Filmmakers focus on the plight of Hong Kong’s asylum seekers

Asylum seekers looking for refuge in Hong Kong face a grim wait while their fate is determined. Two filmmakers aim to curb the influx by highlighting the risks of coming, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 6:56pm

Vision First, an NGO dealing with refugee issues, presents daunting statistics: of the 12,409 people who sought asylum in Hong Kong in the past 21 years, just four succeeded. Despite such enormous odds, about 800 people still flock to the city seeking refuge each year - and that's excluding 1,200 others who claim to have been tortured in their home countries.

Now two Pakistani residents, Uzair Sipra and his business partner Kashif Akhtar, hope to slow the flow by producing a film that reveals the true plight of asylum seekers living in Hong Kong.

Presented as a docu-drama, Asylum combines interviews with community leaders (government officials, businessmen, charity representatives, even the chief imam Muhammad Arshad) and other documentary footage with dramatic vignettes filmed in the over-the-top style of South Asian action movies.

What sets Asylum apart from other efforts - along with the vignettes - is its intended audience. While previous films aimed to raise Hongkongers' awareness about refugee issues, Sipra and Akhtar want to tackle the problem at its source. The idea is to give potential asylum seekers an idea of the harsh realities of life here before they abandon their homes for what may well turn out to be a grimmer future. Because the vast majority of asylum seekers come from countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the producers have made a film to appeal to South Asian sensibilities - it thrills as well as educates.

The dire straits that asylum seekers find themselves in in Hong Kong is a far cry from the future many envisage when they leave their native countries.

While their claims are being evaluated - a process that typically takes four to five years and sometimes as long as a decade - they receive a tiny government allowance administered by an NGO, the International Social Service Hong Kong branch (ISS-HK). Each person gets HK$1,200 a month for accommodation, about HK$1,000 worth of groceries and a small travel stipend to attend interviews or appointments. This barely covers the rent for the tiny, cramped spaces that they must live in. And because government rules forbid them from working, it's a constant struggle to keep their heads above water. Quite a few end up working illegally, risking imprisonment if they are caught.

Word of such conditions might be expected to filter back to communities in South Asia after so many years, but Sipra reckons that it has been muddled by asylum seekers themselves, as well as fixers who tell a very different story to the poor or desperate.

"The agents show them green gardens and say 'Hong Kong is a very nice life' because they want to make money. The asylum seekers sell their houses, their jewellery, their gold just to have some money to buy their ticket and come to Hong Kong," he says. "But when they come here they think 'Whoa, this is not what we saw in the pictures.'"

Many are forced to borrow money to survive and, because they cannot work, some resort to peddling drugs and other illegal activities, Sipra says.

Often, asylum seekers lie about their situation to friends and family back home out of shame, he says. The pressure to send money back to their families after finding "success" in Hong Kong makes them feel even more frantic.

We cannot help the asylum seekers here but we can stop the incoming traffic

Local businessman Saeed Uddin hopes Asylum will lead to more realistic discussion among potential asylum seekers from South Asia before they attempt to seek a new life in Hong Kong.

"This is a message that should be sent to them: your choice is wrong. No one in the world will immediately accept you as an asylum seeker," says Uddin, an early supporter of the film. "They are not aware of how difficult it is to come here, that they are kept in a very small place, with nothing. No future, no job and little money. They hardly can survive ... It's a shattered dream for them."

Sipra's own experience has been very different. But then the 40-year-old from Lahore pursued more unusual dreams. A kung fu buff and winner of many martial arts titles in Pakistan, Sipra combined his love for music and kung fu by staging popular "kung fu rhythm" performances in his native country. What he really longed to do, however, was to follow Jackie Chan into a career in action movies. He never got to meet his idol, despite making a couple of trips to Hong Kong, but after a short stint training at the Shaolin Temple in Henan in 2000, he decided to settle in the city.

He first set up a venture providing information on the world's top martial artists, but later turned it into a production company making educational and public interest programmes, and put his engineering training to use in designing film equipment. He also invested in a restaurant.

He didn't have much interest in the plight of asylum seekers either - until a tragedy early last year spurred him to action. A young Pakistani asylum seeker had approached Sipra at his new Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant seeking work. The boy was desperate but they could not legally give him work. So Sipra gave him a meal instead and told him he could come back and help out around the restaurant in exchange for food. But after one stint the boy never returned. The concerned Sipra made inquiries and learned later that week that the young man had hanged himself.

"Oh my goodness, I was so shocked, like I didn't feel the ground. How did it happen?" he recalls.

Sharing the tragedy with his friends, he was surprised to learn that many knew other asylum seekers who had committed suicide. The realisation that these young men were so desperate they were driven to take their own lives affected Sipra deeply.

Hitting upon the idea of the docu-drama, Sipra sought help from fellow emigrants, starting with close friend and business partner Akhtar as co-producer. Then he began to recruit his cast. While some had acting experience most, like the waitress who played an asylum seeker's sister, had none.

He reached out to other friends in the South Asian community and found many eager for something to be done to deter illegal immigration.

Even government officials approved, Sipra says, probably because the film takes a proactive approach rather than simply harping on about policy shortcomings.

"The Hong Kong government is bound," Sipra says without a hint of resentment. "They can't change the rules for the time being. So why don't we focus this documentary on letting people know that Hong Kong is not an easy life for asylum seekers?"

Even so, making the film was a struggle from the start and production was regularly plagued by funding problems as financial support from leaders within the South Asian and Muslim communities has been slow in coming.

Sipra's hope of entering Asylum for the 38th Hong Kong International Film Festival may well be dashed. The early entry deadline was December 8 and although he insists more than 70 per cent of the hard work is done, only 35 minutes of the hour-long film have been shot.

Still, Akhtar and Sipra have not given up and their supporters seem confident of meeting the late entry deadline of January 12.

"I'm very hopeful," says Shahzada Saleem, president of the Hong Kong Cricket Association and one of the film's patrons. "We will go all the way to make sure it is completed."

With less than two weeks to finish post-production work, the atmosphere at the Sipra Vision studio in Kwai Chung is tense. Sipra is running on very little sleep and gallons of coffee. The partners have used up most of their funds and there is talk of selling off some film equipment to cover costs.

"I sleep only two or three hours a day. I'm a workaholic. There is not any moment I am not thinking about filming," Sipra says with more than a little worry in his voice.

"We spent every single penny that we had for this documentary because it is a good cause ... We cannot help the asylum seekers here but we can do one thing. We can stop the incoming traffic," he says with a sigh. "But we are running out of time."