Carrie’s trip to the Hong Kong International Airport wasn’t exciting. Although she hadn’t slept for a few days, she was on guard – paying extra attention to her surroundings and being cautious with every step she took while trying to make her way through the gate. After the plane took off, she fell deeply asleep as the plane was soaring through the clouds.
“I was left with two choices,” said the 26-year-old asylum seeker who is using a pseudonym. “I have to either flee Hong Kong or face political persecution.”
Leaving Hong Kong was a tough decision to make. Carrie’s activism could be traced back to 2012 where she was fighting against the moral and national education curriculum along with more than 120,000 protesters. Since then, she has been participating in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, including large-scale protests since June 2019.
“Sometimes I feel like I betrayed my fellow protesters,” she said. “But I have to convince myself that I choose to leave so that I could stay alive for the greater good.”
She then escaped Hong Kong with a weary heart and a body injured by tear gas, batons and water cannon. Carrie is now in Canada waiting for a decision on her refugee claim.
The 1951 Refugee Convention coined the term “refugee” as individuals who are unable or unwilling to return to their homeland due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
In 2018, Canada became a world leader in refugee resettlement and took in 28,100 of 92,400 refugees who were resettled in 25 countries. The Globe and Mail previously reported 46 Hong Kong citizens applied for asylum claims in Canada between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2020.
Carrie is worried that she wouldn’t be able to prove to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) that she is a person in need of protection at her refugee hearing.
“I think it is hard for Western countries to imagine a democratic society to collapse and turn into a police state,” she said. “And I think it would still be unbelievable to Hong Kong citizens if we didn’t witness our democracy declining over the past year.”
Leo Shin, a professor of Asian Studies and History at the University of British Columbia, told HKFP the Canadian government should uphold and provide asylum to those who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country because of their political opinions.
“While each asylum application has to be adjudicated on its own merits, the Canadian government should understand that the political climate in Hong Kong has been rapidly deteriorating and that space for political dissent over there is shrinking fast,” he said.
The IRB has suspended all in-person hearing until further notice due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The future of Carrie and many other asylum seekers in Canada remains uncertain.
As for now, Carrie focuses on raising international awareness on the Internet. She also plans to work when she receives a work permit, so she could donate part of her salary to non-profits in Hong Kong and financially support those who are still protesting.
In Canada, eligible refugee claimants can apply for a work or study permit while waiting for approval of their status. Some asylum seekers are in the midst of pursuing a higher education yet are forced to leave the city due to charges over rioting and other offences.
Irene was stunned by the snowstorm when she first arrived, but what surprises her the most is the diversity and inclusion in Canadian society. Even though her refugee claim is pending, she hopes to continue her education, so she could understand what it is like to live under Western democracy.
As a pro-independence student, the 19-year-old believes that this would allow her to apply her knowledge and contribute to the future independence movement in Hong Kong.
“I like the diversity here,” she said. “My Iranian neighbours are willing to talk to me despite our cultural differences, and even my hairdresser wants to learn more about Hong Kong culture.”
“There is also an LGBTQ village where you can see rainbow flags flying around,” said Irene.
Irene, who is also using a pseudonym, said people in Hong Kong are less welcoming to non-Chinese ethnic minorities and sexual minorities.
“I think Hong Kong citizens have room for improvement,” she said. “We need to embrace differences between individuals especially when we are fighting for greater democratic freedom.”
However, Irene’s political view is seen as an anti-China force that suggests separatism. Beijing’s recent plan to implement national security legislation increases the former frontliner’s risk of being prosecuted if she ever returns to Hong Kong.
Recently, she also learned that a friend of hers was charged with rioting. News like this upsets Irene a lot, but nothing is worse than the division within pro-democracy protesters.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a pan-democrat, a pro-independence localist or a Civic Passion localist because we are all fighting for the same cause.”
Although Irene considers herself pro-independence, she said that criticizing other pro-democracy ideologies would hinder the movement.
“I think we are often distracted by struggle sessions where we spend so much time judging each other,” said Irene. “We should put our differences aside and strive for the common cause in the hope of a better future.”
There is no place like home
For Sai, being in Canada felt unrealistic.
“It’s like… a minute ago, you were having dinner with your family and the next minute you are in another country across the Pacific Ocean,” said the frontline protester who is now also an asylum seeker in Canada. He is using a pseudonym because of security concerns.
If Sai didn’t leave Hong Kong, he would face a charge that could possibly sentence him to ten years or more– the university student would have to spend his best years in jail. He also refuses to specify his charge due to the fear of prosecution.
His peers are supportive towards his decision to seek asylum in Canada, which gives him the strength to carry on and settle down.
Still, Sai has never stopped paying attention to the situation in Hong Kong. Whenever he reads the news, the ongoing social unrest makes him concerned about those who are politically disengaged.
“We need to think carefully about the consequences if we do not dedicate ourselves to the movement– think about what is already taken away from us and the rights we will lose in the future.”
“There are times where you could have done more for Hong Kong to avoid the worst-case scenario, but you ended up not doing it,” he said. “And it would be too little too late by the time you realize what you have lost.”
When asked about what he misses the most other than his family and friends, he said he misses driving along the seafront at night where he would go to places like Cyberport and Sai Kung.
“Hong Kong is my home,” he said. “It gives me a unique feeling even if I am just simply walking on the streets at night.”
Similar to Sai, both Irene and Carrie can’t stop thinking of the city. Irene craves for street food like fish balls and traveling on a minibus. Despite being far away from home, Carrie said her heart is still with Hong Kong.
“We will not abandon our home,” said Carrie, attributing to one of Winston Churchill’s quote, ‘nations which went down fighting rose again, but those who surrendered tamely were finished’.
“I hope people in Hong Kong will not give up so asylum seekers like me can come home with dignity.”