It is a simple act: pulling on running shoes and hitting the track — but for a group of refugees in Hong Kong it has become a lifeline as they face an agonising wait to find a new home.

They come from all over the world, fleeing violence, some bearing physical scars, but there is no talk of the past as they sweat through training each week at an athletics track in the heart of the city.

Organisers say many in the “Free to Run” programme are torture victims.

Running helps them recover from trauma — it also combats the mental toll of being stuck in limbo.

Hong Kong does not give refugees a permanent home in its own territory and they can spend years in the city, hoping to find sanctuary in a third country.

In the meantime, they are unable to work because of government restrictions, and subsist on handouts from authorities and NGOs.

“I don’t want to stay home, I want to be busy. Running has helped me move forward,” says Naina, who has been in Hong Kong for 12 years after fleeing violence in her community in South Asia.

Like many of the refugee runners, she is now taking part in the vibrant local racing scene, recently completing a 30-kilometre challenge.

“Since joining the running programme I’ve lost weight and I feel stronger. I have more confidence to talk with people. Before I always hid myself,” she says.

‘What’s my future?’

International charity Free to Run set up the running group a year ago, in collaboration with local NGO Justice Centre.

Most of the female runners, like Naina, start with the charity’s women-only hiking programme on the city’s rugged hills before feeling bold enough to join the weekly hour-long track sessions that are open to both genders.

There are now 28 regular runners, two thirds of them women, some of whom have never done sport before.

Speeds vary but all are serious about training, supervised by an experienced British coach, although they are quick to laugh and joke in what has become a band of friends.

“The goal of running is to empower them and offer them psychological support…running is just a very easy way to help them feel better,” says Virginie Goethals, Hong Kong director of Free to Run, herself an ultra-runner.

Runner Adam fled to Hong Kong from Somalia three years ago, after his brother was killed and he feared for his life.

“I feel like I’m safe (in Hong Kong) but I think about what’s next. What can I do for my family? What’s my future?” he says.

Running is an antidote to the joyless wait as authorities deal with his case, and is also a way to escape what can otherwise be an isolated existence.

“We come together, we talk. It’s much better than staying at home and getting more stressed,” he says.

‘Unfair system’ 

Many refugees have never heard of Hong Kong before they arrive, brought to the city by agents. Some seeking protection are detained on entry, others overstay their visitor visas before applying to the government for help.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the UN’s refugee convention so does not grant asylum.

However, it is bound by the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and considers claims for protection based on those grounds. It also considers claims based on risk of persecution.

After government screening, claimants found to be at risk of persecution are referred to UNHCR, which can try to resettle them to a safe third country — another lengthy process.

Others are deported, enter a legal battle to stay or endure a long wait until their country is deemed safe for them to go back.

With no official status, those who remain survive on government food coupons and a monthly accommodation allowance of just HK$1,500 ($190), which does not go far in a city where rents are sky high.

Campaigners say the small minority whose claims are eventually substantiated by the government gain no better rights and are left on the outside of society.

“They have no options for local integration, they have no options for residency and they are not able to work,” says Victoria Wisniewski Otero of Justice Centre.

“Living like this for so long crushes their self-confidence.”

Of almost 4,000 claims determined since 2014, only 29 have been substantiated, according to government figures.

However, authorities say their approach must remain stringent to deter a “mass influx” of what they term illegal immigrants.

There are more than 11,000 outstanding applications for protection, according to the immigration department.

refugees human rights
Photo: Dan Garrett.

Claim decisions take an average of 25 weeks, the department says, but rights workers and refugees say cases can take years.

The government urgently needs to find a long-term solution that speeds up the process and improves the fairness of decision-making, says Otero.

Meanwhile, for Dawud and his family, the wait continues.

He came to Hong Kong fleeing conflict in the Middle East, but after four-and-a-half years his case rumbles on.

A permanent home is still a pipe dream and the prolonged uncertainty makes it hard to sleep or eat, he says.

An hour spent with his young sons at track training provides a rare reprieve.

“You are always thinking, thinking, thinking,” says Dawud.

“When you run you feel happy. You can breathe.”

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