Refugees and asylum seekers

Posts regarding refugees and asylum seekers, and their plights all over the world.

Hong Kong refugee welfare changes ‘disappointing’

Reugees sit on a ledge overlooking the city

Photo: SoCo

Long-awaited welfare changes to affect thousands of refugees, have come into effect today in Hong Kong. 

Increases in rental and food assistance, utility expenses and help with rental deposits are among the improvements.

But the policy still doesn’t include the right to work, even after residing in the city for a long period of time.

A Central African lawyer-turned-charity worker, who came to Hong Kong to seek asylum in 2004, is among many who say it’s not enough. 

Robert, who fled civil war and persecution in his country, says, “It’s not at all enough. In fact, in Hong Kong there’s no way you can get a room for HK$1500. It’s just a kind of cave, a place where you put your bed, nothing more.”

The value of the food bag given to refugees and asylum seekers, three to six times a month, has increased to HK$1200, working out at HK$13 per meal (£1 / US$1.7).

Financial help towards utilities has gone up a mere HK$40, though research from the Refugee Concern Network shows that 88% of refugees are unable to afford the utilities they require.

African migrants

Photo: J.Castle

Somali journalist Ibraahim Jeekey, who claimed asylum in Hong Kong around 5 months ago, says, “If I tell you the truth, 5 months and above, I am not calling my children. So I don’t know if they’re alive or dead. But the problem is that you cannot get $1 in Hong Kong to buy a [phone] card.”

The Government argues that their assistance to refugees is aid, not welfare.

But Albert Ho, democratic legislator and member of the panel on Welfare Services, explains that, “The Government says they don’t want to send a signal to the outside world that Hong Kong welcomes refugees.”

“In other words, if you want to come [here] you have to lead a very difficult life. It’s inhuman, it’s uncivilised.”

The Hong Kong Government set a poverty threshold in late 2013.

Cosmo Beatson, co-founder of refugee advocacy group Vision First, says, “the previous refugee welfare package oppressed them at 37% below that rate. And even with the increase, they remain at 20% below the poverty rate.”

Julee Allen, manager of Christian Action in Hong Kong, explains, “they struggle they really do. I see people who come and sell their belongings, their jewellery, piece by piece, to bring in a bit of additional income.”

The waiting game

The People’s Republic of China signed the Refugee Convention in 1951. But it was never extended to include Hong Kong, which currently has no refugee laws.

The city signed the Convention on Torture in 1992, yet has a near to zero acceptance rate.

Asylum claims are currently assessed by the UNHCR before a decision is made by the Immigration Department, who also deal with torture claims.

As a result, both asylum seekers and torture claimants often wait many years for a decision to be made on their status.

Research by the Refugee Concern Network shows that 13% of asylum seekers wait 7-8 years and 29% wait more than 9 years.

Ibraahim says, “Here is a community of 75 Somalis living in asylum. Really they become crazy because they sit here in the same place for 3 years, 4 years, 7 years.”

Photo: BillyHCKwok

Photo: BillyHCKwok

“Your pockets are empty. Really we are sleeping and eating only. We go to the mosque to pray, and we go to our home.”

Currently, around 1,900 asylum seekers and 4,200 torture claimants are still awaiting decisions on their claims, according to the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (HKRAC).

“We see a lot of depression from the months and years of waiting. The people we see are former professionals. Not being able to work is enormously demoralising,” Julee explains.

“They want to give back to Hong Kong, but the laws set up around their status forbid it. They can’t work, they depend on the state, they’re not even allowed to volunteer.”

Neither recognised refugees or asylum seekers are allowed to work in the city, and face 22 months in prison for taking part in work illegally.

Cosmo points out that, “Robbery in Hong Kong, gets 7-8 months [in prison], for prostitution you get 2-3 months, so these policies are actually forcing criminality.”

Most other countries that accept refugees allow them to work if a decision hasn’t been made on their status after a year. But refugees in Hong Kong can wait 10 years or more in limbo.

Photo: BillyHCKwok

Photo: BillyHCKwok

A right to dignity

A case being heard at Hong Kong’s highest court includes three recognised refugees and one successful torture claimant, who are fighting for the right to earn a living

All of them have been in Hong Kong for more than 10 years.

If successful, the outcome of the hearing may be a watershed moment for refugees and asylum seekers in the city, allowing many more in desperate situations to work.

Mark Daly, the lawyer who is fighting the case, says, “The arguments that we’re running are based on basic law and the International Human Rights Convention – the right to privacy and the right to avoid cruel and degrading treatment.”

“So it’s really an indicator of how far Hong Kong courts will go to uphold human rights.”

At the discretion of the Director of Immigration, Robert was recently granted the right to work and spends his days helping other refugees in need.

“I have recovered part of my dignity and my privacy.  I really felt lost on one hand, and on the other hand I was feeling useless. Because I couldn’t get any opportunity to use my talents, my energy and my strength.”

