Begging for basic rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 November, 2010, 12:00am

Being a refugee is not a choice.' That's what one of our longest-staying refugee clients - he's been in Hong Kong for almost seven years - told me and a group of nine-year-olds at Renaissance College recently during a presentation as part of our outreach work.

I have been working for refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong for over five years now and I have a pretty good understanding of their plight. But that statement stayed with me. Thoughts of others ran through my mind, like a documentary film, that same night with a big question: how are they living in Hong Kong? The answer was obvious: they aren't. What they have here is nowhere near a 'life'.

Yes, the charity Christian Action runs a programme of care and development through Hong Kong's only drop-in service centre in Chungking Mansions. Our aim is to provide a holistic support system to impoverished and desperate refugees, asylum seekers and torture claimants. Since 2004, the centre has filled a big gap in social welfare services with support that includes basic humanitarian assistance like shelter, food, clothes and other daily necessities.

In addition, we are the only source for educational, psycho-social and recreational support. We focus on children, teenagers, women and refugees and asylum seekers who are vulnerable, sick, traumatised and otherwise distressed. We have more than 3,000 clients registered in our system and around 20-30 new clients approach our centre each month.

We offer a comprehensive programme to make their stay in Hong Kong somewhat bearable and dignified. But where is the dignity in begging when you are an able-bodied individual with an IQ of over 120? Where is the dignity in having to ask for food for your starving child or having to empty your pockets to prove to officers of certain other NGOs that you really are penniless and need their help for some basic welfare?

Where is the dignity in having to justify to others why your child needs to go to school and learn when it is one of the basic human rights? Where is the dignity in having to beg for HK$5 so that you can at least buy an ice cream for your child in McDonald's because your child does not understand why other children can go there but he can't? Where is the dignity in having to constantly bear discriminatory, unsympathetic stares from the local people, who clearly have no clue what you've been through?

Recent reports about an apparent rise in the number of South Asian people, especially asylum seekers, joining triad-linked gangs don't help the plight of the 489 asylum seekers and 105 refugees now in Hong Kong. If you include torture claimants in the count, then there are around 7,000 in the city.

Making them all look more like economic migrants will only lead local people to believe that they really are here to steal their jobs or that they are just a bunch of layabouts waiting to be fed by taxpayers. In all honesty, the majority of genuine cases would not dare to work illegally for fear of jeopardising their only hope of getting resettled in a third country and starting afresh.

The Hong Kong government has not signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines who is a refugee and spells out the rights that host governments should observe. It is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who bears the responsibility of processing their claims, with limited resources. There is no basic policy, and no rights, for refugees here. They are not allowed to work but they are allowed to beg for basic welfare provisions. Dignified, indeed. Imagine this: you arrive from a war-torn country carrying nothing but trauma.

But you tell yourself: 'At least I'm alive - surely it can't get any worse.' Then you come to Hong Kong and experience racism and cynicism; you are treated with suspicion; you can't work; you can't pursue higher education; you sleep (not live) in a cage-house; you beg for food and coins while at the same time trying to heal your mental wounds from what you have been through back home.

And the worst part is that you'll have to endure it for a minimum of two years (the average time a case takes to process). Then you realise you are stranded; stranded in what a lot of people believe to be a very progressive and cosmopolitan city. Now ask yourself: 'Am I living?'

Jonnet Kudera Bernal is the person in charge at Christian Action, Chungking Mansions Service Centre