If you've been following us for a while you likely know how much we care about giving people a voice so they can step up and speak out on their own terms (excuse the shameless mission plug). Despite the big leaps in human rights protections and secure technology alike, speaking up is becoming increasingly dangerous: it can get you on a blacklist, arrested, disappeared, or killed. In fact, more activists were killed in 2018 alone than in over a decade.
But this also means confronting the difficult truth that over 10 million stateless refugees don’t have a voice and chances are they won’t anytime soon. On 13 January 2019, we heard from refugees as they shared their experiences with our community at Kafnu Hong Kong.
“Refugees are not beggars. We too want to contribute something to society.”
It is not surprising that there was a sense of frustration: not because refugees are angry, but because they have been held against their circumstances and made to feel less than human for much of their lives. But the answer is not simply more aid, more assistance, and more hand-me-downs. These will only work until they don’t — and currently these quasi-humanitarian solutions are proving to work less and less.
If nations are to embrace this qualified, capable, and promising population, they must see refugees as equal to their own citizens. This may not need to be in the form of naturalisation — but at the very least refugees must be granted basic rights and freedoms, and the opportunities to create change.
Between our two panellists, we heard a tale of two cities. Harmony, an ambitious student and part-time model of West African origin came to Hong Kong as a child. While her parents have told her very little about their decision to seek asylum, she and her family recently became one of the few hundred people (out of over ten thousand asylum seekers) whom the Hong Kong government has officially recognised as valid ‘torture claimants’ (not our lingo). Because of this, Harmony can now legally work and undertake a tertiary education — she can also be seen in public and engage in wider society with a reduced risk of retribution.
John Outsider, a middle-aged fireman turned engineer who fled the Middle East, is still seeking asylum. Unlike Harmony, John joins several thousands of asylum seekers in Hong Kong who wait in limbo while their cases make their way through Hong Kong’s slow and prejudiced Universal Screening Mechanism (or USM), a system that has been the subject of widespread criticism largely due to its failure to meet international human rights standards. John does not have the right to work or pursue an education, but rather must depend on less than 40 Hong Kong Dollars a day in food stamps (that’s a little more than 5 US dollars, on a good day).
“We have in mind that ‘we are all equal’, but the reality is that what passport you carry and how much money you have matters – not how good you are or what value you have.”
When asked by the audience why he ‘chose’ to come to Hong Kong, John explained that when “there is a fire and your life is in danger, you don’t choose. You run to the nearest exit.” Now, he is basically stuck: he is not allowed to work, has no legal status and no passport.
So who will speak for them?
While there is no public recourse, a few civil society organisations exist that advocate for the betterment of refugees. But not all refugees are happy, certainly not John who feels that the needs of asylum seekers are often second to token-giving and saviour politics. What is clear is that they want to be their own advocates; tell their own stories; fight their own fight. While taking to the streets or holding up a sign in protest may effectively have them deported from Hong Kong, there is a growing sense of solidarity within the asylum seeker space. Hong Kong Refugee Union for one is a refugee-led, refugee-focused group whose mission is to “empower members to selflessly assist each other and actively participate in all matters relating to the life of refugees and the development of the asylum sphere in Hong Kong according to the highest standards of human rights”.
An emerging trend
What is more promising than ever is that asylum seekers are turning to the Internet in order to find support, share stories, and create opportunities for progress. Unlike physical spaces, the Internet offers a low-cost, safer alternative that allows refugees to come together, start a conversation, and take real action. In a city like Hong Kong where refugees find themselves boxed up in caged homes or tiny 200 square foot apartments shared among 5-10 tenants, these new digital connections offer a beacon of hope.