How a tiny minority of asylum seekers in Hong Kong are giving South Asians a bad name
Those resorting to crime bring unwanted attention to local ethnic minorities
There used to be a time when gang violence and street brawls in Hong Kong were the exclusive domain of Chinese triad gangsters.
Now, 20 years since the transfer of sovereignty to China, the landscape has changed to the extent that ethnic minorities – South Asians in particular – have become visible in such public displays of lawlessness.
On the night of April 29, at a playground in one of the city’s poorest districts, it was all-out war between two gangs of Indian men. Around 40 were involved in the fracas, wielding knives, golf clubs and glass bottles, as the battle spilled out of a playground and into the streets over what police said was a trivial matter.
Then, just three days later, another street fight erupted among more than 20 men identified as South Asians at a road junction, only 100 metres from the Sham Shui Po police station.
As with any other group in Hong Kong’s ethnic mix, there are good and bad eggs among the South Asian community, but there is a genuine concern that those from the subcontinent are being unfairly tarred with the same brush when thugs among them make headline news.
To begin with, many of those arrested in this kind of gang violence turn out to be asylum seekers. Most of them are in limbo, waiting for the government to decide whether their claims for refugee status are legitimate so they can be referred to the United Nations for resettlement in other countries. They are not allowed to take up work, even if their cases drag on for years, and have been known to turn to a life of crime.
All six of those arrested in the first brawl in Sham Shui Po were identified as asylum seekers. The second gang fight saw five men arrested, one of them an asylum seeker from Pakistan.
In both cases, many of those who escaped arrest were assumed to be asylum seekers as well.
Because they tend to stand out from the majority Chinese population, the media focus on their ethnicity can often be unfair and even blatantly xenophobic. Some Chinese-language newspapers have been known to regularly single out every crime involving South Asians to the point of fearmongering.
“Speaking to South Asian Hongkongers, they are saying that the existence of these asylum seekers is leading to a return of the discrimination problem that had been getting better in the past few years,” said Sham Shui Po district councillor Dominic Lee Tsz-king.
Justified as well as biased concerns have cumulatively raised the question of whether the city should rethink its role as a safe haven for illegal immigrants who claim to be seeking refuge from torture and other human rights violations in their home countries.
Sham Shui Po, with its dilapidated tenement buildings, is a magnet for low-income earners and ethnic minorities struggling to make a living and fit in. It is common to find entire families crammed into illegally subdivided flats because they cannot afford soaring rents in better neighbourhoods.
According to police sources, asylum seekers are being increasingly exploited by local triad gangs and used as a form of cheap muscle in the illegal drug trade in particular. Struggling with insufficient welfare assistance and barred from working to support themselves, they are convenient recruits for triad societies such as the Wo Shing Wo and 14K. Triad gangs kept them supplied with free meals, entertainment and illegal drugs in exchange, a force insider said.
Officers from the New Territories North regional crime unit arrested two Pakistani asylum seekers in a raid on a village house in Yuen Long last week. They seized an axe, machete, baseball bat and metal rods, along with gloves and face masks. The pair were recruited by a triad gang.
Those taking a harder line against asylum seekers question whether it is time to pull out of the UN Convention Against Torture, which Hong Kong ratified before the 1997 handover.
Under the Immigration Ordinance, asylum seekers may lodge non-refoulement claims on grounds such as torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and persecution.
The issue of withdrawing from the convention was seriously considered by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s government early last year, but the Security Bureau said later it would not pursue that option.
“It doesn’t matter how much resources we put into speeding up the [asylum seeker] screening process, we’ll never be able to catch up with the increasing numbers coming to Hong Kong,” district councillor Lee said.
He is in favour of a radical option – setting up refugee camps to detain asylum seekers in the belief it will prevent crime on Hong Kong streets and “act as a deterrent for fake refugees”.
Rights groups are horrified by the suggestion, while Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok shot it down during a Legislative Council session last week.
“The Immigration Department cannot continue to detain an illegal immigrant if it cannot complete the removal procedures or the screening process within a reasonable time,” he said, citing a ruling by the Court of Final Appeal in 2014.
