For many people classified as “non-essential workers,” the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of employment and income. But Claudine, 47, a trained nurse, remains unseen and unable to work, despite a demand for skilled people like her.

Claudine, who is using a pseudonym for fear of jeopardising her asylum claim, is from East Africa and does not have the right to work in Hong Kong. She arrived in the city nine years ago and is still waiting for her asylum claim to be determined by the Hong Kong government.

File photo: Paul Stableman, via Flickr.

She is part of a growing number of skilled health workers and asylum seekers in Hong Kong who wish to work on the frontline of the pandemic, give back to society and ease the burden on medical workers in the city.

“I would really like to work during this crisis. I’d do it in a heartbeat,” said Claudine. “I like to care for people and take care of their health. It was my job for 15 years.”

Hong Kong has been lauded for its low infection rate. The region has stringent protective measures in place, including testing all overseas travellers upon arrival, sending all close contacts’ of confirmed cases to government quarantine centres for monitoring, and daily testing in clinics and hospitals. All of this requires an extensive frontline workforce.

Claudine trained and worked as a nurse in her home country, caring for patients in maternity and mental health wards. While in Hong Kong, she completed a six month course to become a certified caregiver.

Volunteering at Christmas at Little Sisters of the Poor. Photo: Maria Miracle.

She is trained in CPR, first-aid, infection control and patient safety among other things. She regularly volunteers at elderly homes in Hong Kong, as well as a bi-monthly refugee clinic, where she checks people’s vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate.

“[Our skills] would be so useful for medical staff, especially now,” said Claudine. “We can most certainly ease some workload as we have the knowledge. And if there is something to learn, we can do it. We are quick learners too.”

Since its detection in January, more than two million people have been infected with the SARS-like virus, resulting in more than 146,000 deaths worldwide. 

‘Life in a prison’

Ama, also using a pseudonym, is 53, from West Africa, and has also completed the six-month caregiving course in Hong Kong. She too is eager to put her skills to use.

She compares being unable to work to “living in a prison.”

“Not allowing us to work is a huge loss for us, as well as the Hong Kong government,” she said. “We are talented. We can help. And we want to help.”

File photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates worldwide. According to the Hong Kong Immigration Department, between late 2009 and March 2020, there were 30,365 non-refoulement or torture claims made – the only method of applying for refugee status in the city. Of that number, only 200 were accepted.

For skilled workers like Ama and Claudine, being given the chance to work would fulfil a desperate desire to change the perception of asylum seekers in Hong Kong and empower the community.

Virginie Goethals, Co-founder of RUN Hong Kong, an NGO that provides rehabilitation through sport and education for asylum seekers and refugees, said that there is “a big misconception” about the community in Hong Kong. 

“People see them as being very ‘needy’ individuals who are ‘unskilled’,” she said. “In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of them have amazing professional skills and are so highly educated. If someone arrives in Hong Kong and isn’t that skilled, they are so eager to change that and upskill themselves.”

Caregivers health check for RUN. Photo: Maria Miracle.

Goethals added that staying at home “exacerbates trauma and triggers mental health problems” for many asylum seekers. “Working would add so much meaning to their life,” she said. “It would be a way for them to overcome what they are fleeing from.”

It often takes more than 10 years for an asylum claim to be determined by the Hong Kong government. During that time, the claimants receive HK$1,500 per adult from the government for rent, which is paid directly to the landlord every month. On top of that, they receive a monthly HK$1,200 food card per adult, which can only be used at local supermarket chain, Park ‘n’ Shop.

As the claimants are not allowed to earn a living, NGOs and other grassroots organisations fill the gaps by providing other supplies.

The spread of Covid-19, according to Goethals, has further marginalised the community, especially because of poverty.

“They have less access to food, medical supplies are incredibly expensive, and they don’t have money to buy masks or sanitiser,” she said.

Caregivers health check for RUN. Photo: Maria Miracle.

Goethals said the community has also grown more fearful after hearing reports of homelessness and xenophobia targeting African people in Guangzhou – a result of the rising anti-foreigner sentiment in the southern Chinese city, after warnings of imported cases of Covid-19.

“They are really scared that something similar will happen in Hong Kong,” said Goethals. “There has been a lot of discussion about this recently.”

‘We should not waste lives’

In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a statement encouraging countries to “benefit from the support refugee health professionals can provide to national health systems.”

“Medical professionals and health workers across the continent have responded to the pandemic with selfless determination, and all available help is needed at this time of crisis,” said Filippo Grandi, commissioner of the UNHCR.

“Refugees with proven professional competencies are ready to step in and contribute if allowed to, under the supervision of certified health professionals. In this way, they can show their solidarity, and give back to the communities sheltering them.”

Some countries in Europe, including Ireland, have allowed asylum seekers trained in healthcare to provide “essential support” by taking on roles like medical assistants.

File photo: Pixabay.

Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, a Hong Kong legislator and founding member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, supports allowing asylum seekers to work in Hong Kong.

“We should not waste their lives,” he said. “It would be so great for them to work, especially now during the Covid-19 crisis. It would ease the burden for overworked medical staff, and is a positive move for asylum seekers.”

Kwok agrees that the talent and skill prevalent among asylum seekers is substantial and beneficial to Hong Kong. He says that the long waiting time for a case to be determined causes “mental health problems” and “damage” to them.

The government, according to Kwok, is not proactive enough and is still failing them.

‘Losing out

Gabby, also using a pseudonym, 38, a trained caregiver and asylum seeker from East Africa said: “There are two parties that are losing out; us and the Hong Kong government.”

“For starters, we want to put what we know into practice, so we can keep in regular touch with our skills. It will help us if we resettle later down the line,” said Gabby.

“But also, it’s the Hong Kong government that is losing out by keeping us in the shadows,” she said. “We are ready, and we can help anytime, with everything… especially Covid-19. We don’t want to sit and do nothing.”

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Rhea is a Hong Kong-based journalist interested in gender issues and minority rights, whose work has appeared in a number of publications across Asia. She is also on the 2019 Diversity List: a list of ethnic minorities that are qualified and committed to serve on Hong Kong government committees.