“Where is your hijab, Sister?” called out humorously a young Pakistani man to a voluptuous Muslim woman who entered the common area of a fetid refugee slum. A twenty-two year old lady dashed joyfully past in a beige singlet sustained by two thin shoulder straps. Her flowery skirt was short and breezy. In her arms was a two month baby born outside of wedlock. Many rules had been broken.
Our Pakistani friend was joking. He too has greatly enjoyed the freedoms of a modern city such as Hong Kong: drinking, dating, social media and diverse entertainment a world away from the restrictions that control many aspects of social life in his homeland. Cultural emancipation, social freedom and independence contribute to shaping protection-related decisions for refugees.
“You know, hundreds of helpers become refugees” Ambar said. “Some hate too long working hours, hard job and very small rooms. And the madam always controlling them. Some don’t get a day off on weekend and others don’t get paid their full salary. It’s not what the girls expected coming here.
More women approached Vision First this year than before. 49 of the past 300 registrations were former Foreign Domestic Helpers, many with little babies under the age of one. Our friend explained, “They are young and see refugee ladies being more free than them. They don’t understand our problems because they only compare their hard life with refugees’ easy life.”
Immigration turns down many asylum claims stating that “your written significance does not give a general indication of your reason … that relate to an act falling within the meaning of torture, BOR 3 and/or persecution risk.” Vision First provides services to protection claimants irrespective of applicable grounds we are not called to assess. We are reminded of the basic legal principle that every individual has the right to seek asylum.
We are concerned nonetheless that restrictive employment terms are enabling a survival game leading down the path of asylum, a game for which many forces are at play and abuse is only in the mind of those who superficially cast judgments over women deprived of their humanity to be labelled impersonal workers.
It is commonly known that the main reason why terminated maids do not return home is debt. They take heavy loans to work in HK and are rightly afraid of the consequence of failing to repay creditors. The government should consider effective policy changes, such as increasing the 14 days visa granted to terminate maids to find new employers. There should also be a government program to broaden the network beyond the limited connections of the importing agency, while also curbing exploitation, abuse and cheating on salaries and benefits. Bad employers and agents play a major part in this drama. Further, the emotional burden paid by women forced to endure long years in solitude should be evaluated and addressed.
Every former domestic helper has her own story and unique circumstances that push her towards the asylum sphere which need to be attentively assessed in proper asylum hearings. While they are responsible for their actions, indeed they are not always at fault. A few examples: there are two persons behind pregnancies, but single moms are often left with the baby; some employers exploit maids like slaves: one had hers cooking at home day and night for his restaurant; another took hers to work in Shenzhen; a maid was fired because her English was not good enough to teach the kids; another maid was only given a couple of buns a day; many don’t have a bedroom and are forced to sleep on the kitchen floor …
Caught between oppressive conditions at work and unmanageable debt at home, it is no surprise that hundreds, if not thousands, of domestic workers seek the temporary freedom of asylum to avoid insurmountable problems. Instead they should be better assisted and supported, educated about choices and informed about alternatives before they abandon the path to legal employment in Hong Kong.
One cannot expect that young ladies, often with little formal education, can master unassisted the complexities of a modern city, a city that needs to stop pushing the more vulnerable populations into ever grimmer and more daunting situations. It might wiser and less expensive to address local causes of asylum claims than through millions at a questionable screening process.