Daughter of Bangladeshi economic migrants offers a helping hand to refugees in Hong Kong

Piya Muqit, who heads Justice Centre, suggests that those wanting to get into the human rights business should look at helping at home, not overseas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 4:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 4:32pm

Refugee rights advocacy seems to come naturally for Piya Muqit, with good reason. The executive director of the Justice Centre, a local non-profit organisation providing legal support to asylum-seekers, is the daughter of economic migrants who fled Bangladesh during the 1971 civil war to start a new life in Scotland.

“My parents actually got married on the day that civil war broke out,” Muqit said, adding that her parents sacrificed a lot to raise and educate her in the UK.

“I feel very strongly that I want to give back to the community.”

Now 38, Muqit has built a 16-year career in human rights as a legal aid lawyer and policy expert specialising in child rights, human trafficking and refugees. Prior to taking the helm at the Justice Centre, she served as the head of policy and advocacy at UNICEF UK as well as senior legal adviser at Freedom From Torture, a UK rehabilitation organisation for torture victims.

Speaking on World Refugee Day last Monday, Muqit said she hoped to raise awareness on issues concerning refugees in Hong Kong and press for fairer legislation and policies. Her ambition is to expand the organisation into a regional NGO leader in human rights.

As of March this year, there were 11,201 people waiting to have their claims investigated through the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), which processes claims based on the risk of a returnee facing persecution, torture or inhumane, degrading or cruel punishment or treatment.

Q: What misconceptions do people have about refugees in Hong Kong? The first [misconception] is that there are no refugees in Hong Kong. There were refugees in the 1980s and 1990s and they were from Vietnam, but now there are no refugees. I know Hongkongers are very passionate about refugees – the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) fundraises in Hong Kong for refugees outside of Hong Kong and they raise a large amount of money. There’s a disconnect between refugees outside of Hong Kong and refugees in Hong Kong. Those that do know about refugees from the press think that refugees are living in, to quote one Legislative Council member, “a paradise” in Hong Kong. That somehow refugees are living in this idyllic situation where the Hong Kong government is giving them money and they don’t have to work and they’re having a very good life. I think the public is not aware of the actual reality, which is living from a daily HK$40 food voucher [for ParknShop] which limits what you can actually buy, having HK$1,500 per adult and HK$750 per child in rent which gets paid to your landlord. Essentially you’re living in a cashless society and you have no right to work, you have no right to higher education post 18 [years of age]. Refugees are living on the poverty line. The third misconception is that refugees are responsible for crime in Hong Kong.

Q: What are the most pressing concerns for refugees? Right to work. Many refugees in Hong Kong have skills, and because of the delay in decision making they’re here for years unable to work or contribute in any way. Without having an ID card, they can’t access public facilities like libraries and sports centres, so they’re very limited in what they can actually do. The second most pressing issue would be reforming the USM system. The government has committed to speeding up the system, but speeding up the system should come hand in hand with reforming the system substantively. The third pressure issue is the call for detention. When the Security Bureau produced its two-year road map for Hong Kong, this was the issue that was most alarming to our clients, and what they were most worried about. The calls for the camp came hand in hand with the ramping up in the media of fake refugees and crime.

Q: Introduced in 2014, Hong Kong’s USM has an acceptance rate of 0.6 per cent – drastically lower than the international rate of about 30 per cent. From 2009 to March this year, only 52 asylum seekers or protection claimants have been recognised. Can you describe how our system compares to that of other developed territories?

First of all, it was a system that was put together very quickly, and was not put together in consultation with civil society. In other developed countries, when the government suggests changes to any existing system they consult civil society first. That didn’t and doesn’t happen in Hong Kong. The quality of decision making we know is poor. To give an example, in one decision letter it was said that Yemen is safe for someone to return to. Now Yemen is a country of concern, and the UNHCR has recommended that people do not get sent back to Yemen. In other developed systems you have a very strong country research team. That doesn’t exist in Hong Kong. The volume of case workers is low in Hong Kong, but also the training and capacity building of those case workers. The other piece that is different with the USM is the delay in decision making. The legal aid system in Hong Kong for these claims is less developed than in other jurisdictions. You also need your support systems around the USM to be strong.

Q: What are the main challenges organisations like yours face? We want to work constructively with government and we need a forum in which to do that. If we’re trying to do effective policy and advocacy, we need to be able to be in a forum where we can speak directly with government departments who are also involved. Another challenge that we face is that the work we do is attached to a much bigger piece of work. We’re not a refugee organisation, we’re a human rights organisation. So whenever we’re talking about the law that applies to refugees, it’s the same law that applies to Hongkongers. It’s a challenge ... for people to understand that these laws apply to everyone and we need to protect them.

Q: What can individuals do to help refugees? The first thing they can do is talk about the issues. Public engagement and awareness is critical - it’s the game-changer in Hong Kong. We need the public to change their view and their attitude towards refugees to be embracing, and to recognise the value of the refugee community. Funding of refugee services is critical. We know where the problems are, we know how to fix them, we know what needs to be done. But we haven’t got the capacity to do everything.

Q: How did you become interested in this work? It’s kind of a strange story, but I didn’t want to study law. In my second year, I realised that the only way I was going to stick the four years out was if I could find a way of bringing law alive. I started volunteering for a racial equality council ... and I worked on racial discrimination cases. I just knew I wanted to help individuals who were in a worse situation than me because I had been fortunate. I felt this was the best use of my legal skills. Refugee work in particular was when I was training as a pupil barrister. I had six months in criminal law and six months in refugee law. My six months working on refugee cases – for me, that was human rights work in the UK. It was actually cutting-edge human rights work where I didn’t have to travel to Uganda or Somalia or go out into the field. I could actually help refugees who had been persecuted and navigate through the political system. And that’s really why I specialised in refugee law.

Q: What are the key lessons you’ve learned throughout the years? How I’ve reached this point is by ensuring that I’m never far from the grassroots. I think what can happen is you can be progressing in your career and you can be rising in seniority, but [problems arise] the more removed you are from who you’re supposed to be serving. That’s when you have leadership which doesn’t reflect the beneficiaries that they’re supposed to be working towards supporting. The absolute critical thing is listening to your clients and not speaking for them, but empowering your clients to speak for themselves. I see there’s too much of this where people are authoritatively talking about a group of people they represent, when the same group are in the room. The second thing is understanding that there are different layers of working within the refugee space. My experience is that you need a holistic approach, and the best way to get change is when you have a multidisciplinary approach to working with refugees. The third thing is accountability. All of this is happening in the grassroots, but the key decision makers are sitting in government. Always be mindful that advocacy is crucial at all levels.

Q: What advice do you have for those who want to succeed in this field? One of my tips is that if you look to leading an organisation, it’s really about understanding the work of the organisation that you want to lead and having the experience of that [work]. What advice I have, for anyone who wants to work on human rights, is start with the human rights in your own country. There’s a romantic idea that you can do human rights work somewhere else, and somehow it’s more meaningful and more valuable if you’re doing it in another country. Always look at what’s happening in your own back garden.