By Refugee Concern Network

Since the beginning of the year, Hong Kong has been scrambling to cope with the Covid-19 outbreak. Facemasks, hand sanitisers, bleach, toilet paper, social distancing, home working, distant learning… the list goes on.

However, challenges faced by people from marginalised communities – including the 13,000 refugees seeking protection in Hong Kong – are often overlooked amid the pandemic.

Refugees in Hong Kong do not have the right to work. So they must rely on help provided by the Hong Kong government, which is aimed merely at preventing destitution.

The monthly assistance for a refugee includes: a housing allowance of HK$1,500 paid directly to the landlord, food allowance in the form of pre-paid supermarket cards of HK$ 1,200, HK$300 for utilities, a toiletry bag with personal hygiene items, and some petty cash for transportation to appointments.

Because the government’s help is barely enough to meet their basic needs, refugees also rely on NGOs, including members of the Refugee Concern Network, for support.

While the government has announced relief measures to support different sectors, the refugee community and the NGOs helping it were not included in the government’s coronavirus plans.

Photo: GovHK.

We have all seen empty supermarket shelves. For refugees, who can only shop at designated supermarkets with their pre-paid food cards, the empty shelves mean they are unable to put food on the table.

Refugees’ appointments with the Government’s outsourced social assistance provider, International Social Services (ISS), have also been delayed due to the virus, leaving some of them with no balance on their food cards. Consequently, many refugees are forced to rely on NGOs for food.

As in other sectors, NGOs have been affected, and struggled to provide basic services to the refugee population. This has taken a toll on refugees who are vulnerable and depend on NGOs for their survival.

Like many Hong Kongers, refugees have found it hard to find sanitation products, such as face masks and hand sanitizers. They simply cannot buy these products with their supermarket food cards, and do not have the money to buy them in other shops.

Without face masks, refugees are unable to travel to the ISS or other NGOs to attend essential appointments. More worrying still, some refugees with long-term health conditions have been unable to attend medical appointments due to the lack of masks and the reduction of non-essential services at public hospitals.

Face masks on sale in Jordan at a mark-up. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Schools have moved to online teaching due to closures. This arrangement affects children from less privileged families, including refugee children, who do not have access to the technology many of us take for granted.

Most refugee families cannot afford the computers and internet access which are essential for distance learning.  Their parents’ varying education levels and experience with technology also make it difficult for refugee children to learn from home.

There has been a lot of anxiety, stress and confusion over the Covid-19 situation, as many refugees are not able to understand relevant public health information due to language barriers.

Most of the Government’s public announcements are only in Chinese, and Hong Kong Unison has also pointed out there is missing information on the Government’s factsheets on disease prevention in minority languages, such as Hindi and Urdu.

The suspension of non-essential government services, including those of the Immigration Department, the Torture Claims Appeal Board and the Judiciary, has added even more uncertainty and frustration, as refugees are unable to progress with their already protracted asylum claims.

Man looking at empty shelves. Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

While we are advised to stay home and avoid social contact as much as possible, this isolation can be especially hard for refugees who are alone in the city and thus treasure social interactions with their friends and community.

The social conflict in the past nine months coupled with the outbreak of Covid-19 has harmed the mental health of refugees, many of whom already suffer from trauma, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts due to the persecution they experienced in their home country.

Covid-19 does not recognise race, class or immigration status. Now more than ever, Hong Kong must stand strong and work together to fight the outbreak if we are to survive as a community. Fortunately, many Hong Kongers have offered their support to NGOs and reached out to less privileged communities, including refugees.

We hope the government will soon follow suit by implementing comprehensive policies that cater to the needs of everyone. No community should be left behind.

The Refugee Concern Network is a network of organisations and individuals working collectively to improve the lives of refugees and protection claimants in Hong Kong and advocate for their rights.

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.