Photos: These refugees stuck in Hong Kong can’t get asylum, can’t work, and can’t leave

How old will she be by the time they find a real home?
How old will she be by the time they find a real home?
Image: Matt Tinoco
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The tapping of the rain on the corrugated tin roof mixes with the gurgle of a second-hand air conditioner in Nauman Rashad’s windowless room. A few goats bleat happily in a pen outside, pleased with the brief respite the rain brings from the sweltering Hong Kong summer. Within a few minutes, water is seeping in through a crack in the wall, dampening the fabric and posters Rashad has tacked up to cover up the bare wooden siding of the converted pig-farm he and about 20 other people call home.

The Hong Kong that Rashad resides in is starkly different from the shopping malls and skyscrapers it’s known for. But for Rashad, a 27-year-old pharmacist from Islamabad, Pakistan, and nearly 10,000 other refugees within the territory’s borders, these slums are the only home they’re allowed. A combination of draconian local laws with international treaties has them caught in a grim bind: They cannot get asylum, cannot work, and cannot leave.

Nauman Rashad outside his shack.
Nauman Rashad, a refugee from Pakistan, outside his shack.
Image: Matt Tinoco

According to numbers from the city’s International Social Service branch, there are 9,900 asylum-seekers in Hong Kong, a nearly 70% increase from the beginning of 2014. Of them, about 20% each come from Pakistan and India. A further 15% are from Vietnam, 13% from Bangladesh, and 11% from Indonesia. The remainder come from other countries in southeast Asia such as Sri Lanka, and some from as far afield as Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Unlike most other nations, Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. (China is a signatory, but hasn’t extended it to Hong Kong.) In 1992, however, Hong Kong did sign the UN Convention Against Torture, which among other things prohibits the deportation, or “refoulement,” of people to countries where they might face torture.

So while it will let people at risk of torture stay in Hong Kong—often waiting years for their claims to be considered—the government doesn’t offer most of them the rights they would have under the refugee convention, among them the right to work. Of the 19,844 applications for asylum Hong Kong has received since December 1992, only 31 have been granted, a recognition rate of just 0.16%. Globally, the average recognition rate for refugees is approximately 27%, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“We live here worse than dogs”

A refugee shack in Hong Kong with "Welcome" spray-painted over the doorway.
Welcome home.
Image: Matt Tinoco

“We live here worse than dogs,” Rashad explained as we walked through the compound he lives in, more than two hours outside of Hong Kong’s city center. “I cannot believe that a city so rich offers so little to those who come to it looking for help.”

Rashad has been in Hong Kong for six years, first entering the city illegally on a raft from Shenzhen in 2009. Each month, he gets a monthly living stipend from the government: HK$1,500 for rent, HK$1,200 for food, HK$300 for utilities. Converted, it totals US$387, in a city consistently cited as one of the world’s most expensive. In a particularly cruel bureaucratic twist, the food allowance may be spent only on a prescribed list of foods, and not on toiletries.

Few other countries have such welfare programs specifically for refugees, but that is because they allow them to work. Rashad remembers vividly the day immigration arrested him for “taking unlawful employment.” At the time he was working as a restaurant dishwasher and being paid under the table. Somebody tipped off the authorities, and he was sentenced to 45 months in prison. While that was eventually reduced, Rashad still spent some 15 months locked up with violent criminals.

Sira, a refugee from Indonesia, with her four-year-old son.
Sira, a refugee from Indonesia, with her four-year-old son.
Image: Matt Tinoco

“All around me there were people who had hurt people, robbed people, hit people,” he said. “And what am I there for? An immigration crime as a refugee? I never did any big crime, I’m just working trying to make my living. But I spent 15 months there.”

As a part of his sentence, Rashad was required to work in a prison laundry, washing bed-sheets brought in from the city’s hospitals. He was paid HK$4 (US$0.52) each day. “It was unsanitary and disgusting. Cleaning blood and shit off the sheets,” he explained. “We were doing the work that no one else wanted to do in all of Hong Kong.”

