For the past six years I’ve been researching a topic that all of a sudden seems to be a hot button issue again – refugees. Of course, those working in the field of forced migration and the refugees themselves know that the issue has never really gone away. Often it’s a matter of where people seeking asylum flee to that determines whether citizens or the media pay attention. Certainly the refugee crisis in Europe has captured the attention of the world as governments, international agencies, NGOs, faith groups and others seek to respond.
Hong Kong is far away from Europe, but the city also has its share of refugees and asylum seekers desperately looking for protection and safety. The latest estimate says there are up to 10,000 people seeking asylum in Hong Kong. They come primarily from South Asia and Africa, but there were reports earlier this month that one Syrian national had applied for refugee status. That means he traveled over 4000 miles to get here!
In Hong Kong, as in many other places, asylum seekers are not welcome. Even those given refugee status by the United Nations are not allowed to stay as permanent residents since the Hong Kong government has not signed the Refugee Convention. As one commentator aptly put it, “Hong Kong’s response to those seeking protection has been to provide minimal resources and maximum inconvenience in an attempt to deter would-be asylum seekers and avoid any pull factors.”
This is not to say that Hong Kong is a heartless place by any means. Over the past 150 years, the city opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of strangers from mainland China, Vietnam, and elsewhere seeking safety and a better life. Migrants from the mainland were the backbone of the working force that transformed the city into its current status as an economic powerhouse. Yet those who arrive in Hong Kong today seeking safety and a better life face a difficult road ahead. The government worries that many are economic migrants looking for an easy way to enter and work illegally. Asylum seekers have been accused of involvement in criminal activities and gang fighting. The public worries about being overwhelmed by foreign migrants who cannot successfully integrate and thereby strain the city’s limited resources.
Christians, of course, are not immune from having similar suspicions and fears about refugees and asylum seekers. However, the church firmly holds to the biblical teaching that when we welcome the stranger, we are welcoming Christ (Matt.25:35). If we take those words seriously, then every encounter with the stranger poses two essential questions – Did we see Christ in them? Did they see Christ in us? Indeed, the blessing of seeing Christ in the stranger comes to both hosts and guests who are willing to be transformed by the gift of hospitality.
I am proud to say that churches in Hong Kong are playing a significant role in building a more compassionate and just asylum seeker and refugee system. They do so by providing friendship, pastoral care, material aid, and social advocacy to this vulnerable population sorely in need of a word of grace and a sign of hope. The fruits of my research on Christian hospitality to strangers in Hong Kong will be made available in the coming months as part of my doctoral dissertation at Chung Chi Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I look forward to sharing it with you.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your generous support of my communications ministry at Hong Kong Christian Council through Global Ministries. Please continue to pray for Hong Kong, China and their churches in these challenging times ahead.
In the peace of Christ,
Judy Chan serves with the Hong Kong Christian Council. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.