Behind Hong Kong’s glamorous facade, thousands of refugees quietly struggle to survive in one of the world’s most dynamic territories.
Published in partnership with ShadowProof.
The Chungking Mansions, where many of Hong Kong’s asylum seekers first land upon their arrival to the territory, are a place of brutality, thronging with desperately thin South Asian teenagers who look a decade older than their age, offering to sell you ‘something special’ around every corner — be it opium, hashish, or women.
An asylum seeker from Zimbabwe, David, whose name has been changed due to death threats in his home country, recounts his initial arrival in Hong Kong and subsequent stay in the Mansions:
There was quite a number of people, probably 40 or 50, but only one bathroom. Because of the number of people, if you go to sleep first, than you need to wake up around 3 a.m., so somebody can sleep where you were sleeping.
The complex of five towers was completed in the early 1960’s, and houses an eclectic collection of currency exchange booths, Indian restaurants, low-cost guesthouses, and drug traffickers. The Chungking Mansions are a place of sickness, filled with middle-aged Western men wandering the crowded halls and talking to no one in particular. Sometimes, late at night and deep within the Mansions’ concrete blocks, the sound of a man’s voice, raised and angry, and a woman’s sobbing, soft and desperate, sets itself apart from the continuous dull thrum of the Mansions’ air conditioners and human suffering.
Thuds, followed by cries or screams, are not an uncommon addition to the cacophony of misery that pervades the Mansions, a melody of desolation that usually carries the tune of “My Heart Will Go On” in poorly sung Cantonese karaoke. The Chungking Mansions are a place of final chances and last resorts; it serves as a home to human desperation in some of its purest forms.
But the Chungking Mansions are also a place of fresh starts and new beginnings; a kind of brave new world for the countless refugees of the future who may find themselves standing awash in the garish light of the neon and LED signs covering its facade, and the opportunities for a better future that those lights may represent.
“When people from the outside think of Hong Kong, they think, ‘everything is OK, it’s good here,” said Peter Maina, an asylum seeker who fled his home country in East Africa four years ago due to threats on his life.
Peter says conditions are not as they seem. Behind Hong Kong’s glamorous facade, thousands of refugees quietly struggle to survive in one of the world’s most dynamic territories. Facing prejudice, inadequate resources, and often brutal living conditions, asylum seekers attempt to persevere amid the luxury of Asia’s self-proclaimed ‘World City.’
Hong Kong ultimately lies under Chinese sovereignty but is responsible for its own self governance in matters of border controls, economics, and social policies; this unique arrangement has graced Hong Kong with a reputation as one of the most economically and socially liberal territories in Asia, with policies of free speech and an independent judicial system that set it apart from the repressive regimes and failed states which populate the region. Recently, the integrity of the territory’s autonomy has come into question, with pro-Beijing politicians pushing for greater assimilation with Mainland China and pro-democracy protests which culminated with last year’s Umbrella Movement.
“When you say that you are a democracy, there are things associated with that.” Peter claims that in Hong Kong, however, human rights for minorities and other marginalized communities are limited. “Hong Kong is a city for the rich,” he explains. Often, according to Peter, an individual’s treatment in the territory depends on one’s financial status, or, ”If you have the right passport.”
‘We are stronger than one’
Peter Maina claims that while Hong Kong’s reputation for advanced urban development rings true, its standing as one of the best territories in Asia for human rights is only applicable to some. “For walking, transport systems, and infrastructure, it is a very good city. But when it comes to human rights for people like refugees, there is a big problem.”
Peter fled to China from his home in East Africa due to the quick availability of a visa; after his Chinese visa expired, he was expelled from the Mainland and chose to seek asylum in Hong Kong due to its proximity and loose entry policy. Peter now serves as the Secretary General of the Hong Kong Refugee Union, a recently formed society that seeks to provide refugees in the territory with legal advice, public advocacy, and a support network. The Refugee Union was established in part as a response to the problems that the corruption of Hong Kong’s ruling elite posed to the territory’s refugee community.