Many refugees, fed up with a system that prohibits them from working, turn instead to sex work, drug peddling, and petty theft for income. “It seems they are asking us to do crimes,” explained Kasun*, a refugee from Sri Lanka. “I [would] rather risk a four-month sentence for selling hashish than a 15-or 20-month sentence [for working illegally]. It makes more sense that way.”

Rashad agrees. “Hong Kong Law forces us to do crime. Every day there are lots of robberies and lots of burglaries that are committed just by refugees,” he said, exasperatedly. “It’s not something we want to do, but we aren’t left with any choice. It’s either they send us to prison for working or they send us to prison for stealing.”

Their high crime rate is used as evidence that refugees are inherently untrustworthy and dangerous. But the refugees themselves tell a very different story, one rooted in survival instead of malice.

Mita*, an asylum-seeker from Indonesia with a four-year-old child, also spent more than a year in prison after she was caught working as a janitor in a Kowloon hostel. After she got out, she decided sex work was the best way she could provide for herself and her son.

“I didn’t want to steal things. I didn’t want to hurt other people,” she explained. “Selling myself hurts me. But we need soap, we need toothpaste, we need tampons, and the babies need diapers. None of this stuff is provided for by Hong Kong, and if I can’t get it by working in a job what else am I supposed to do?”

A history of indifference

Refugee shacks in Hong Kong
A temporary colony has taken shape.
Image: Matt Tinoco

The refugees are not entirely on their own. A small network of local NGOs helps with everything from navigating the layers of bureaucracy to providing the soap, toothpaste, tampons, and other things they are forbidden from buying with the government allowance.

At the offices of Vision First, the walls are stacked high with Pampers baby diapers. Downstairs, dozens of predominantly Indonesian women and children are clustered, waiting for new food vouchers. “We’re fighting a losing battle here,” said Cosmo Beatson, the founder of Vision First, drawing himself together after ordering that the office door remain closed to the dozens of people clamoring in the hallway.

Vision First is a volunteer organization founded originally in 2009. Like other refugee-oriented NGOs, it runs almost exclusively on donated funds, supplies, and time, and it can usually provide supplies for only about 20 or so people each day. It also supports the Refugee Union, an advocacy organization staffed and operated by refugees themselves.

“Organizations like Vision First fill in the very wide gap between what Hong Kong’s government provides for refugees here and what they need to live,” said Bergman.

A makeshift toilet in a Hong Kong refugee shack.
A makeshift toilet in one of the refugee shacks.
Image: Matt Tinoco

Hong Kong’s harsh attitude towards refugees is ironic. Many of the city’s residents are themselves the descendants of refugees who fled from either the Japanese occupation of China during World War II or Mao’s China.

“The way it seems now is that Hong Kong doesn’t want to open its doors because they’re worried they’ll be swamped like they have [been] in the past,” explained Beatson, referencing the more than 200,000 Vietnamese who arrived by boat during the 1970s fleeing the war with America. Of those who arrived from Vietnam, only about 1,000 were allowed to stay in the city; 143,700 were resettled in other countries, and 67,000 were deported back to Vietnam.

Motivation to change the system is low too. In March last year, in response to two rulings (pdf, p.1, note 1) from Hong Kong’s highest court, the government adopted a “unified screening mechanism” for people seeking protection from refoulement. (Previously, UNHCR had assessed claims from people at risk of persecution, while Hong Kong’s immigration authorities had dealt with claims from people at risk of torture; now all of them go through the same mechanism.) In theory, this should make the process more accountable and decisions can be challenged in court. The change in accounting may also explain why the number of claims appears to have jumped:

In practice, though, the unified screening mechanism changes little. Hong Kong maintains (pdf, p.1) its “long-established firm policy of not granting asylum.” Since the new mechanism took effect, only eight asylum claims have been granted.

Life for people caught in this bureaucratic purgatory is demeaning. Rashad arrived in Hong Kong when he was 21. Now, six years older at 27, he exudes a depressing apathy about his existence.

“Most of us are young people, who had hopes and ambitions,” Rashad said. “We left our homes looking for some place better, some place safer. But instead we’re met with nothing, and Hong Kong doesn’t even try [to help us]. We’re just left to sit here and wait and rot. This isn’t life.”

*Names changed for protection.