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Celebrating World Refugee Day: The Plight of Refugees in Hong Kong


Imagine trying to find housing in Hong Kong with just $1,500 for rent or surviving on a daily food budget of $40 in the world's most expensive city. Sounds impossible, right? Yet, for asylum seekers and refugees seeking shelter in Hong Kong, this is their harsh reality. In celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20, we spoke to Jeffrey Andrews, senior social worker and manager of Christian Action Centre for Refugees, to shed light on the plight of refugees in Hong Kong.

 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are individuals who have been forced to flee their countries due to persecution, war, or violence. Most of them are unable to return home and live in constant fear of being persecuted. Political conflicts, tribal disputes, and religious tensions are only some of the reasons that contribute to their desperate need for safety and refuge in other countries.

 

In Pic: Hong Kong's heritage is intertwined with a rich history of migration. These photos from the Centre for Refugees depict our city’s journey with refugees since the 1940s, showing individuals from Vietnam, Russia, and Maoist China.

 

“Our clients are from all over the word,” says Jeff, who shared that some refugee clients at the centre fled their homes after enduring unimaginable torture and experiences as child soldiers, due to different religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Some were professionals, including doctors and lawyers, in their home countries.

 

Currently, Hong Kong hosts approximately 14,000 asylum seekers, but only around 400 of them have been granted refugee status. Since Hong Kong has not signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, asylum seekers cannot claim the right to abode in the city and must apply for resettlement. They have to seek a status called non-refoulement, which protects them from deportation where they may face serious harm or death at home. The screening process, known as the Unified Screening Mechanism or USM, can take years or even a decade, leaving many trapped in a limbo while navigating the challenges of life in the city.

 

“The longest wait I’ve encountered for a client is 22 years,” shared Jeff. Shockingly, in the past 20 years, only 330 refugees have been granted resettlement - a mere 2 percent of those currently seeking asylum in the city.

 

In Pic: Jeffrey Andrews is the senior social worker and manager of the Centre for Refugees. Source: Centre for Refugees Facebook.

 

Refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong are prohibited from working, leaving them reliant on minimal government welfare for housing, food, and transportation. The allocated subsidy of $1,500 for rent and $1,200 for food (in Park N’ Shop grocery cards) has remained unchanged since the introduction of the USM in 2014, despite the skyrocketing cost of living and inflation in Hong Kong. Consequently, many find themselves living in substandard conditions, residing in squatter huts or poorly maintained "caged homes" in remote areas.


In Pic: Aerial view of a crowded Vietnamese refugee camp in Hong Kong in the 1970s.

Centre for Refugees, located in Chungking Mansions, is the only drop-in community centre for asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Serving 700 clients per month, it provides emergency support and assistance, including humanitarian aid, medical and psycho-social support, education, and employability training to those seeking shelter. In 2017, the Centre launched the Employability Programme, enabling refugees to participate in the city's workforce with the help of private sponsorships from corporations.

 

“One of our clients, who used to be a Buddhist monk in Bangladesh, was named ‘employee of the year’ at a 5-star hotel. This recognition for refugees is just not something you hear every day,” says Jeff. At the start of 2024, there were 106 recognized refugees working in Hong Kong. That number has decreased to 84, as more resettlements have taken place in the US and Canada - a very positive development after the lack of movement during Covid.

 

There has also been a positive shift in the local community's perception, both towards Chungking Mansions and the notion of "fake refugees." Negative stereotypes perpetuated by the local media, associating refugees with crimes and welfare fraud by using terms like "fake refugees" and "illegal immigrants," are gradually changing. There’s also an increased awareness and support from the local community, universities, and corporations. Refugee clients are also more empowered to speak out and share their stories.

In Pic: Jeff and his team at Centre for Refugees. Source: Centre for Refugees Facebook.

 

When asked about the support needed for refugees, Jeff emphasised that funding is not the only requirement for the NGO. “Funding is, of course, important because we need the financial support to provide our services. However, it's also about raising awareness and creating dialogues to shine a light on the plight of asylum seekers and refugees."

 

In celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20, here are ways you can support:

 

●      Donate oil, rice, canned, and boxed food items

●      Donate essential items such as blankets, hygiene products like sanitary pads, and baby supplies

●      Volunteer your time and skills at the centre or at the Refugee Day event

●      Share your knowledge about refugees to create dialogue and dispel myths and misconceptions

 

The Centre for Refugees will have its World Refugee Day celebration on 21 June at St. Andrews Church, Tsim Sha Tsui. For more information about their work, visit https://www.cfr.org.hk/

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