By Refugee Union staff writer
After the historic registration of the refugee union as a society, refugees celebrated the event with pomp and color. They were very confident and optimistic. The few I talked to expressed their feelings with confidence. One refugee from Pakistan said “I am very happy today that the Hong Kong Police registered our Union. The police is very helpful, now we can use the Refugee Union to fight for all refugees without fear. We have a strong Union to push the government for changes.”
After the dust settled the Union called for its first meeting a week ago, attendance was strong, the determination to face the future with confidence, resilience of their attitude and hope was commendable despite the odds and challenges that lay ahead of them. A Bangladesh Refugee who has been in Hong Kong for more than 5 years commended Vision First for their role to awaken and inspire refugees to wake up and fight for their rights. He said, “Vision First taught us to stand up and fight for our human rights, they showed us how to push this government to change this inhuman and degrading refugee system in Hong Kong . We wrote petitions, went for protests and we saw some results. Food and rent was improved but that’s not enough, we still live like beggars on the street “.
Another refugee interjected and said “We will never get tired, we have nothing else to do, this is future and only hope, fight and fight and fight until the Security Bureau respects our rights as human beings.” The mood was somehow tense as every refugee wanted to put forward their ideas and contributions. I watched with bated breath as the jostling for space to speak played out, this was not the Refugee Union of yesterday, the members were fully charged to confront and address their problems.
Skilled and highly motivated they expressed their frustrations with the government, from lack of information about USM to their living conditions that each speaker had problems with. They lamented the attitude and lack of seriousness by the government to respond to their cries.
A refugee from Africa shot up and said, “Remember that the government did not choose to implement this system. It was forced to do so by the Court of final Appeal ruling in 2013. That’s why they carry out this exercise the way the Hong Kong Immigration does it. This put their unwillingness in play. It’s a system that is intentionally designed and perfected to achieve their goal. And their goal is to reject all our claims! Perhaps accept 1 in one-thousand!”
Everybody went quiet as they tried to digest that comment. Eventually an African woman spoke up, “I am not surprised that the government has not yet responded to complaints and issues raised by the claimants or NGOs who seek information regarding the USM. They are unwilling to address or even tackle the myriads of challenges that the system was meant to address. For them it’s business as usual”.
For next two hours the refugees resolved to collectively work as a supportive community to improve their welfare as well as try and reach out to the Hong Kong public to demystify the refugee stories out there. Everyone present resolved that there is need to strengthen the society for a stronger Union that will better absorb the shocks for the refugees as they embark on a tumulus journey into the uncertain and unknown future.
On 20 October 2014, a group of determined refugees achieved a significant result when the Refugee Union, conceptualized in January 2014, was successfully registered in accordance with the provisions of section 5A(1) of the Societies Ordinance.
The Chief Executive of the HKSAR appointed the Commissioner of Police to be the Societies Officer and the Police Licensing Office for the first time registered a society of individuals holding Immigration Recognizance Forms and subject to removal orders. It is reported that other groups of protection claimants are already following the steps of these pioneers.
From the early days of Occupy ISS-HK, the Refugee Union overcame many challenges as it developed its identity around a vision to become a union of protection claimants in Hong Kong that aims to safeguarding refugee rights and improving the protection, wellbeing and future prospects of all refugees.
Shunned by some refugees it is indeed highly appreciated by many others whose voice, given today’s asylum policies, we can only assume have long been unheard by policy-makers and non-refugee advocates. Today the Refugee Union promote self-reliance, empowerment and active participation in matters shaping the asylum sphere according to the highest standards of human rights.
After months of preparation, the Refugee Union is the first refugee-led society in Hong Kong. While similar examples exist among migrant workers, it is in our view troubling that this achievement was never attempted in the past. Perhaps the time was not ripe. This is however only one victorious step in a long journey that will last years, if not decades. Most of the work to strengthen the base and structure of union has just begun and demands sincere collaboration.
The Refugee Union is a positive development that will tests the maturity of members to think and act for the greater good of the entire community – collectively, altruistically and outside the usual third-party networks. The road ahead will not be smooth, but the excitement recorded in the hours following the announcement of the registration promises goodwill and widespread support.
What is next? Much has been learnt from challenges overcome since January, with important lessons already reflected in the Constitution currently being drafted. For example, instead of having a Chairman, members will appoint Councilors in three Committees that will balance authority and handle all matters relating to the society and members’ duties and responsibilities.
With the logistical support of Vision First, an independent office has been equipped at 102 First Street where members can meet daily to discuss problems and formulate actions to accomplish short and long term objectives. The Refugee Union will prioritize securing resources to sustain itself and become a leading voice to influence policies and practices that affect the entire refugee community, reported to be 8000 strong.