“The Government should think how they can make use of this community. Among them there are many talented people and they can contribute to society in Hong Kong.”

Fame Asylum: Thinking out of the box to change popular opinion on asylum seekers

If someone asked you how you would try to change the public’s perception of refugees and asylum seekers, the last thing that would come to mind would be to form an asylum seeker boy-band in 2 weeks. But nothing escapes the mind of Richard Dedomenici.

The Platforma Festival, a collection of talks, performances and displays of artwork by and about refugees, has run from 29th November to the 4th December.

It has given me another chance to see ‘Fame Asylum‘ by Richard Dedomenici and listen to his reflections on the project 5 years after it was broadcast.

The man himself

Renowned for coming up with thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, or to some, jaw-dropping Live Art, Richard Dedomenici isn’t your average film-maker, or artist.

He spent part of 2004 wandering around Chicago with a plastic bag over his head and hands tied behind his back, in the same fashion as prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Then spookily days later, the prisoner abuse scandal was availed in the Iraqi prison.

“I want to create the kind of uncertainty that leads to possibility” he says on his website, where one can get a real sense of what live art is.

Show Aims

The documentary, art project, TV show, however you may perceive it, ‘Fame Asylum’ was aimed at poking fun at the genre of talent shows but eventually became a part of it. It was structured with all the X-Factor/Pop Idol elements; auditions, rehearsal, performance.

The difference this time is that this talent show also aimed to take away the stigma that exists around asylum seekers and refugees due to negativity portrayed in the mainstream press.

Richard had wanted people who wouldn’t usually come into contact with asylum seekers, but who would watch talent shows on TV, to interact with asylum seekers through the project. Some people who commented on the show by email had expressed their change in opinion towards asylum seekers after watching it.

Richard admitted to losing a lot of control over the project as Channel 4, who commissioned the piece, had preferences.

The show provokes emotions at both ends of the spectrum. There is the comedy of four asylum seekers who begin dancing out of time, and singing out of tune. But there is also the heart-breaking story of each individual’s plight, having lost family and traveled alone far from home at a young age.

Status, as the group was eventually named, consisted of Long from Vietnam, Saeed from Iran, Aaron from Albania and David from Nigeria. 

Asylum Issues

Many of the issues in the lives of asylum seekers are covered in the show. Aaron, after making his life in the UK, is ashamed to let his English friends know that he’s an asylum seeker due to the stigma around the term.

David, having relied on the Church since coming to the UK, battled between performing on stage or going to Church when they need his assistance.

Unaccompanied minors are asylum seekers who come to the UK under the age of 18, without the supervision on an adult. They are allowed to stay in the UK under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As Saeed was approaching 18 when the show was being filmed, he faced deportation.

Richard had had doubts before starting the project, wondering if making the boys into a boy-band for 2 weeks only for it to cease to exist afterwards, was being fair or not. But the ‘Status’ boys reflected positively afterwards.

Apparently when Richard and the boys watched the show back together, emotions were high.Status didn’t get snapped up by a record company, but Richard is glad of it. He thinks they are all capable of much more than that.

Though his original priority had been to create an art project, it soon changed to be the interests of the boys in Status.

My Reflection

With years experience working with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and the issues that they face, I feel Richard Dedomenici’s project had a genuine intention to change public opinion.

We all try different ways to tackle the problem of the negativity towards this vulnerable group, but none of us have thought outside of the box.

‘Fame Asylum’ helps us to realise that there are no limits to what we can do. And even if the things we do only change a few opinions, then we’re on our way to getting there.

The reality of the infotainment era that we are in, is that people don’t like to deal with serious issues. The only way we can get ordinary people to look deeper into issues like Asylum, is to make them entertaining. And that’s what Richard Dedomenici has done.

Australian immigration issues re-emerge after boat tragedy

A boat holding seventy Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani asylum seekers, bound for Australia, sank yesterday off the unpatrolled coast of Java.

The death toll of the incident has risen to 8 after the body of a nine year old Iranian boy was found in the sea this morning.

Fourty eight have been reportedly rescued, but the remaining people are feared drowned.

The tragedy has renewed the controvertial debate over the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott is encouraging a vote on the changes to the Migration Act, which would allow the processing of offshore asylum seekers.

A change like this could prevent the deaths of many more asylum seekers, attempting to reach Australia.

There have been two thousand nine hundred and ten irregular maritime arrivals to Australia this year alone.

This is partially because taking the UN  program route can leave asylum seekers waiting in camps in Malaysia and Indonesia indefinitely.

Those who do reach Australia face detention. Just last week a Sri Lankan refugee in a Sydney detention centre committed suicide after being detained for 2 years.

The refugee, who was awaiting security clearance, had allegedly been denied the right to perform a Hindu ritual.