• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 11:05am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Rich Hong Kong can't turn its back on the few refugees on its shores

Aideen McLaughlin says our city of means can easily do more for the destitute and often abused refugees who have found their way to Hong Kong, wishing only to survive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 2:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 2:50am

For one hour last week, I was Zaara Schenoude, a 36-year-old Middle Eastern factory worker. My hometown was being destroyed by sectarian violence, wreaking havoc on my people, and I was forced to flee under armed guard, herded with 80 others to a refugee camp across the border. Apart from my ID card, jewellery and headscarf, I had no belongings, no money and no choice.

Along the way, I became separated from my family. I was caught in gunfire and interrogated and intimidated by armed soldiers who were supposed to protect me.

I traded my wedding ring at the border just to get across and my watch at the camp to get food and water. I was ordered to keep my hair covered at all times and wasn't allowed to speak to any of the men. I constantly kept my eyes to the floor, afraid of drawing attention to myself. I felt powerless, humiliated, frightened, alone.

I huddled in a tent in the blistering heat, cheek-by-jowl with nine others, each jostling for a small space to call our own. From there, I was handpicked by the camp guards and taken to a room where they checked my mouth to see if I was healthy, then threatened to rape me. If I refused to cooperate, they said they would kill me … and then it was over.

This was my experience of participating in a live simulation organised by the Hong Kong charity Crossroads Foundation to try to give people some insight into what it might be like to be a refugee.

According to one refugee who had previously participated in the simulation, what we experienced was just 15 per cent of what they went through every day. I did it for just one hour and it was one of the most intense episodes of my life.

But, at the end, I was able to walk away and go home. All that stayed with me was a bad headache and the knowledge that this would never be me.

But would it never be me? Or you, for that matter? For all that really stands between you and me and a "real" refugee is circumstance.

Refugees are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations beyond their control. They had lives and professions and families, like us. They had hopes and dreams and expectations. They probably thought, "it will never be me" - until it was.

Today is United Nations World Refugee Day, a day of commemoration when communities around the world come together to reflect on what it means to be a refugee and to celebrate refugees' contributions to our societies. In many places around the globe, the festivities extend to a week. But for refugees in Hong Kong, there's not a lot to celebrate.

Hong Kong does not recognise refugees. That is despite the fact that this city was built on the contributions of refugees, made by the thousands of people who fled across the border from the Cultural Revolution and civil war on the mainland, seeking protection in the nearest safe place.

For those refugees today who survive long enough to get here, they are forced to subsist on bags of food handed out by the government equivalent to HK$40 a day; that's HK$13 for each meal. They get HK$1,500 per month towards rent, so low that it forces many to live on the margins in rundown settlements that can hardly qualify as housing.

I have met families literally living in pig sties, trying to get clean water by filtering it through a sock; people kept on the brink of destitution in an attempt to deter others like them from coming.

But still they come. Why? Because they have no choice. Today, around 500 ordinary people will have no choice but to flee Ukraine; 500,000 people have had no choice but to escape from Mosul in Iraq since the weekend; and tens of thousands have been forced to flee Syria this past month.

There are currently around 15.4 million refugees in the world. Eighty per cent of them are hosted by poorer nations, not rich places like Hong Kong. There are only about 8,000 people seeking protection here; that's just 0.1 per cent of the Hong Kong population.

In comparison to most other countries, the numbers who make it to our city are small. And yet Hong Kong does not offer them any chance of long-term protection. Surely we can do better?

