Asylum seekers in Asia

‘Another door has been shut for me’: Iranian asylum seeker in Hong Kong after Trump ban

Those waiting to be considered as refugees or resettled overseas now fear for their future in the wake of a US order relating to seven Muslim majority states

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 February, 2017, 10:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 4:38pm

Sam, a refugee from Somalia waiting in Hong Kong, has been longing for the day when the US government tells him he can board a plane and start a new life in America.

But having been screened by both the local and US authorities, his dream of being resettled now seems further away.

US President Donald Trump’s entry ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Somalia, and the suspension of the refugee programme, announced on January 27, are shattering the hope of dozens of refugees like Sam who remain in limbo in Hong Kong and have anxiously waited to rebuild their lives in a safe country.

The US and Canada have been the only two countries regularly taking in refugees for resettlement after their claims filed in Hong Kong were recognised. As of the end of January, 103 refugees were awaiting a durable solution.

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With refugees now facing further uncertainty, legal experts and advocates have slammed Trump’s order, which has temporarily been halted by a federal court decision. They are urging Hong Kong to take more responsibility to help those in limbo.

Sam arrived in Hong Kong in 2013 and was recognised shortly after as a refugee. Last year, after being informed that he had been referred for resettlement in the US, he went through an interview with the Department of Homeland Security.

I cannot go back to my country and I know I cannot stay forever in Hong Kong
Sam, a refugee from Somalia

Since then, he has been waiting to receive the green light from the American government. “I was told that my case was on hold and that they were doing some security checks,” he explained, speaking in English with a perfect American accent.

Sam, in his early twenties, has been following the news since the beginning of the US presidential campaign. He said he was fully aware of Trump’s unfriendly stance towards immigrants, but he had not imagined that something like a ban could eventually be imposed.

“It’s very disappointing and sad news,” he said with a sigh.

“I cannot go back to my country and I know I cannot stay forever in Hong Kong. I am hoping that Trump will take refugees and stop banning Muslim people.”

Sam’s greatest wish is to be able to move to a safe country and be given the chance to study and work as a software developer. “I could contribute so much to the country,” he said.

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Abdi is another refugee from Somalia in his early 20s. He does not hide the frustration that years of uncertainty have instilled in him.

He arrived in 2010 in Hong Kong with three of his brothers and, although they filed their claims at the same time, his case was inexplicably left behind. His siblings were resettled last year in the US, whereas he is still waiting for his claim to be screened by the Hong Kong government.

“I have lived for six years with HK$40 a day to eat,” he said, a tone of despair registering in his voice.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to take jobs in the city. That means they have to rely on charity and social welfare payments, which include a monthly housing allowance of HK$1,500 per adult, HK$1,200 for food in supermarket coupons, transport expenses averaging HK$200 per person, and HK$300 for utilities.

The years Abdi has waited in the city, and now Trump’s message to the world, has left him with no faith in the system. “There’s no way I can believe in any system … I have lost the trust,” he said.

John, a citizen from Iran, another of the seven countries hit by the US ban, saw his case rejected by the Hong Kong Immigration Department after a four-year processing wait. He is now filing an appeal.

“I ran from a bullet in one place to seek safety here ... And what now? There’s no way back and nothing in front of me,” he said. “They [the authorities here] know I will get killed in my country, if I am lucky ... because there are much worse things they can do with me.”

The asylum seeker, in his 30s, is hoping against hope that his problem will be solved some day.

The US ban, he said, added a further layer of anxiety to his broken life. “I feel that another door has been shut for me. Now the US door is closed. What’s next?”

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He complained that Trump was not only targeting a country but also its people.

A human rights lawyer in Hong Kong, Mark Daly, said refugees might have to wait longer for resettlement because of the US ban. “The cruellest part is that Trump’s order is taking another avenue of hope away from them and it also highlights the fact that Hong Kong does not provide a proper solution,” he said.

From 2009 to December last year, local authorities only recognised 72 asylum seekers. These cases have been referred to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for resettlement in a third country.

Hong Kong should give hope to the ones who are successful and properly integrate the ones who want to stay here
Mark Daly, human rights lawyer

While they wait for resettlement, which sometimes takes several years, their living conditions do not improve – as they are not given the right to work and continue receiving the same welfare stipends.

“Hong Kong should give hope to the ones who are successful and properly integrate the ones who want to stay here and contribute to society, particularly the children of those asylum seekers. Give them status,” Daly said.

Hong Kong-based lawyer Isaac Shaffer, protection claimant services manager at non-profit group Justice Centre, agreed.

The Briton said the fact significant numbers will no longer be resettled in the US raised questions as to “whether Hong Kong should do more as the chances of resettlement have now diminished significantly”.

The United Nations refugee chief last week said Trump’s order placed 20,000 people who had been expecting resettlement in the US in “precarious circumstances”.

Shaffer said many people felt the rug had been pulled out from under them. “This was a light at the end of the tunnel after many years of uncertainty.”

No real names of refugees were used in this report.