A Bangladeshi refugee rests under an altar for Chinese gods in front of his shack rented from a Chinese landlord inside a quarters at the rural Ping Chi in Hong Kong’s New Territories June 19, 2013. According to Vision First, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) supporting Hong Kong-based refugees, about 150 Bangladeshi asylum seekers and torture claimants reside in that area, suffering one of the worst conditions among thousands of refugees in the territory. Refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work, with the government paying HK$1,200 ($154) rent directly to the landlord. - REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Cosmo Beatson and Francesco Vecchio write for South China Morning Post on 20 June 2013
The world is wondering why Edward Snowden chose Hong Kong in his darkest hour. Was this the safest bet? Will he seek asylum? How will this espionage thriller develop? Although Hong Kong is widely credited for its rule of law, there is a rampant divergence between jurisprudence and reality. To illustrate this dislocation, imagine an alien from outer space researching refugee rights here. He would learn about laws that offer protection and would probably admire the justice and human rights enshrined in such legislation. “Here is a place that welcomes refugees!” he would exclaim. Our alien wouldn’t realise that asylum seekers are actually treated no differently than illegal immigrants, endure chronic poverty and are marginalised without adequate social provision. Thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong. Lo and behold, an alien has landed and his name is Edward Snowden.
Would alien Snowden’s experience be different from that of thousands of others who wait years for a decision on their asylum claim? Would Hong Kong roll out the red asylum carpet? Perhaps Snowden could peruse newspaper stories for a glimpse of reality. A recent article on refugees’ appalling living conditions in Ping Che was railed at by readers who overlooked such dreadful, government-sanctioned slums, because they label refugees as economic migrants. Regrettably, they also blame organisations like Vision First for advancing refugees’ rights and humanitarian needs. It’s hard to predict what Snowden’s next move might be. If he seeks asylum, he probably won’t be accused of fabricating or exaggerating fears of persecution. Few are as famous, resourceful and articulate. And nobody has unleashed a media storm like this one before. By contrast, the stark reality couldn’t be more different for thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong.
The truth is that Snowden is a privileged American, while asylum seekers generally flee developing countries, are penniless and must work illegally to make ends meet. While presumably he has money to pay hotel bills, less celebrated asylum seekers sleep in slum-like conditions – if not homeless at the Star Ferry. Vision First advocates the principle that every asylum claim is genuine until all legal remedies are exhausted. In the interim, asylum seekers should benefit from the rights and privileges enjoyed by all citizens, because economic expectations are hardly incompatible with seeking asylum. Alien Snowden would be dismayed to learn how asylum seekers are trapped in a socio-legal space where their constitutional rights are negated by repressive policies designed to encourage “voluntary” departures. Afforded only minimal assistance, claimants are forced to work illegally, fostering the perception they are criminals rather than victims, untrustworthy rather than credible. Such unjustified misconceptions underplay cases of merit and undermine survival strategies compelled by the lack of legal access to labour markets. Asylum seekers survive with monthly assistance worth HK$1,000 to HK$1,200 for rent and HK$900 for groceries – amounts that haven’t been adjusted with inflation since 2006. For their daily needs, they dejectedly rely on the generosity of friends, but even the kindest supporter will eventually tire of helping the same people year after year. Soon, they figure out that wages earned in the informal economy are the only viable solution.
It’s unreasonable to expect asylum seekers to beg when it could take 10 years for their case to be determined. There are flaws in a system that purports to meet legal obligations, while upholding policies that appear aimed at discouraging asylum. Is Snowden ready to endure a process that accepted only four of 12,500 torture claims in two decades? We should be concerned about policies that collude with a despicable charade in which the trappings of justice are meticulously observed, while rights are systematically violated. Further, it is wholly unreasonable how the hardship of refugees is exacerbated by draconian prison sentences for working illegally. Punitive laws catch in one dragnet refugees who struggle to keep a roof over their head – often in a slum. The risk of eviction for failing to pay rent and utilities is as real for refugees as it is for everyone else confronted by spiralling costs. Chronic deprivation, however, is more devastating for refugees unable to survive with neither adequate support nor employment rights. Would policymakers please demonstrate how they are expected to survive? Would Snowden care to blow this whistle too?
Hong Kong refugees are both demonised as illegal immigrants and criminalised for eking out a miserable existence. Sandwiched between an effective zero acceptance rate and inhuman living conditions, this gross injustice will eventually shatter Snowden’s illusion that the rule of law still governs the Fragrant Harbour.
