Operation Santa Claus: Hong Kong Justice Centre helps traumatised asylum seekers
The Justice Centre is providing legal and psychological support for hundreds of asylum seekers
They are like phantoms living in limbo under a veil of fear and invisible to most people, constantly cashless and denied access to any public facilities.
The asylum seekers came to Hong Kong with painful stories of trauma, seeking protection against repatriation to their home countries.
Without money and forced to be illegal immigrants in order to be eligible to make protection claims, most among the 10,500 claimants feel helpless and distressed with nowhere to turn to.
Under a new Unified Screening Mechanism introduced in March last year, asylum seekers may lodge non-refoulement claims with the Immigration Department on grounds including torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and persecution.
Many are torture survivors who badly need legal and psychological support to prove their case and to recover from their trauma, says Piya Muqit, executive director of Justice Centre Hong Kong, a non-profit group advocating for refugee rights.
"When you're recounting your story, you need assistance. Trauma is such a huge thing that it can actually inhibit you from telling your full story," she says.
The Justice Centre, a beneficiary of this year's Operation Santa Claus fundraiser, organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK, is offering access to justice services with legal and psychological support for asylum seekers.
Supported by refugee lawyers, psychologists and social workers, over 1,000 asylum seekers will be assisted while about 380 who are "most vulnerable" will receive intensive individual help. So far this year the project has helped 1,300 claimants and provided 100 with intensive help.
As almost all have psychological problems, if they are unable to get the support they need there may be serious consequences, such as suicide attempts.
"If they can't get psychological support, it's a barrier to rehabilitation. You can't rebuild your life until you get healed psychologically and physically," Muqit says.
The most traumatised refugees tend to be unaccompanied children, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, single mothers, and survivors of torture.
Shirley, who uses a pseudonym, is a torture survivor in her 30s who sought protection here last year because of political persecution in her home country. Thanks to the centre she was able to make a successful claim within a little over a year.
"After attending several counselling sessions at the centre, I felt a lot better and I was able to speak and express myself. Before I came here I was just crying," she said.
Muqit hopes the government can allow refugees to work under certain conditions and improve their welfare package - a monthly housing allowance of HK$1,500 and food coupons worth HK$1,200 a month.
"Everything is second-hand, even underwear," says Muqit. "It's about dignity. Where's my dignity? If you're trying to recover from rape or torture, how are you beginning to recover from this if you have no dignity?"