Aideen McLaughlin is director of external relations at Justice Centre Hong Kong, a human rights organisation that works to protect the rights of refugees and survivors of trafficking. www.justicecentre.org.hk


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This article is now closed to comments

It is so easy for expat outsiders to point their fingers at HK and suggest what we should do. How about them checking up on some facts before suggesting anything? HK started taking in Vietnamese refugees since 1975, and by June 1990, there were 54,341 refugees although western countries had lowered their intakes. As at January 1983, the total cash outlay due to feeding and accommodating refugees had amounted to HKD 270 million, of which HKD 110 million was borne by Hong Kong, HKD120 million by the UNHCR, and the remainder by international agencies.The United Nations owed Hong Kong HKD 1.61 billion for its handling of Vietnamese boat people. The loan is still outstanding. There, Ms McLaughlin, haven't we done enough? Australia with its welfare society, massive land mass and low population, is towing away refugee boats to other SE Asian islands which are poorer than where the refugees come from. Ms McLaughlin might do better criticizing Australia rather than crowded HK, where the infrastructure including the MTR, schools and hospitals are already severely stressed. She may not of course know any of this if she lives on the Peak and her kids go to international schools.
Incidentally, my parents came to HK after WWII with only their luggage and the clothing on their backs, and made their own way in life without a single cent from charity. So I also know how a refugee lives.
Have some empathy for others. Put yourself in the shoes of others. Why are Chinese societies so insular and unfeeling to non-Chinese?
This has got nothing to do with rather someone is Chinese or non-Chinese. This is about allocation of resources. There are despotic regimes almost every corner of the world so how many people can we afford to provide refuge to? HK provided asylum to large number of Vietnamese boat people in the 1980s and 1990s and the UN never had any intention of repaying us the money we spent on that. I think HK have contributed more than its fair share in the past.
Some of the comments here are merely laughable.
Which western country you suggest HK to learn from? Huh?
To learn from Australia who delegates the screening off-shore to the poor friends in the neighbouring region?
Or to learn from Canada who would not take in anyone from the US, thereby made sure that they would not need to do a whole lot as the ONLY border Canada has is closed for refugees?
Can England pledge that all their refugees intake would be dealt within London? US in New York?
How can Hong Kong, a tiny city with one of the highest population density do the same as a big country?
To talk about role models, I'd say we learn from Singapore on this.
The author soliciting economic help from Hong Kong for refugee course is unfortunately barking at the wrong tree.
Hong Kong’s local refugees among them the most economically successful one LKS are not ordinary refugees. Most of them followed their parents who flee from mainland to settle in Hong Kong. Many were penniless. These refugees with self-perseverance in hard work made them what they are today – billionaires. This second generation refugee is remotely connected with experience that their parents have as true refugees escaping from mainland for whatever reason. In fact, this second generation for their business development is returning to mainland. They have no political ideology bent. They are more a product of surmounting an economic hardship success story. Their economic achievements are unimaginable and this very reason has provided the difficulty to accept that new refugees need help economically. I will not underestimate such intrinsic belief of the Hong Kong people.
The Vietnamese refugees were imposed upon Hong Kong government and people.
The very same economic success of the locals that the author is eyeing too receives little response of his appeal. I would target elsewhere to raise needed fund. But come back again to see if the third generation of refugees have a different view of themselves.
Well I am a second generation refugee in HK and I am very proud of my father and grandfather who came to HK with nothing in the 1970s, and in 3 years time managed to build up a relatively successful construction business. In their days, they never complained about hardship and just got on with their work. What is so negative about this sort of culture or attitude?
Aideen McLaughlin,
Here is a response from a 2nd generation of local refugee in Hong Kong. Without any value judgment on my part, I advise you to take note of the reply and my posting and seek help for refugees elsewhere.
I will remind you too that Hong Kong was forced upon to take in the Vietnam refugees. And a very large population. Therefore, Hong Kong people are not turning their back rather they are facing refugees head on to say NO the next time.
Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and he will always eat.
Sorry, we're not like the West that blindly accepts anyone that comes to our shores. How many refugees are there? We cannot possibly accept them all.
(Sorry, clicked Dislike by accident and can't correct it.)
Tell us how your country does things better. Did you know that Australia tows away all refugee boats and sends them off to other SE islands which are poorer than the countries that the refugees come from? Tell us if Australians are also insular and unfeeling. HK is already so small and crowded, so where do you suggest we put them? How about you convince your country to take them instead?
Incidentally, do you know that HK took in very many Vietnamese refugees and housed and fed them for decades? How is that for empathy?



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