dawn till dusk.
Desperate newcomers accept such paltry payments that are considered sufficient to pay for food and lodging for a day. Clearly they are not economic migrants planning to remit savings overseas. They find accommodation with co-national refugees with whom they share food and rent. Bed spaces are typically rented for 1000$ a month and it isn’t unusual for two or three people to share a bed.
New arrivals gravitate towards the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui where they sleep rough and make the acquaintance of refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Africa – more refugees appear to be homeless than in previous years. Refugees help refugees, while residents look down on asylum seekers, particularly those from the same country, and don’t like to be seen associating with ‘paper people’.
Through networking at the bottom of the social ladder newcomers learn to apply for welfare (a process that takes 2 to 3 months) and are directed to sitting-out areas near the ISS-HK offices and food collection shops, where they connect with middlemen offering work as well as room and board. The informal economy redirects labour quicker and more efficiently than the authorities process indigent refugees who might have spent as much as 40,000 HKD and incurred debts to reach safety.
“Only bring yourself and leave your bags ashore” refugees are told when boarding illegal speedboats that ply the waters between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Luggage that had been carried a long distance is abandoned on the Chinese coast. With expressions such as “God will help me” passengers depart with nothing more than the clothes they are wearing and wallets emptied along a journey of exploitation. Once in Hong Kong, newcomers must work for food and lodging as well as to buy clothes and shoes.
The late filing of asylum claims by new arrivals is cited by authorities as evidence of deviancy and proof that ‘bogus’ claimants arrived with intentions other than international protection. While this might sometimes be true, foreigners project on local police experiences of brutality that related to victims being beaten, robbed and framed with fake charges by policemen in their countries of origin.
To delay filing is also a survival strategy rooted in the inadequacy of welfare for refugees. It is well-known that the assistance package provided by SWD fails to meet basic needs and that refugees must consequently earn a living somehow. New arrivals learn quickly that if they are arrested working as overstayers they will be sentenced to 3 months jail, but as registered refugees to 15 months. No right-minded person would accept a 15 months prison sentence where 3 months are possible.
In the words of a refugee, “If you have Immigration paper then you get no concession, you must go to jail for 15 months. But if you don’t have paper then you get 3 months sentence and after pleading guilty and cutting one third, you serve just 2 months. Also sometimes police make arrest of overstayers with little evidence and send them directly to CIC. But if you are refugee you must be go to court and then jail” It should then come as no surprise that savvy refugees work this reality to their advantage.
Further, it is reported that after the expiration of tourist visas, Immigration delays registering new protection claimants for several weeks with excuses ranging from the unavailability of interpreters to a backlog of cases. It could be speculated that there is a malicious intention to deliberately delay the process with the aim of postponing the engagement of government services, including welfare, as refugees cannot approach the Social Welfare Department without Immigration papers.
Without being conspiratorial, there is evidence suggesting there are opposing forces at play that disadvantage first attempts to seek asylum in Hong Kong. Delays in acknowledging claims, processing newcomers and rendering welfare services exacerbate the vulnerability of asylum seekers who then break the law by working only to be arrested with a view to quashing their claims and deporting them.
Are these the high standards of fairness that Hong Kong Government should ensure?