Lack of Hong Kong ID card means isolation and education limbo
Joyce, 20, is already the quietest of six siblings. But after she graduates from secondary school next year, the young woman expects to be even more socially isolated.
Unlike her peers who will be making plans and choosing their university courses, Joyce is preparing herself to spend months, maybe years, in a walk-up flat in Mong Kok with her mother.
"I'll have to stay at home. Doing nothing," she sighed. "I would like to go to university, but because I don't have an identity card, I know I can't."
That is the state of limbo Joyce (not her real name) finds herself in, after more than 10 years of residency in Hong Kong.
The family came from Angola in 2004, seeking refugee protection. Joyce's African passport expired a long time ago and, like her brothers, she holds only recognisance papers issued by the Immigration Department.
If finding a primary school is a struggle to many refugee parents, the future beyond the school gates is like a ghost haunting both the parents and their children - who have neither the identity card nor the student visa to further their studies.
According to Puja Kapai, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and a former barrister at the High Court, "technically, if the student applicant meets the admission criteria for a particular course, they could attend university".
However, Kapai noted that "the greater challenge would be obtaining a student visa on recognisance papers".
Without the visa, "enrolment into university programmes may not be possible. At present, even for minors, access to schools is on a discretionary basis."
The ball appears to be not in the universities' court. According to University of Hong Kong registrar Henry Wai Wing-kun, "any person in Hong Kong who does not have an identity card is unlikely to be able to take any public examination, and … therefore normally does not have the qualification required for admission to universities in Hong Kong".
A non-local, while not usually expected to have a local identity card, must hold a passport and also a student visa, Wai said.
Nonetheless, he said the university had come across rare exceptions. "We had dealt with one or two cases where the parties concerned did not have a passport or ID card," he said. "They, however, possessed legal documents issued by the government or the court of law that allowed them to stay in Hong Kong."
City University also said the final decision lay with the local authorities. "Non-local students can apply for admission and require a student visa to study in Hong Kong," its Communications and Public Relations Office said. "The decision on the granting of a student visa rests with the Hong Kong Immigration Department."
Refugee children have no hope of acquiring local identity cards since the government does not offer legal status to settle in Hong Kong even if their claims are valid. The screening of protection claims usually takes several months to several years - and Joyce's family have yet to be screened under a new system introduced in March last year.
Joyce's 14-year-old brother is still a few years away from completing the mandatory schooling of nine years, and already he feels deprived of opportunities compared to teenagers the same age.
"I feel like I have fewer rights because I don't have an identity card. For example, I can't go to study [language courses] in other countries," Elliot said.
With a passion for maths and science, he wants to become an engineer and a basketball player, but he is afraid that in Hong Kong, his ambitions will not get off the ground.
Elliot dreams about a place where his family and everyone else are treated as equals. "In a country like America, maybe we could go to university and get a job," he said.