Shiao Chien Lee
The Hong Kong government's policy towards asylum seekers and refugees is failing to provide them with the basic humanitarian assistance and opportunities they need, ensuring the continuing vulnerability of this group. Women and children are particularly at risk. A closer look at 'M' and her children, asylum seekers who were victims of brutal domestic violence in their home country and who came here to seek protection, illustrates Hong Kong's derogation of its humanitarian responsibility.
After arriving, M and her children quickly found themselves stripped of dignity and victimised again; they discovered they could not survive economically because asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to work, volunteer, or acquire any type of vocational training while they are here.
This prohibition is particularly hard on women with children to support since the welfare assistance provided by the government does not meet their most basic needs. For example, assistance to asylum seekers is lower than the basic level provided to permanent residents through the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme. According to a 2009 report by a consortium of Hong Kong non-governmental organisations, the food assistance and housing allowance provided to asylum-seeking adults amounts to only 55 per cent and 79 per cent of the CSSA rate, respectively. The children get food that is worth only 23 per cent of the CSSA rate, and housing allowance, which is automatically factored into CSSA, is granted only on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, unlike CSSA, welfare assistance to asylum seekers is provided in kind, not in cash. Asylum seekers typically get HK$1,000 per month for rent payable directly to the landlord and a minimal amount of food every 10 days. In M's case, she and her children lived in an 18 square metre room. They had only two mattresses and had to rely on non-governmental organisations for bedding and basic household items. The food provided was not nearly enough and was often spoiled or near the expiry date on the pick-up day. They were not even provided with toilet paper. Other asylum seekers said their children, some as old as four or five, were only given milk powder for food. This lack of social welfare, augmented by the fact that they are not allowed to work in Hong Kong, is unacceptable, especially in light of the many years it can take to process an asylum application and to resettle recognised refugees to third countries.
The government must take steps to meet the needs of its most vulnerable population. It should either allow asylum seekers and refugees to work or formulate a welfare policy that ensures that adequate housing and food is provided. The government cannot have it both ways: by denying them both the right to work and the welfare assistance it takes to survive in Hong Kong, officials are only revictimising a vulnerable population of people already fleeing persecution from their home country. Without a change, asylum seekers and refugees cannot survive legitimately in Hong Kong, and the government's policy has no real chance of success.
Shiao Chien Lee is a visiting teaching fellow at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, and a volunteer attorney case-worker at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues developed in collaboration with The Women's Foundation