“Our experience is that walls do not work … Walls can sometimes divert movement, but will not solve the problem”, said the UNHCR chief Mr. Guterres about the doubling of asylum seekers in Europe in 2014.
Hong Kong experienced a surge in the number of people claiming asylum, with 4,634 new cases lodged between March and December last year. Are these new asylum seekers also new arrivals? Have they been absconding for years and only recently came to know of this avenue of protection?
The CIA World Factbook puts Hong Kong’s land border at 30 km and its maritime border at 733 km, most of which is hard to penetrate undetected. We can only guess, but what is hardly a conjecture is that the controlled entrance points at the airport and land crossings are not the only passages into Hong Kong.
At a time when the authorities are targeting undesirable arrivals at the airport, nothing is said about the considerable number of refugees who enter illegally through other ways – some for the second or third time. It appears that the border with China is rather porous and, for the right price, the trip can be arranged with few hassles and no delay. The choices are various: through the fence, over the hills and by speedboats, known colloquially as ‘ferries’.
From many accounts collected by Vision First over the years, entering without a visa is not a matter of difficulty, but unsurprisingly only a question of money. In 2009 the going rate was 4,000 HK$, while today refugees are charged 12,000 to 15,000 HK$ per person.
Why is it so? Who is involved and who profits from this trade? Certainly it does not seem unreasonable, if the government is really worried about a trend that sees ever more requests for protection, to control what is now an extremely porous border. Or is it not a priority?
Here is the narrative of a refugee who recently arrived from Shenzhen that indicates the ease with which arrangements and journeys are made:
“I couldn’t get a visa with my same name so that is why I had to get illegal entry to Hong Kong. We applied for visa for China. It is not easy. I checked online. I checked with tourist agents. We made a tourist package and China sent us the information. We paid 238 USD per person in our group and they issued a letter that we took to the embassy in (our country).”
“Then we bought one-way air tickets to Guangzhou and stayed at a hotel booked online. The second day we took a train to Shenzhen … We didn’t get a stamp on our passport so we didn’t know how long we could stay in China. We waited there.”
“I asked [people] if there is any way to go from there to Hong Kong. A man gave me his mobile number. I used to talk to him every day. He kept telling me, ‘It is not ready. When it is ready I will let you know.’ He asked for 13,500 HKD each person … Every day I called him and asked when we can leave. He said the sea is dangerous, the cops can come there, so you must wait.”
“Almost one month later he suddenly called, ‘Today you must get ready’ … At 6pm we checked out of the hotel. We called a taxi. I called a Chinese guy who told the taxi driver where to go. I don’t know the location where the guy was waiting for us. He saw us and said, ‘You follow me’. I had never seen him before. We walked … then we stopped in a very dark place. He showed us a place on the water.”
“He told us to go sit (on the shore). There were stones in the shallow water and our feet got wet. Later several rowing boats arrived and took us. They rowed for a while and stopped under some trees, along the seashore. We waited longer. Then one of them took a torch and flicked the light a few times. Suddenly a motorboat appeared from the dark …”
“It was an outboard boat made of wood, about 3m long. It had a big engine. I was very scared. In my life it was the first time I had this experience. I was holding on and did not know what would happen. The driver said, ‘Keep still. Don’t move. Head down. Police there.’ He drove very fast …”
“Suddenly I saw my SIM card activated to Smartone, then I knew we were in Hong Kong. I ask him to stop us there as we were afraid and wanted to get off the boat. But he said, ‘No. Just sit there!’ He stopped further up by a small slope. He walked up and asked us to follow him. He called another man who was 20 meters away.”
“I feel that the border between China and Hong Kong is easy to cross. All the time I was praying in China on the bed because even my friends said it is not easy. I was afraid of crossing the sea, but these people made it very easy. Perhaps I was lucky because others say it is very dangerous …”