Existing in the Shadow – Refugees in Hong Kong

Existing in the Shadow – Refugees in Hong Kong

(Photo credit: author’s own)

After dawn at Rotterdam airport, five Guinean men, rejected their refugee claims, were dragged onto a deportation plane bound for their home country after hours of violent struggle in the middle of the night. Upon reaching the equatorial county, they were sent directly to prison, and nothing has been heard of them since.

As the Dutch documentary Exit – based on this real story – drew to a close on 25 June 2014 in Hong Kong, so did the 7th Refugee Film Festival organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Hong Kong Sub-office to mark the 20 June World Refugee Day. Themed ‘Millions of Families Dream of Going Home’ this year, it focused on the innocent lives repatriated to their home countries, where they face the prosecution, torture and murder that drove them out in the first place.

For the first time since the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is now taking responsibility over Refugee Status Determination, as most developed countries have been doing for decades. On 3 March 2014 a Unified Screening Mechanism was put in place by the Immigration Department to screen protection claimants.

Never having signed the 1951 ‘Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees’, refugee claims in Hong Kong had always been handled by the UNHCR, ever since it established an office in the territory in 1952, a time when the civil war and Communist persecution in Mainland China were driving millions of people from the neighbouring Guangdong province into Hong Kong. In 1992, the then British-dependent territory authority in Hong Kong ratified the ‘United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, Degrading Treatment or Punishment’ in order to protect its subjects from what could possibly happen after the handover, and this became a new channel, beyond the scope of the UN refugee agency’s responsibility, for claiming protection in Hong Kong.

The UNHCR’s mandate in Hong Kong began to change when the Court of Final Appeal ruled in March 2013 that the Hong Kong Government ought to take over this huge task. However, it took yet another year for the transition to complete, months longer than the Associate Protection Officer at the UNHCR Sub-office Nazneen Farooqi had predicted.

The other documentary screenings during this year’s Refugee Film Festival came from all over the world, and allowed the audience to see a more global picture of the situation of refugees. Woodstock in Timbuktu featured the annual peacemaking feast ‘Festival au Desert’ of Mali’s nomadic Tel Tamasheq people in January 2011. Sadly, the outspoken musicians fighting for cultural preservation, gender equality and reconciliation featured in the documentary were forced to flee the area following the 2012 Islamist militant aggression. The Escape told the story of eight Israeli teenagers who followed the route of the Habricha Movement, through which surviving Jews from all across Europe walked to today’s Israel after WWII. And New Walls, produced by Al Jazeera and narrated by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks, presented the new frontier of international forced migration on the outskirts of the European Union –namely Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova – and how five women refugees were struggling to find new homes under the bitter circumstances of social segregation and unfriendly government policies.

During the festival, which started on 20 June at the Broadway Cinematheque, barely 200 metres away from UNHCR’s Sub-office in Hong Kong, there were sharing sessions accompanying the screenings. Eleazar Del Rosario, executive producer of Manila-based GMA Network and creator of Reel Time – Banished Kids, held one of the interactive sessions following the screening of his own production, which focused on the lives of stateless children in Sahah, Malaysia. These are the locally-born descendants of Filipinos who drifted away from their homeland, civil war-torn Mindanao Island, in the 1960s. Unregistered, the kids are denied access to all basic services. “Knowing how the documentary has moved you, I feel successful in delivering the stories of these children”, said Mr Del Rosario, who revealed that the filming was carried out over seven days despite concerns raised by the Filipino Embassy in Malaysia.

Another session was chaired by Cynthia Scarborough, a long-time health care professional and now a PhD Candidate in Nursing at the University of Hong Kong, following the showing of The Suffering Grasses, a 2012 production on the Syrian civil war, when the war was still confined within the country’s borders and the Free Syrian Army was purely focused on the goal of liberation. “Things have certainty gone worse”, said Ms Scarborough, who volunteered for months last year with Helping Refugees in Jordan, a Mercy Corps-affiliated grassroots organisation that aims at providing solutions for Syrian refugees stuck outside of UNHCR camps.

UNHCR Hong Kong’s Fundraising Manager Rosina Shing put the number of recognised refugees in the city at around 1,000. However, according to Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Ghetto at the Centre of the World – Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, the number of asylum seekers whose claims are under consideration – a process which can take decades – could well exceed 6,000. Amongst them, most are from South Asia, with a significant minority coming from Africa. After the 9/11 terrorist attack and the wave of successive strikes in other Western countries, most borders in the developed world became closed for many. Hence, Hong Kong, whose visa regime is amongst the world’s loosest, became an appealing destination for middle-class and political dissidents from the developing world who had the means to get there.

However, the circumstances of refugees and protection claimants is no better in Hong Kong. Upon arrival, they are usually put into detention. They are often then released with a sheet of paper as their only form of identification and with the status of temporary residents, while awaiting the final decision, now in the hands of local bureauracts. Nevertheless, very few, and mostly only those from countries in the midst of civil war or with situations of political, ethnic or religious cleansings, can ever hope to attain refugee status. The vast majority of those from less horrible backgrounds or who are applying because of apolitical, albeit life threatening, reasons, have little hope to start a new life in Hong Kong. Not being a signatory of 1951 Refugee Convention, and recognising next to zero torture claimants, Hong Kong accepts very few people for permanent residency, and there are almost no long-term solutions for asylum claimants except for meager subsistence-level food and shelter assistance. According to the CNN, the city’s Social Welfare Department once stated that the aim of such assistance, if it can be put as such, is to “provide support which is considered sufficient to prevent a person from becoming destitute, while at the same time not creating a magnet effect which can have serious implications on the sustainability of our current support system.”

Hong Kong does not exercise forced repatriation, unless in the case of crime-committing claimants, which, incidentally, includes those seeking employment in the city. What the authority’s statement of sustainability in reality implies is that, with the ever increasing influx of refugees and little chance of attaining refugee status, the number of people stuck in the middle leading barely tolerable lives in the shadows of Hong Kong, continues to climb day after day.

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