On World Refugee Day, Hong Kong asylum seekers talk about how hiking has helped them regain their confidence and improve their health

Fleeing conflict and turmoil, refugees arrive in Hong Kong to face an nightmarish asylum application process. Many turn to hiking as an escape

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 5:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 5:43pm

The healing effects of the great outdoors and exercise are numerous. They can help to relieve stress and improve weight loss among a host of other benefits. But the therapy of hiking is no more important for anyone, than for the refugees left in Hong Kong to battle against an asylum programme that is slow and lacks transparency and translators.

One refugee, who wishes to remain anonymous during her application process, said that she suffers from psychiatric problems as a result of the traumas she fled from in Africa. “I hear voices and cannot sleep,” she said.

The medication she was given had adverse side effects. In particular, it made her gain weight. Then she was referred to the charity Free To Run, which organises hiking for female refugees and social meetups at their office in Aberdeen.

“I’ve lost so much weight, it’s great. And now when I go home after being here and hiking I can sleep without my medication,” she said.

On World Refugee Day (June 20) another refugee said that she had never hiked before joining Free To Run. But now hikes regularly with the charity and its programme director Virginie Goethals.

“The first time I hiked, she [Goethals] almost killed me. But I loved it,” said the asylum seeker, who wanted to keep her identity hidden.

The healing powers of exercise for women refugees in Hong Kong

Since starting hiking, she has lost 24 kilograms in a matter of months and intends to enter a trail race later this year or next year.

“From obese to marathon runner! Now there’s a success story,” she said.

Free To Run has given her a community to socialise with and self-assurance in her body. “There is nothing more fulfilling than a lady’s confidence.”

Without Free To Run, she claimed she would have nowhere to go in her free time. Male refugees are at least able to marry, she said.

“There is very little for a single woman with a child in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong men, we cannot get married to them. I think they are scared of our colour,” she said. “This [Free To Run office] is a great place to hang out.

“We could go to the park, but people get the wrong idea, they think we are looking for men. But here is a safe place.”

When they complete a hike, they have achieved something and feel great about themselves, she added.

Watch: Free to Run refugee takes part in her first trail run

Refugees cannot live, but are kept alive

Goethals said that refugees applying for asylum can easily be waiting as long as a decade before their application is approved. During that time, they are kept with minimum expense, with a lack of dignity or proper rehabilitation.

They receive HK$1,200 in food vouchers per month per person, and HK$1,500 per person for rent paid directly to the landlord. They have no right to work or volunteer, nor are allowed access to adult education, Goethals said.

“Their situation can be illustrated by the fact that asylum seekers and refugees receive toilet paper in kind – one roll of toilet paper per person per month, and the last two months they have received none,” Goethals said.

“Asylum seekers are not allowed to live but are kept alive in Hong Kong”

Hiking in Hong Kong – Five best trails to enjoy with your children

Hong Kong did not sign up to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, and therefore does not provide long term protection, she said. So, even once accepted, refugees can be sent elsewhere and find themselves facing a second waiting period, in places like Canada or Australia.

“The treatment they receive in Hong Kong only exacerbates the trauma of a very vulnerable group of protection claimants,” she said, “amongst them minors, who have already suffered the most horrendous human rights abuses.”