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Asylum seekers in Asia

Hong Kong's no-work policy is turning asylum seekers into beggars

Peter Maina says Hong Kong's policy of not allowing asylum seekers the right to work while claims are being processed is dehumanising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 October, 2015, 4:07am

At a time when Europe is being flooded by refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, Hong Kong must not forget its own refugees here at home. There are an estimated 11,500 refugees here. Over the past two years, the Hong Kong government has invested millions of dollars in creating a system - the unified screening mechanism - that allows almost no one to become recognised as a legitimate refugee.

For the past 23 years, since the UN Convention against Torture came into force in 1992, Hong Kong has accepted a total of 37 claims - an acceptance rate of almost zero. The government clearly thinks that most refugees are illegitimate. This makes a nonsense of the whole process.

Many refugees are skilled professionals - English teachers, reporters, engineers and corporate managers - who can contribute positively to this society

There is no doubt that some refugees do indeed come here for economic reasons, but many do not. In fact, I estimate that up to 40 per cent of all the refugees seeking asylum here are genuine; were the screening system fair and credible, then up to 30 per cent would be duly recognised as refugees and offered asylum, based on the acceptance rate in other countries of asylum seekers.

The government offers welfare assistance to asylum seekers. However, it is grossly inadequate: a housing allowance of HK$1,500 and food coupons worth HK$1,200 a month is impossible to survive on, and refugees are left in a state of despair and destitution. The majority of refugees live in slum areas spread across the New Territories. The government created a crisis a few months ago when it declared such housing illegal, after a Sri Lankan refugee died when his shack caught fire as he slept, engulfing the slum.

Now, a new crop of landlords has emerged, dividing single rooms into cubicles fitted with bunk beds designed to accommodate more and more people. This is illegal; nevertheless, it's going on.

In the past, we have protested against policies that discriminate against the refugee community. We have engaged the Social Welfare Department in an effort to gain more support, writing letters of complaint highlighting the plight of homeless refugees and instances of malpractice. To date, nothing has been done.

The root of the problem is that refugees are not allowed to work in Hong Kong. Without a source of disposable income, they lack basic amenities for survival. This has turned us into beggars and parasites. Many refugees are skilled professionals - English teachers, reporters, engineers and corporate managers - who can contribute positively to this society. If we can work, we can wait for our claims to be decided without having to beg for our livelihoods. Many of us have the ability to contribute to Hong Kong in unique ways. Let us do so.

Peter Maina is a refugee from East Africa, and secretary general of the Refugee Union, an organisation seeking better lives for refugees in Hong Kong