Almost a decade after fleeing Egypt, former journalist Poules Zaki, 41, is still waiting to start a new life in Canada. He is one of a tiny minority of asylum seekers in Hong Kong to succeed in achieving refugee status, the ticket to moving to a host country. But despite getting his resettlement letter from the United Nations refugee agency more than four years ago, he is still in Hong Kong, scraping by on government handouts. “Canada is a very far hope,” he said. “When they accepted my application, I thought I could start a new life there, I could work, I could do a lot of things! “Then I realised I need to wait, for I don’t know how many years.” He is one of only 269 asylum seekers who proved their claims for refugee status since 2014, accounting for under 1.2 per cent of the 22,696 cases received by the Immigration Department as of November last year. “People may think Hong Kong is a rich city, so we can wait,” he said. “And priority is often given to families with children, not single people like me.” According to the NGO Christian Action Centre for Refugees, which helps asylum seekers, people like Zaki can wait between 10 and more than 20 years to be resettled. Some die waiting. Centre manager Jeffrey Andrews said the fastest case he knew of was someone who took only six months between arriving in Hong Kong and boarding a flight to a third country. But another client stayed 22 years before finally moving to Canada in December. Hong Kong get-tough policy on refugee deportation comes into force He said those given the green light for resettlement had no choice but to wait for their host country, and new international refugee crises could push them to the back of the line. “Conflict zones arise any time, no one imagined Ukraine to be where it is today, no one imagined the Rohingya crisis a few years ago,” he said. “That puts our refugee community in Hong Kong at the bottom of the priority list for resettlement.” Hong Kong does not grant asylum, but offers asylum seekers non-refoulement, the assurance that they will not be sent back to a country where they face the risk of persecution or torture. About 15,000 foreigners are in Hong Kong seeking asylum. Most who fail in their initial claims remain for years awaiting the outcome of appeals to the Immigration Department and the city’s courts. The department said it was trying to screen non-refoulement claims efficiently and fairly, weeding out unsubstantiated claimants. It added that the time spent on each claim had been shortened from about 25 weeks in 2014 to the current average of about 10 weeks. Those who succeed in their claims in Hong Kong are then handled by the UN refugee agency and must wait for host countries – mainly the United States and Canada – to accept and let them in. Former television journalist Zaki fled Egypt in early 2013, after reporting from the front lines of religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians, documenting scenes of military brutality and giving a voice to victims. As a Christian journalist, he said, he felt his life was at risk after he was beaten up by a group of soldiers and became the target of extremists. He waited five years in Hong Kong before his claim for non-refoulement was rejected by the Immigration Department in 2018. But his appeal was successful and he was referred the same year to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement to Canada. And then, nothing happened. “I am losing my life in Hong Kong,” Zaki said. “Since I came to Hong Kong in 2013, my life has been at a halt.” Asylum seekers in Hong Kong alarmed, confused by new policy on court appeals Like all asylum seekers and refugees, he receives about HK$3,000 (US$384) in subsidies from the Hong Kong government every month, but half goes directly to landlords as rent. That leaves less than HK$50 a day, though a large part of the subsidy comes as supermarket coupons, not cash. Zaki is also helped by a church and donations. “People think we are a heavy burden to the city, but no one wants to be a refugee,” he said. Christian Action’s Andrews said 16 clients died over the past 14 years while waiting to move to their new countries. Some of the others gave up and volunteered to be sent back to their countries of origin. He said the foreigners were often taken advantage of by landlords and agencies, who put them in the worst accommodation. Many also struggled with mental health issues and needed to see counsellors regularly. The centre works with pro bono lawyers to assess the background of clients, to ensure that they are genuine refugees. It has 600 clients, half of whom are recognised refugees, providing them with welfare support, counselling, donations and other help. He said he hoped that more companies would hire the refugees awaiting resettlement, to help them get out of poverty and the welfare system. Under the current system, only successful non-refoulement claimants can apply for permission from the director of immigration to take up employment, which is granted on a discretionary basis. Faster screening of asylum seekers in Hong Kong, but 2,600 appeals still pending Since 2014, immigration authorities have approved 543 refugees to work, an 87 per cent approval rate. More than 50 are clients of the centre, and work at hotels, gyms, recycling plants among others. Andrews said he wished that, besides more transparency and speed in the screening system, those granted refugee status would receive better protection and welfare, while those who had no case but were abusing the legal process would be dealt with more swiftly. “Then people will know they can’t come to Hong Kong and stay for 10 years by abusing the system,” he said.