Life in the shadows
Deprived of legal status and protection, refugees and asylum seekers are struggling for survival
The section of Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is sometimes referred to as the "golden mile". The dazzling neon lights of shops selling a wide range of consumer products tell the story of Hong Kong being an affluent society and shoppers' paradise. But living in a small apartment in Chungking Mansion, a multi-storey commercial-residential building on that road that is popular among backpackers and other temporary visitors, Mr Mohammed Korshel (not his real name) has a very different story to tell. It is a story about survival.
The asylum seeker, a person who is outside their country of origin because they are suffering persecution, once narrowly cheated death in a Somali jail, where he and his friends were brutally tortured by the police. A scar on his forehead bears testimony to this tragic episode of his life.
"I'm a lucky one," he said. "When I heard they had chopped off my friends' heads, I was just worrying whether my body would be intact if I were executed."
Two years ago, he came to Hong Kong in search for a stable life free from the fears of persecution. Two years on, the search is still on.
"I'm not allowed to work, nor can I leave," he said. "What future can I expect with a $1,300 monthly housing allowance and a weekly food subsidy worth no more than $300?"
"For us, the biggest problem is the right to work legally," said Mr Lakony Wilson, an asylum seeker from Uganda.
Mr Wilson tells an unfortunate story of one of his fellow asylum seekers. The man was sentenced to prison for three years after he was found working illegally in a restaurant. After his first release, he was soon imprisoned again for theft. On his second release, he came upon the cruel truth that his wife had turned to prostitution in order to raise their nine-year-old daughter. Having lost his will to live, he committed suicide.
Like many other asylum seekers, Mr Korshel and Mr Wilson chose Hong Kong because of its relatively liberal immigration policies. That was before they realised that Hong Kong has a very stringent refugee policy.
Even though China ratified in 1982 The United Nations Refugee Convention, which stipulates the rights of refugees and the legal obligations of states towards refugees, the treaty has not yet been extended to Hong Kong. As of January 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 154 refugees and 486 asylum seekers in Hong Kong. All of them lack legal protection and have no right to work.
Without official aid, Mr Korshel and Mr Wilson are just two of many refugees who struggle to make ends meet in a city where living costs are exceedingly high.
These refugees and asylum seekers, said Ms Emily Halsall, Development Officer of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, usually turn to non-governmental organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Christian Action and Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre for financial assistance and free legal services.
These organisations, however, are in a constant battle to secure funding for their operations.
"Many local charitable trusts will only support projects whose beneficiaries are Hong Kong citizens," Ms Halsall said. "International trusts are also reluctant to donate as they perceive Hong Kong as a developed city that has the financial power to support refugees."
To complicate matters further, according to Professor Gordon Mathews, an anthropology professor at Chinese University renowned for his study on Chungking Mansion, refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong are extremely diversified. Some might have fled their home country for economic reasons while others might have been forcibly displaced due to political instability.
"Some of them are well-educated and had high social status in their home countries," said Prof Mathews, who organises classes for refugees and asylum seekers to discuss international and local news issues every Saturday in Chungking Mansion.
Mr Wilson, prior to settling in Hong Kong, was a businessman who chaired Uganda's presidential election campaign for the country's largest opposition party led by Dr Kizza Besigye. The candidate lost to incumbent Mr Yoweri Museveni, who has been President of Uganda since 1986.
"The police arrested Dr Besigye several times, but they wouldn't kill him because of his international influence," said Mr Wilson. "It is easy for them to kill small potatoes like me though."
Fearing for his life, he decided to leave Uganda.
"I had no choice," Mr Wilson said. "It's a matter of survival or death. Quite simple, isn't it?"
However, not all asylum seekers live a miserable life in Hong Kong. Mr Wolali Dometi, an asylum seeker from Togo, has been living here for six years and makes a living by teaching French. He also receives a small amount of allowance for attending a church in Tsim Sha Tsui every weekend.
"If UNHCR approves my case, I hope to go to Canada or Australia," he said. "But I've been waiting for six years and there still isn't any news."
While asylum seekers such as Mr Dometi have their hearts set on seeking pastures anew in a foreign land, returning home is what others such as Mr Korshel yearns for.
"My father and grandfather's properties are in Somalia," he said. "I have to go back to continue my family business."
"Of course, only if the political environment changes in Somalia."
Reported by Celine Ge
Edited by Claire Lee
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