Seeking a safe haven in our city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 February, 2011, 12:00am

Imagine yourself in the shoes of Syaheeda, a girl living in war-torn Somalia. One day you witness your entire family - parents, grandmother, and siblings - killed before your eyes. You run away as fast as your legs can take you to avoid being killed yourself. But now you're a homeless orphan.

And Syaheeda's trials were just beginning. Soon she was captured by armed militants. She was locked in a dark cell, where she was abused day after day by her captors. She was powerless to do anything about it. She was kept like a caged animal.

After three years in captivity she finally managed to escape and sneaked out of the country. She then became a refugee in a foreign land.

Around the world there are around 32.9 million refugees like Syaheeda. They cannot return home for fear that they might be abused or killed if they did. They would face persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social affiliations, or political views.

Syaheeda finally arrived in Hong Kong to seek asylum here. Like other refugees, she was attracted by the city's reputation as a welcoming multicultural environment.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), between 1,000 and 3,000 refugees seek asylum in Hong Kong every year. Most of them come from South and Southeast Asia and Africa.

Yet refugees like Syaheeda face grave challenges in trying to settle down. Many of them don't speak either Chinese or English. They are poor and don't know anyone here.

They have to rely on local charities for food and shelter. To complicate matters, Hong Kong has not signed onto the UN Refugee Convention, which was passed in 1951. As a result, refugees do not have legal status or protection. They are not allowed to work and have very limited access to education and medical aid. The UNHCR, meanwhile, may take up to five years to review their applications and grant them refugee status.

In the meantime many refugees lack proper legal aid. Without it, they face the possibility of having their applications rejected on technicalities or because of shortcomings. Many of them are unfamiliar with international refugee laws and do not understand UNHCR procedures. Some do not even understand what legal refugee status actually is.

The process of applying for asylum requires highly traumatised victims of atrocities to explain their experiences in a coherent and legally relevant manner to complete strangers. Those that fail to do so are at risk of rejection.

Syaheeda said she found it difficult to talk about her memories of abuse. Her case was rejected because her story did not seem to add up in parts to the interviewers. Just as she was about to give up, however, she was introduced to the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (HKRAC). The group helped her lodge an appeal.

HKRAC provides free legal assistance and representation to refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong.

Its caseworkers advise refugee claimants on the legal aspects of the UNHCR determination process, smoothing their way through it. Asylum seekers under the protection of HKRAC have a 70 per cent success rate.

Those without help, however, have a very low success rate in gaining refugee status in Hong Kong.

Thanks to the help she received, Syaheeda was eventually recognised as a refugee. She has since been resettled to a safe third country, where she has begun to rebuild her life, HKRAC said.

Hers is a success story, yet refugees in Hong Kong continue to face daily challenges and uncertainties. The government does not recognise the status of refugees according to the charter of the UN Refugee Convention.

Often refugees are viewed as just illegal immigrants, even though they are in genuine need of assistance. They would risk being imprisoned or killed if they returned home.

Advocates of refugee rights point out that many refugees end up contributing greatly to their host society. Some of our greatest icons, like Albert Einstein, were once refugees, they note.

Refugees often suffer traumatic experiences, yet they remain strong in the face of adversity. All they want is a chance to start over.