A life in the shadows: the dilemma of Hong Kong's 'stateless' children

The case of Siu Yau-wai highlights the plight of Hong Kong's 'stateless' minors, who fall through the cracks and face years of hiding or waiting

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 5:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 6:30pm

The cases of the 12-year-old who overstayed for nine years and the suicide of a 15-year-old girl without identification papers have exposed the rarely discussed problem of "stateless" minors in the city, say social workers.

While the two examples are vastly different - the girl and her sister were born in Hong Kong and the boy was not - they shine a light on cracks in a system that can allow children to live for years without an education and access to society, according to counsellors who work with such children.

They face a grim choice - living in limbo with no official documents, hiding from authorities, or stuck in an unresolved "pending" state, possibly for years, as their cases are processed.

The children didn’t choose to be born here nor fall into this situation

The government said it did not have full statistics on the scale of the problem. But PathFinders - a charity working with migrant children - said that last year alone it dealt with 73 cases in which children were issued recognisance papers. Such documents allow them a temporary stay in Hong Kong but with neither benefits nor support while their cases are investigated.

The Society for Community Organisation, which works with mainland-Hong Kong families, has around 10 cases of children whose immigration status is pending.

Yesterday, 12-year-old Siu Yau-wai gave up his bid to stay in the city and headed back to the mainland. His grandmother Chow Siu-shuen, 67, who had confessed his undocumented status after the suicide of the 15-year-old in April, said she was voluntarily sending him back.

The case provoked strong responses - with one side asking for him to be shown compassion and allowed to stay and the other urging his repatriation. The latter group has included protesters who say the case could open the floodgates to illegal migrants from the mainland hoping to take advantage of resources here.

Social workers the South China Morning Post spoke to called for a better understanding of the plight of such children.

"The children didn't choose to be born here nor fall into this situation - we need to be clear about this. The government needs to use its power to ensure that their basic needs are covered," said Billy Wong Wai-yuk of the Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights.

Wong said in the case of children born here, there were lax controls over whether they obtained birth certificates. Without a birth certificate or an official legal form of identification, the child cannot obtain health checks, education, security or shelter, she said.

These children are often in hiding. They do not go to school and are at risk of becoming carriers of various diseases because they are not vaccinated.

"The access to justice for children who are abandoned and such is sorely lacking," said Kay McArdle, chief executive officer of PathFinders, who called for a children's commission - a government-funded but independent entity with investigation powers - to oversee children's rights, as well as child law.

"These are the forgotten children in Hong Kong in every sense. They exist in the shadows, live on the streets. Even if they're brilliantly mothered, they can't go far without identification."

The Security Bureau said that since 1997 it had recorded 71 children born in Hong Kong without birth certificates, with the cases currently being followed up by the investigation division of the Immigration Department.

Wong said undocumented children often had parents who were overstayers with two-way permits that allowed only short visits; were the offspring of migrant workers or other overstayers; or children of dysfunctional families whose parents had criminal records, mental problems or drug addictions.

"Each case is unique and incredibly complicated, which makes it extremely hard for the Immigration Department," said Sze Lai-shan, who works with children at the Society for Community Organisation. "It is also unfair to blame it all on the Immigration Department - it's partly the mainland Chinese government's fault as they are the ones issuing permits."

Sze said the backlash against Yau-wai, who came to Hong Kong on a two-way permit nine years ago to live with his grandmother after being abandoned by his parents, had worried children in similar situations.

Because of their background, they often had issues such as anger and depression, she said. Hateful posts online and protests against the boy had alarmed many of these children, Sze said.

In many of the 30 cases Sze has dealt with, the child's nuclear family members live in Hong Kong but, for some reason, the central government denied the child a one-way permit to move to the city legally. With their children along on the mainland, many parents would obtain a two-way permit to have their child join them in Hong Kong, only to end up overstaying.

She doubted that allowing children facing such a plight to "surface" like the 12-year-old boy did would cause an influx. "How many parents would abandon their child, make them live in secret for years on a whim? These fears are unfounded," Sze said.

According to the Immigration Department, only 38 discretionary stays were granted in the past three years.

The UN inspectors criticised Hong Kong in 2013 for failing to follow the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - of which it is a signatory - by drawing up a comprehensive strategy on child-related laws, policies, plans and programmes, and expressed concern at discrimination against disabled, asylum-seeking and undocumented children.

The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau declined to comment on what the government had done to fulfil the requirements of the convention.