Hong Kong currently has a backlog of nearly 9,000 non-refoulement claims waiting to be processed. Nearly 1,900 of them are Indians, and around 1,800 are Pakistanis. Also on the list are more than 1,200 Vietnamese and 1,100 from Bangladesh.
“They are paid for each job they do and they have to bear their own risk of being arrested by police,” one source said, describing them as “cheap labour for the underworld”.
Advocates for refugee rights, on the other hand, point to underlying causes that push them into a life of crime.
Lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung cites as an example the “pittance” of a stipend that refugees receive from the government. “The rental [allowance] is HK$1,500 per month, which simply is not enough to rent a home in most areas in Hong Kong,” he said. “So, many of them have to work, and any work they do in Hong Kong is illegal.
“So it’s understandable for some asylum seekers in this situation ... [to] engage in criminal activities with triad societies.”
Lee does not buy the argument that the working ban is to blame.
“When we looked at the crime statistics breakdown that are committed by asylum seekers, a lot are non-financial in nature,” he said. “For cases such as rape, sexual assault, regular assaults, they have a lot more to do with the nature of these asylum seekers ... who are turning out to be fake refugees ... and a lot of them are criminals back home.”
University of Hong Kong academic Puja Kapai, a campaigner for ethnic minority rights, cautioned that outbreaks of gang violence created a misleading perception not backed by statistics.
“If you put it into context, the number of crimes committed by [ethnic] Chinese Hongkongers or others do not compare with the very minuscule number in which asylum seekers find themselves involved,” she said.
Kapai warned against using asylum seekers as scapegoats for systemic and administrative problems in processing their torture and persecution claims.
A police source provided some insight into the community’s attitude towards crime: “[South Asians] solve their problems on their own and seldom seek help. They usually remain tight-lipped when something happens.”
According to official figures, 1,506 people not ethnically Chinese were arrested last year, most of them asylum seekers. Only about 4.5 per cent of the total of 33,242 detained were not ethnically Chinese.
Chloe Martin of Justice Centre, an NGO helping asylum seekers, warned of other underlying problems. “Many are victims of torture and persecution, and because in Hong Kong they are not allowed to work, they have nothing to do to get their minds off that trauma,” she said.
“If you have nothing to distract from those memories, people turn to self-medication ... and to be able to afford drugs and alcohol they turn to crime.”
She broke it down to a damning indictment of the government’s attitude. “It’s like the government is funnelling them into being criminals and then blaming them for becoming criminals,” she said.
A spokesman for the Security Bureau said “stepped-up enforcement against syndicates who make arrangements for the passage of non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants to Hong Kong” were beginning to show positive results. There was a 42 per cent drop last year in their numbers.
There was also a 24 per cent decrease in the number of non-refoulement claims received.
May 24, 2017
Police arrested two Pakistani asylum seekers, aged 30 and 31, during a raid on a village house in Kung Um Road in Yuen Long. Inside the house, officers seized various weapons, gloves and face masks. It is understood the pair were recruited by a triad gang to carry out attacks.
May 2, 2017
About 20 Indian and Pakistani men clashed in a street brawl at the junction of Kweilin Street and Lai Chi Kok Road – 100 metres from the Sham Shui Po police station. Four knives and a bat were seized.
April 29, 2017
A fight involving about 40 people broke out in Maple Street playground in Sham Shui Po between two Indian gangs. It spilled onto Cheung Sha Wan Road and Lai Chi Kok Road. Some of those involved carried knives, golf clubs and glass bottles. Six Indian men – all asylum seekers – were injured.
April 26, 2017
A Vietnamese asylum seeker, 32, was arrested in Tuen Mun for a series of convenience store robberies in which he used an axe. He was suspected of taking more than HK$20,000 over an eight-day period. He scuffled with police before he was arrested.
March 25, 2017
A Pakistani asylum seeker died after he became the victim of a gang attack in Mong Kok. The victim was beaten with iron rods and suffered a skull fracture.