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The dark path to becoming an illegal worker in Hong Kong

A bogus 'asylum visa' racket involving lawyers and agents is drawing hundreds of impoverished Indians to take up hidden jobs in the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 November, 2015, 2:23am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 November, 2015, 10:46am

If Hong Kong had to find a slogan to sum up the essence of its being, it would be hard pressed to come up with anything better than "we're open for business".

Built on trade and the largely unfettered movement of people, goods and capital, the freedom to make money is at the very heart of the city.

But the freedom to get rich always has a downside and in an increasingly shrinking globalised market where the movement of people - for either economic or political reasons - now threatens to re-shape continents, Hong Kong's streets paved with gold reputation was always bound to be attractive.

Its appeal doesn't just turn the heads of today's start-up kids and smartphone go-getters: Someone has to cook their food, build their offices and clean up after them.

That's where Sammy (not his real name) comes in. One of India's economically dispossessed, he is one of a growing number of people in Hong Kong who - with the help of lawyers and demand from businesses seeking to plug gaping holes in the city's labour market - is using the cover of a bogus claim for asylum to stay in the city and work illegally.

The 36-year-old from Punjab can earn much more here in what amounts to illegal, bonded labour than he could back home. All he had to do was answer an ad offering "asylum visas", and make a big cash payment upfront to an agency in India.

"There are limited job opportunities back home. To survive, I had to try my luck," said Sammy, who gave up his homeland to come here two years ago.

Poverty and starvation back home forced him to sell his land in the Punjab. He paid 750,000 rupees, or HK$80,000 - the equivalent of eight-year's salary of a clerk in India - to an employment agency to come to Hong Kong.

"The agency prepared me documents and flight tickets. It also promised me legal assistance and a job in Hong Kong. I could see no reason not to come, even though I knew in my heart what I was doing was illegal. "

He said social media and websites in his home country are crawling with advertisements promising legal employment in Hong Kong using "asylum visas".

Working as a waiter, security guard or a construction worker can bring a monthly income of HK$6,000 - a handsome paycheck compared to the paltry HK$800 equivalent in India.

The racket is simple. Packed off by the agency in India with a rudimentary legal brief on asylum application procedures, on arrival in Hong Kong Sammy made a claim for refuge through a local law firm.

Very soon he was offered work in an Indian restaurant in Kowloon. "People like me have to work in the dark - cleaning dishes and cutting ingredients in the kitchen."

"Though I work 12 hours a day and seven days a week, I am earning 10 times more than I did back home."

The HK$8,000 cash he earned, together with the HK$3,000 allowance from the government, afford him accommodation in Chungking Mansions and some money to send home.

Some of his "colleagues" with family and bigger financial burdens live in squalid animal sheds in the northern New Territories.

Sammy says a significant Indian business group in the city hired dozens of people like him.

"They pay us cash to avoid records and responsibilities. We are cheaper than the market price," he said.

To process sanctuary applications, immigration officers must arrange screening sessions with claimants. Sammy was taught by his lawyer to avoid interviews and buy more time.

"I fake illness or pretend I understand no English. They rescheduled my interviews many times. My application is still in process after two years," Sammy reveals.

READ MORE: Hong Kong's bogus asylum claim industry exposed: The black-market labour racket and the middlemen making millions

Despite the good money, he said life was tough here because of the language barrier, discrimination and culture shock.

"People treat us like dogs as if we were contagious. I might be an economic refugee, but do not forget there are real torture claimants.

"It is hard. I just want to make good use of my time here to earn as much as I can."

Sammy no longer works for the Indian restaurant.

Hong Kong does not resettle asylum seekers, as it is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. However, under the Convention against Torture, the city does have a legal obligation not to send back refugees who face risk of torture or persecution in their home country. Claimants have no rights to work in the city.

Those whose claims are approved will be referred to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement in a third country.

One-fifth of the 10,628 unsettled torture claims were lodged by Indian nationals, which is the biggest ethnic group followed by Vietnamese and Pakistanis.

An investigation by the Sunday Morning Post has discovered that a Hong Kong law firm with links to India represents more than half of the 233 Indian applicants received this year.

A source with knowledge of how the process operates told the Post that solicitors helped clients avoid screening sections with immigration officers.

"The longer the case takes, the more the law firm earns."

"The lawyer charges $6,520 for a day and spends at least 10 days on one case. Translation and administration fees are on top. Handling a case brings at least HK$70,000. So why not?"

The law firm is estimated to have profited by HK$8 million just this year, out of the public pocket, as all legal expenditure from claimants is paid by the publicly-funded Duty Lawyer Service as required by Law.

The Duty Lawyer Service said the amount of legal fees incurred from January to September this year reached HK$33 million.

The source said: "These people came here of their own free will. They were not smuggled in. How could this be human trafficking? Unless the authority proves a partnership with agencies or knowledge of their real intentions to Hong Kong, what can they do?"

The Immigration Department confirmed an investigation is underway.

"Besides human trafficking, they could be abetting applicants to make false statements to us. It violates the Immigration Ordinance," said William Fung Pak-ho, assistant director of the department's Enforcement and Torture Claim Assessment.

"We are collecting evidence. Action will be taken."

Fung said the majority of applicants lodged claims to avoid debts and forced-marriage at home. He slammed them for abusing the system.

"We have limited manpower to screen some 10,000 applications. Protection to real asylum seekers is delayed because of the bogus claims."

Apart from legal assistance, the government provides a rental subsidy, food and medical care to asylum seekers. The allowance is up to HK$3,420 a month.

Security chief Lai Tung-kwok said earlier that the total cost of assistance to asylum seekers in this fiscal year saw a surge of 21 per cent from last year, to HK$644 million.

The Legal Aid Department granted 277 Convention Against Torture related cases the right to advance to further court action in the first nine months this year, compared to 227 and 115 cases in 2014 and 2013 respectively.

The Department, however, refused to disclose how much money was involved.