Simpson Cheung writes for South China Morning Post on 13 June 2013
Ailing asylum seekers and torture claimants still appealing against their unsuccessful applications to remain in the city say they are turning to hospital emergency services because they cannot get a waiver of their medical fees. They argue that as their applications are still open, they should continue to enjoy the waivers they were entitled to when they first applied for protection in Hong Kong. Otherwise, they can only resort to the city’s hospital emergency services, which treat patients first before asking for payment, they say. John (not his real name), 29, a Pakistani torture claimant, came down with fever last November, after his claim was rejected by the Immigration Department. Denied a medical fee waiver while his application for a judicial review was pending, he queued for hours at emergency services to receive treatment. After he was treated, he had no money to foot the bill, so “for two to three days, they [the hospital] kept calling me, saying, ‘your bill, your bill’,” he said. “Who can pay my bill?” He finally paid the HK$500 he owed the hospital after he was granted legal aid recently.
Mohamed Sultan, 57, a Sri Lankan who is appealing the rejection of his torture claim application, gets a waiver for his diabetes treatment. But he was not granted a waiver for getting his injuries treated after he was beaten up in the street in April. “My case was rejected, but I am still living legally in Hong Kong … Why don’t you give me a medical [waiver]?” he said. Mohamed Sultan has been here for more than eight years while his claim for protection because of torture in his home country is being investigated. He would rather be arrested so that he could enjoy free medical services in jail, he said. He still owes the hospital HK$1,730. Habibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi and father of two, took his son to a doctor last September because of a heart problem. But he was not granted a medical waiver because his torture claim had been rejected. As a result, he had to take the boy to a public hospital for emergency medical services instead. He still owes the hospital HK$600, he said. This year, Rahman applied for the government to reassess his case after a landmark court case last December that ruled officials should give equal weight to the prospect of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment – not just torture – if the applicant were returned to his or her home country. But he was not sure whether the application entitled him to a medical waiver. He dared not take his son to hospital again as he was afraid he would be arrested if he could not settle the bill. He had to resort to borrowing money from friends in order to consult private doctors on his son’s condition, he said.
The head of a rights group that helps people seeking protection said the government was putting up roadblocks against such people so that they were denied a normal life in the city. Vision First executive director Cosmo Beatson said: “This is a culture of rejection. They try to make your life so hard that you will just give up and leave. “How can you abandon asylum seekers in the city who are sick or pregnant? This is immoral.” A Hospital Authority spokesman said medical waivers for people whose torture and asylum claims could not be validated followed those of non-residents. To ensure “rational use of limited public resources, their fees generally would not be waived unless there were exceptional circumstances”. Each application was considered separately, he said. The majority of torture claimants in Hong Kong came from South Asia or Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Those whose claims are denied by the Immigration Department have a right to appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board.
Carolynne Dear writes for Southside Magazine in June 2013
It’s a steep climb to the Vision First offices on the fifth floor of a ramshackle building in Sai Ying Pun. I nearly miss it, but the owner of the fruit and veg shop next door is used to directing people of all nationalities to the refugee charity’s office. It’s a buzzing melting pot of races and nationalities, with everyone chatting away on sofas and chairs; the walls are covered in homemade ads for beach barbecues, sewing groups, yoga groups. It’s casework morning for the charity’s co-founder, Shek O resident Danielle Stutterd, and the waiting list is long. Behind a makeshift screen, Stutterd is talking to an African woman about applying for school entrance for her children (“Don’t worry, they’re not looking for the children to score 100 per cent”). She explains how to catch the MTR, how she mustn’t be late, and ensures the anxious-looking woman has enough change for the journey. This is the beating heart of Vision First, a grassroots, non-government organization set up by Stutterd and friend Cosmo Beatson – a one-time luxury car dealer – four years ago to provide shelter and basic humanitarian needs for Hong Kong’s officially unrecognized refugee population. “I come from a teaching background,” explains Stutterd. “I was volunteering for Christian Action (CA), one of the only other charities supporting refugees, but I seemed to be doing more counselling than teaching. It was harrowing; tales of torture, beatings, rape, murder. I was emotionally wrung-out. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it, so I got a degree in social work.”
