Each year on June 20th, the United Nations and many civic groups celebrate World Refugee Day. Hong Kong is no stranger to refugee and asylum seeker issues. The history of Hong Kong is also a history of different waves of refugees.
Many current residents were refugees or children of refugees from mainland China after World War II from 1945-47 and following civil unrest after 1949. Hundreds of thousands of people from the mainland entered Hong Kong from 1949 to spring of 1950. Next, Hong Kong was a Port of First Asylum for Vietnamese refugees from 1975-1998, receiving more than 200,000 people from Vietnam during that period. 143,000 refugees were settled in other countries, 72,000 were repatriated to Vietnam, and around 1400 were allowed to settle in Hong Kong after the last refugee camp was closed in 2000.
Many Hong Kongers are unaware that there are still refugees and asylum seekers in the city today. The numbers are smaller than in the past but not insignificant with an estimated 100 recognized refugees and 6000 persons seeking asylum. They come primarily from South Asia and Africa. Hong Kong is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention; thus, refugees normally cannot resettle here. However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees maintains an office in the city and is responsible for determining refugee status. Hong Kong has signed the Convention Against Torture (CAT) so asylum seekers may also file torture claims through the Immigration Department.
Refugees and asylum seekers face many hardships once they arrive in Hong Kong. Besides the trauma of fleeing from their homeland, they face a ‘culture of suspicion’ from the Hong Kong government and the general public. It is assumed (unfairly) that most of the asylum seekers are bogus and are actually economic migrants.
In my conversations with asylum seekers and those who help them, I have become more sensitized to their plight. The whole process of seeking asylum in Hong Kong is degrading and demoralizing, sometimes stretched out for years, leaving vulnerable persons and families in limbo under impoverished conditions. Even recognized refugees are not allowed to work and are given bare minimum support for housing and food.
It is gratifying to know that Christian churches are a part of a diverse network that is providing assistance to asylum seekers and refugees. Churches and Christian NGOs provide material and spiritual support as well as advocating for more just and compassionate policies. Hong Kong Christian Council recently funded a project to help with education expenses of children in refugee and asylum seeker families.
Not long ago, I was invited to join a “March for Protection” for asylum seekers and torture claimants in Hong Kong. By nature, I am not a person who joins protest marches. However, the friend who invited me was also the organizer. His parting words were, “Anyone who really cares about this issue will be there!” Still, I felt uneasy. Should I go or not?
I asked another friend at church who is a person seeking asylum. I respect his opinion very much. “Should I join this march?” I asked. His response surprised me. He said, “Well, yes, because it always helps when there are locals who show support for our situation.” I was surprised because he considered me a ‘local’ Hong Konger even though he knows I am an American. So, I decided I would go and ‘pass’ as a local Chinese.
When we gathered at the Star Ferry Pier in Central, there were hundreds of marchers ready to go. African drums, chanting, banners, media outlets. But as my friend predicted, very few Chinese faces. As we marched from Central to Wanchai, there were many onlookers who stood back as we passed. I was aware indeed that their seeing a Chinese face among the crowd did send an important message: We care and Hong Kong should care.
After the march, which ended in front of the Immigration Department, I reflected on the day. The march for protection didn’t require much courage from me. In fact, the refugees and asylum seekers who led the march were really the courageous ones. But each of us in our own way can do something to make our own city a better place – sometimes all it takes is just showing up.
Judy Chan is a missionary serving with the Hong Kong Christian Council. She is responsible for communications for the Council. She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.