According to Peter, an NGO known as International Social Service was previously contracted by the government to distribute food rations to registered asylum seekers. Peter states that the food they were distributed three times per month was often not fresh, and of poor quality. In addition, the value of the bags of food allocated to the refugees often fell short of the proclaimed worth of $1,200HKD. “When you get the food, you can do the mathematics. We were only getting about $700 worth.”
Peter explains that opposing ISS in the territory proved to be a challenge, however. “In Hong Kong, it is very politically connected, because one of the directors is the wife of Leung Chun-ying, and another is a former LegCo member from the DAB Party.”
The DAB, or Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, is known for its close ties with the central Chinese government, and is the majority party in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or LegCo. Leung Chun-ying, or CY Leung, is the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, and another pro-Beijing political force.
The office of the Hong Kong Refugee Union, which sits in an inconspicuous building in Sai Ying Pun district, is decorated in photographs of asylum seekers marching through Central brandishing signs that read, ‘Shame on ISS HK.’ After the Refugee Union was registered as an official society in October of last year, they were able to successfully lobby for a change in the government’s distribution of food; now, instead of rations being distributed in bags by ISS, all of the city’s registered asylum seekers are issued vouchers.
The Refugee Union has since grown to include over 2,000 members, and offers a platform for the city’s asylum seekers to take a more public profile and connect with the territory’s residents and government. Peter declares, “If you form a union, you bring up a stronger voice. If we are many, of course we are stronger than one.”
‘We are not allowed to work’
The most immediate challenge for asylum seekers in Hong Kong today is the prohibition from working legally. An asylum seeker from East Africa, Rachel, who’s name has been changed for protection, fled her home country as a result of death threats and domestic violence. She claims that in Hong Kong, the lack of a right to work, coupled with a meager allowance, makes life difficult to sustain.
“We are not allowed to work. If you do illegal work, and are caught by police, they will put you in jail.” Rachel explains that many refugees have skills that could contribute to the local economy if they were permitted to work. She claims that many of Hong Kong’s refugee population are skilled professionals, and even those that aren’t are capable of performing manual labor.
Peter Maina elaborates, stating that, “They make us depend on welfare, but the welfare is not adequate … You become like a cabbage. You cannot work, you cannot go to school, you cannot do anything!”
Peter estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of Hong Kong’s asylum seekers undertake illegal employment. “How else do you survive, how else do you eat? Nobody gives you clothing—what are you supposed to wear?”
These undocumented workers violate the law if they seek any employment and are extremely vulnerable to economic exploitation and unsafe working conditions, adds Peter.
Many asylum seekers are employed as factory laborers, domestic workers, or work in the service industry, while others are circumstantially forced into more illicit forms of income, such as drug peddling and prostitution.
Gordon Mathews, who authored “Ghetto At The Center of the World,” a book detailing conditions inside Chungking Mansions complex, is a professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also leads a weekly class for asylum seekers in which he discusses current events and cultural identity.
Professor Mathews claims that the financial advantages of perpetuating labour abuse against refugees is a large factor in the Hong Kong government’s refusal to grant the right to work. “They want an illegal labor source. They would never say it, but that’s what’s going on.”
Despite the less-than ideal conditions, an unprecedented number of refugees are continuing to slowly drip through Hong Kong’s borders. According to Gordon Mathews, refugees first began to seek asylum in Hong Kong in the early 2000’s. “One big reason was 9/11, which caused many Western countries to be much more hesitant about accepting asylum seekers.” Many refugees in Hong Kong also cite the lengthy vetting processes to enter the United States and other Western nations as their reason for seeking refuge in the territory; claiming that the lack of timeliness, coupled with a high risk of rejection, makes the prospect of being granted asylum in the West too insecure to be dependent on.
Simon Young, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and a practicing barrister, states that while officially the government keeps economic benefits low in order to discourage more people from seeking asylum within Hong Kong, “I think that the reality is that people are to some extent encouraged to come, and that’s why the numbers have increased … We’re up to 10,000 now.”