At CA, Stutterd worked her way up from caseworker to assistant manager. Then she and Beatson decided to set up Vision First. Hong Kong is not a signatory of The Refugee Convention and therefore does not have to recognize asylum-seekers. Instead, responsibility for the status of claimants has been taken up by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which receives about 150 applications a month. “It takes years for refugees to receive official status,” Stutterd explains. “And while they’re waiting, they’re caught in a legal vacuum. They can’t work and are given only meagre government assistance – there is some rental assistance, which is paid directly to the landlord, a food package every 10 days – out-of-date meat and veggies from the bottom of the pile – and access to A&E. We call it the ‘Panadol solution’, they will wait literally for hours and then be handed a packet of Panadol.” The friendly fruit and veg seller downstairs is an official food package supplier. “The packages are handed out and the refugees immediately disappear straight round the corner to sell bits and pieces for a handful of dollars. I have known women to feed their babies wine to make them sleep at night so they can go out and earn money through prostitution,” says Stutterd. “They are absolutely desperate. Imagine having no wallet for a day – then try to live the next ten or so years without one.” Refugees enter Hong Kong from troubled areas of Asia or Africa, often having been sold eye-wateringly expensive packages and the promise of a new life in the US, Canada or Sweden. Instead, they are flown into Hong Kong – one of 140 visa-free countries in the world – enter on a visitor’s visa and begin the long, long wait in no-man’s land under the constant threat of deportation. The really unlucky end up in China, where there are no human rights at all, and find their own way to Hong Kong. Many give up and go home, preferring to risk the atrocities they had fled to the desperate conditions here.
Vision First does all it can to provide humanitarian services, such as clothing, medical care and counselling. Its offices, the only emergency shelter in Hong Kong, are paid for by a private benefactor and Stutterd and Beatson work tirelessly to harness the support of generous local businesses. American Dental Group closes its clinic in the Landmark every few Saturdays to offer free dental treatment to refugees (“They treat everything, root canals, fillings, the lot. The bill must be hundreds of thousands,” says Stutterd). Every Sunday a local restaurant provides about 100 hot meals. And a friend of Stutterd’s from a local theatre company leads drama classes every Wednesday night. Renaissance College in Ma On Shan offers Youth Empowerment Scholarships for disadvantaged young people. Its biggest success story to date is Congolese immigrant Duvalld Ndilou, who arrived penniless in 2005 aged 15 from Congo-Brazzaville, where masked men had abducted his mother and sister from their home. He escaped through a window and found his way to Hong Kong with the help of a local pastor. He registered as an asylum seeker under the UN Convention Against Torture and, aided by Vision First, won a scholarship to Renaissance College. He is now studying to become a nurse in Adelaide and is believed to be the only asylum seeker in Hong Kong to have gone on to tertiary education. For the most part, however, Vision First relies on goodwill. What’s on her wish list? “Donations of non-perishable goods such as tins, rice, pasta and so forth would be amazing,” says Stutterd. “We’re desperate for boxes of large and extra-large nappies, toys, clothing, shoes and school stationery. We would love to hear from people who could teach a class such as music, sewing, knitting, keep fit, sport, or who could help at our fortnightly playgroup. We’d also really welcome help from doctors, psychologists and dermatologists (stress-related skin complaints are a major medical issue in the refugee community). A gynaecologist would be fantastic. And, of course, any financial donations.” And if you email ahead, Stutterd will meet you on the street to collect your donations, so you won’t even have to navigate those steep stairs.
Jolie Ho and Joanna Chu report for the South China Morning Post on 28 April 2013
Hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest against what they see as the government’s failed screening process
Banging African drums and chanting words such as “justice”, hundreds of asylum seekers and torture claimants marched from Central to Immigration Tower in Wan Chai yesterday to protest over what they say is the government’s failed screening process. The rally came as pan-democrats voiced support for an overhaul, with Albert Ho Chun-yan saying he would propose setting up a review committee. Cosmo Beatson, the march organiser and executive director of Vision First, which advocates for the rights of those seeking protection, said the Immigration Department’s rate of recognition of claims was effectively zero. “The recognition rate is only 0.02 per cent [of all claimants] … The department’s screening fails to identify victims,” he said. According to Immigration Department figures, five torture claims have been accepted since December 2009, and 3,110 rejected. About 4,350 are being processed and it estimates 2,000 decisions can be made in 2013-14. A department spokesman said yesterday the claim there was a “zero recognition” rate was groundless. “Any purported correlation between the number of substantiated claims and the standard of fairness or effectiveness of the screening procedures has no rational basis,” he said. Wako Basafe, an asylum seeker from Eritrea in East Africa who has been in Hong Kong for a year, said he wanted a fair and faster system. “From the way they accept asylum seekers, it seems that they just look at the map and see if there’s a problem like civil war in that country. If not, they will not be accepted,” he said. The department was given a greater role in assessing cases after the High Court last month ruled that the government could not rely mainly on a United Nations agency for asylum assessments. Ho, of the Democratic Party, said he had “every reason to believe that there must be some flaws in our screening procedures … to properly identify genuine claimants”. Human rights lawyer Mark Daly said the way the government had “dragged their feet” in implementing the court-ordered reforms had been “shameful”.