Refugees have faded from the public mind since tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people crowded into local camps as they awaited repatriation or resettlement in the wake of the war. Although the last Vietnamese illegal immigrants left seven years ago, there's a new wave of asylum seekers - mostly from South Asia and Africa. Official records list the number of asylum applicants at 2,600. Then there are those overstaying their visitor's visas or who have sneaked in from the coast. In the first four months of 2007, police picked up about 300 Africans and South Asians as they were smuggled in on boats from the mainland, 30 times the number during the same period last year. Some are fleeing political persecution or torture, while others are looking for a better life. Sam, who arrived a few months ago, is among the asylum seekers from South Asia. He can't reveal his real name or where he came from because guidelines issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) forbid asylum applicants from publicly discussing details of their case, for their protection. The UNHCR's local office receives as many as 160 claims each month, 90 per cent of them from South and Southeast Asia, and 9 per cent from Africa. The life of asylum seekers can often be grim even if they're no longer held in camps behind barbed-wire fences, but Sam is one of the luckier ones. He isn't allowed to work, but still makes money on the side and has already been able to send some savings to his family. Money drew him to Hong Kong, he says. He has worked as a construction site labourer, then at a container port, and is now doing odd jobs at Chungking Mansions. The large concentration of South Asians in the Tsim Sha Tsui complex makes it easier to blend in and get work. Sam has packed mobile phones, moved supplies and is now washing dishes and waiting tables at a restaurant. 'The government is afraid refugees [will] steal work, but I make very little money,' he says. Sam rents a room in a fellow countryman's home and often eats dinner with the family. The eatery where he's working provides lunch. He's also made a lot of friends, fellow asylum seekers as well as legal residents. Life is better than it was in his home country, he says. Like many asylum seekers, Sam learned that it was smarter to file an application under the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT). Hong Kong hasn't signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, so asylum applicants can face jail or swift deportation. But because Hong Kong is a CAT signatory, it can't immediately expel those who claim to have been tortured or inhumanely treated in their home countries. Asylum seekers typically overstay their visas, so a formal application means being detained on immigration offences before they're released on recognisance while immigration and UNHCR officials decide if their claim has merit. It can take up to four years to determine refugee status. While they wait, many CAT applicants look for work. 'When the system moves so slowly it invites people to seek work illegally,' says Sarah Cornish, assistant manager of humanitarian services at Christian Action. Such work is possible only when there's a substantial ethnic community in Hong Kong, says Cornish. For instance, there are a number of Sri Lankans who are residents, which makes it easier for asylum seekers from the strife-torn island to get casual work. But that's not an option for people from Africa because there isn't an African community, she says. Jacob is an African whohas been in Hong Kong for more than a year. He used to work in finance, but came to Hong Kong to flee the political turmoil in his country. But when he applied for asylum, he was jailed for 36 days because of immigration offences, sharing quarters with convicted criminals. 'Asylum seekers aren't criminals,' he says. 'I was working in my country. I had a family.' Now free on recognisance as he awaits the verdict on his claim, Jacob spends much of his time at Christian Action's refugee centre in Chungking Mansions, which he relies on for daily meals and counselling. Adult asylum seekers who qualify are given a HK$1,000 rent subsidy by non-government agency International Social Services, that is paid directly to a landlord each month, and a credit account at a small Jordan grocer where they can spend HK$300 every 10 days. But because Jacob can't work, his days are spent 'doing nothing'. He shares a small room with three other asylum seekers from his country, jogs each morning to keep fit and has lunch, and occasionally dinner, at Christian Action. Sometimes he cooks for himself at home - rice, tomato soup or semolina. 'The evening time is the hardest,' he says. 'It's very long.' The monotony is broken up by meeting friends and being involved with a local sports club. He and other asylum seekers also attend a free English class twice a week at the British Council. Jacob says the system in Hong Kong deskills asylum seekers and teaches them to be beggars. 'I've spent a long time waiting [for the review], but I'm not allowed to work,' he says. After years of unemployment, many people find it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get back into the workforce. The UNHCR has been pressing for a more flexible arrangement that would allow some work. 'There should be a certain area in which [refugees and asylum seekers] could participate in society - a volunteer programme from which they could be paid in kind,' says Choosin Ngaotheppitak, head of its Hong Kong office. 'There are many NGOs and church groups willing facilitate such a programme.' The UN agency has proposed the scheme to the government, but an immigration spokesman says officials have 'no plan in hand to allow [asylum seekers] to work in Hong Kong'. Cornish concedes that some people will try to take advantage of the system, but argues that the government must do more to provide for those who have been victimised in their home country. 'Hong Kong is an international city and it should be looking after people who are fleeing persecution - just like every other country in the world that has the resources does.' Jacob's claim is still under review, but he says his best hope is that conditions in his country will improve sufficiently to allow him to return home. The Immigration Department has reviewed fewer than 200 of more than 1,000 CAT claims on file. So far, every claim has been rejected. Sam, however, seems unperturbed by the thought of having his case rejected. 'If I can return to [my country] with more money, I'll be better off,' he says. Cases such as his may make officials even more suspicious of efforts to improve conditions for asylum seekers, but Sam shrugs. 'Everyone wants a better situation.'