That encouragement comes in the form of Hong Kong’s lax immigration policies, which allow nationals of 174 countries to enter the territory without a visa. For those fleeing threats of death in their home countries, this makes the city a convenient transit point while waiting on the lengthy vetting processes required to enter the West. Peter Maina explains that the openness of Hong Kong’s borders provides those who can afford the journey with an element crucial to someone who’s at extreme risk: time. “When you are a refugee, you are running away. Sometimes, time is of the essence. And the time it takes for you to move is very critical.”
Professor Young also notes that some local politicians have begun to use the small influx of refugees as a talking point in local election cycles, claiming that allowing a large amount of asylum seekers into the territory could jeopardize its unique position.
‘I cannot go back to my home country’
Rachel explains that often times, asylum seekers simply become stuck within Hong Kong’s borders as a result of circumstances during transit, and the local government’s unwillingness to grant official asylum status. In order to be resettled legally in a third country, asylum seekers must first be declared legitimate by the Hong Kong government’s United Screening Mechanism. The Refugee Union denounces the USM as being nothing more than a pretense due to its suspiciously low rate of claim acceptance.
Rachel initially came to Hong Kong with the intent of transiting to the West, but claims that the brutality of being smuggled through international borders left her unable to continue. “Because of my condition by the time I arrived in Hong Kong, I had no choice. I had to stay here.”
After her initial entrance permit to Hong Kong expired, Rachel was jailed. Rachel’s subsequent criminal record makes her asylum claim much more difficult to verify and further complicates her hopeful resettlement to a third country.
While she admits that she does not meet the traditional definition of a refugee, she asserts that her claim for asylum is no less valid. “I’m a parent. I have children. I fear for them, I miss them. But this personal condition forced me to flee … I cannot go back to my home country.”
Gordon Mathews states that all refugee screening mechanisms, not just Hong Kong’s, are inherently broken. “Making political asylum seem legitimate and economic asylum not legitimate is fairly ridiculous because in fact, most people are in a gray area in between these … The whole system is deeply flawed.”
Conditions for refugees in Hong Kong aren’t unlivable, however. David, who fled Zimbabwe due to economic collapse and politically-motivated threats on his life, has used the extra time and opportunities presented in Hong Kong to enrich the community he has been flung into. “I organize and provide classes for asylum seekers to learn Chinese. I am also organizing volunteers to teach sign language … The biggest challenge for me is that when I’m trying to organize all of these things, due to the fact that I don’t have legal status here in Hong Kong, I can’t ask for donations.”
David claims however, that he has made the best of his situation in Hong Kong by taking advantage of the territory’s public parks and beaches. “I still go hiking. I don’t need to pay to go hiking, and that’s the beauty of Hong Kong.”
Gordon Mathews explains that while conditions are far from ideal, asylum seekers are better off in Hong Kong than they would be in surrounding states.
People are free to walk around … To an extent, they’re able to make lives for themselves … In the Mainland, I’ve seen police rip up an asylum seeker’s papers … I’ve seen them literally rip their papers in half and take them off to jail. They can do that in the Mainland, because the police have power … In Hong Kong, that’s impossible.
David explains that while he is grateful for the relative safety he has been afforded in Hong Kong, he ultimately hopes to one day return to Zimbabwe. “I think people tend to forget that nobody chooses to be a refugee — that is nonsense. I don’t know why people think like that … It’s so difficult being one, after all.”
For the time being, however, he is preparing for his final interview with Hong Kong’s United Screening Mechanism, which will ultimately determine whether or not he will be granted asylum status. “The first outcome is rejection. If they reject you, you can appeal. If that appeal is successful, then you can stay. But if the appeal doesn’t work, then they deport the person.”
For Peter Maina, his case is still ongoing. He explains,
I have tried to write to Australia, to Canada, to many European countries, but they say you need to get status from the government of Hong Kong, and then the UN will be able to resettle you … I am still waiting, but there is nothing else I can do. If I could get to another country, I would.