Home is where the hurt is for tormented asylum seekers in Hong Kong
Refugees who escaped torture, kidnapping and death in their home countries tell stories of pain, struggle and hope
Andrew often wakes up with the first rays of daylight without knowing where he is. “Every day, when I fall asleep I am in my country. When I wake up, I am in Hong Kong,” he said.
Past, present and future seem strangely entangled.
“Before I get up, sometimes after having nightmares, I have to think: Where am I? Where am I? Oh, second floor Hong Kong.”
His eyes are a dark and troubled sea of pain. But when harrowing memories of the past vanish for a few seconds and he starts talking about the beauty of his home country – where he can no longer live – they turn bright, big and lively. As if his scars could be healed if he was given the chance to touch the soil of his homeland once again and remain in peace.
Andrew – not his real name – and his family fled their home in Africa fearing political persecution. They arrived in Hong Kong in 2004 with nothing but the clothes on their scared bodies. Any delay in leaving his country – he knew – would result in their death.
Andrew, his wife and three children are some of the very few who saw their protection claims substantiated in Hong Kong.
It took 12 years, several court rulings that obliged the government to improve the city’s screening mechanisms, more than 100 screening interviews and an unbearable emotional burden until they can finally hope to be resettled in a third country and eventually rebuild their broken lives.
From 2009 to March this year, only 52 asylum seekers – formally known as protection claimants – were recognised by the Hong Kong authorities. They had to face their trauma, the restlessness of arriving in a completely different country and discrimination, as comments against so-called “fake refugees” flared over the past year.
There were 11,201 people waiting to have their claims screened as of March this year. The city has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the world: it stands at 0.6 per cent since the Unified Screening System was introduced in 2014, whereas internationally it is around 30 per cent – with European rates reaching 60 per cent. Advocates and legal experts say the threshold is simply too high.
Andrew’s family were able to meet government criteria – and anyone who listens to their plight won’t have a hard time to understand why.
Once I asked about the problems he faced in his native country, which we won’t reveal in detail for security reasons, Andrew closed his eyes and clicked his knuckles as if the terror he felt in previous experiences was running again through his veins.
“I had problems with the government in my country,” he said, in an almost inaudible voice, as his body started to shake. He was unable to utter many more words.
“When I talk about it, I have many nightmares… It’s very difficult,” he said, showing a slip proving he had just returned from a counselling session.
His lawyer, Patricia Ho, from the firm Daly & Associates, explained that he went through excruciating forms of torture and detention for holding highly sensitive government information. He still relives such experiences today, more than a decade later.
It was dry season when he embarked on the first aircraft that could take him and his closest family out of Africa. He landed in a wintery Hong Kong by pure chance, without any idea of what the city looked like.
“It was my first time in an airport even. When we arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t know we had to go through customs, so we just stayed on the other side until my wife fainted two days later after we arrived, and they took her to hospital,” he recalled.
In the hospital, doctors called the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – at the time in charge of processing refugee claims. “Up until today, my wife takes the same medication for depression. She didn’t come to terms with the fact that we had to leave our country in such a hurry,” he said.
Their first “home” in Hong Kong was the Star Ferry pier. The cold and the uncomfortable public benches were, however, not comparable with the distress and pain that Andrew had to endure in his own country.
Back then, Hong Kong had no welfare support system for refugees. That was only introduced in 2006. Andrew’s family managed to get out from the streets with the help of a kind Hong Kong resident and then with the support of local non-profit organisations.
They currently receive a monthly allowance for housing (HK$1,200 per adult), transport (HK$230 per person) and food (HK$1,200 in supermarket coupons), which many say is not enough. That was the same support they received when their claim was being screened.
Nothing in their daily routine has changed substantially since being recognised, but Andrew does not complain.“Sometimes, when we have nearly nothing, we share a potato and we try to teach our children to take it with joy. We want to remind them that it is possible to be joyful with less than little,” he said.
They are waiting for a refugee certificate from the United Nations and to be eventually resettled in another country.
Andrew dreams of something that most people living in Hong Kong – and elsewhere – take for granted. “All I want is to be free and most importantly to be safe. I don’t have any country of preference to go.”
He can’t also wait for the day when his children won’t have to write in the school forms that he has no occupation. “I would like them to see me working and be able to provide for them. They are very ashamed of the situation. I always tell them to work hard, but they don’t see me doing anything,” he sighed.
His days are divided between counselling sessions, at least a meal a day with his family and biblical studies. In Hong Kong, asylum seekers and refugees are not allowed to take up jobs. They can’t also be resettled in the city, as it hasn’t joined the UN Refugee Convention.
The UNHCR could not say on average how long refugees in the city have to wait for resettlement. “Each case is different, depending on the facts of the case and where the UNHCR strategically decides to submit them for resettlement,” a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency said.
“The process is entirely controlled by the resettlement country. This means that… the length of processing time is dictated by each resettlement country’s immigration processes,” she said.
Peter – not his real name – from the Middle East, is also waiting to know about his next destination. But his odds of getting a quicker resettlement are higher than those of Andrew, because his brother, who lives in another country, has offered to sponsor him and his family.
Peter, his wife and two children, members of a religious minority, arrived in Hong Kong about three years ago. As with Andrew, the city was not in their plans. While transiting in Qatar – on their way to France – they were sent back to their previous stopover, Hong Kong.
They spent 15 days in airport detention facilities, with little way to communicate – at the time they only spoke basic English – and no clue of what to do next.
Peter and his wife decided to flee their country following the kidnapping of their 11-year-old daughter. After her release, they found their house riddled with bullets.
In Hong Kong, they went through an ordeal of bureaucracy, interviews and translation problems – which almost put their lives and of their interpreter at risk – until their claims were recognised earlier this year.
“If I say my life here is good, I would be lying, but I thank the government that my kids are attending school… kids are happy that they are not treated differently because of their religion,” Peter said.
“I don’t want food or house… I came here to save my children and I want to leave.
“I am hoping to start again in another place, to open a jewellery shop… But, of course, what I would really like is to be with my [religious] leader and my people.”
Andrew also nurtures a bigger dream. He hopes that his experience in Hong Kong will one day serve his nation. “Hong Kong is like a case study for me. I learn many things, so I can take proposals to my country… I am just afraid I will be too old,” he said.
In his opinion, the best thing in Hong Kong is its judicial system. “There’s a basic level of justice… We don’t have that in my country,” he said.
And yet, he insisted, the “cradle of his ancestors” is the best country in the world. “I miss it so much… the streets, the little corners, the neighbourhoods, my uncles and aunties… my own field of palm trees.
“I always tell my children that it is the only place where we can really feel at home… It makes me feel very sad that such a beautiful and rich country is so poorly governed,” he said.
Only when he touches plants on Lantau Island is he able to travel in time and space, and feel a little bit closer to home. For a few moments, he can see the African sunset with all its rich colours.
“The worst thing you can do to someone is to send them into exile,” Andrew said. “Exile is not a choice. It was something that fell upon our backs.”