By Virginie Goethals and “Maria”

Saturday marks World Refugee Day, but this year’s celebration of solidarity with the 71 million displaced around the world might take a backseat, certainly in Hong Kong. After the approval of a new security law, the continued erosion of human rights is — rightly — on many Hongkongers’ minds.

File photo: Unsplash.

The small asylum seekers population here of about 14,000 has sensed this steady decline a long time ago. First of all, Hong Kong has not signed the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, which builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Instead, the city has developed its own screening system over time called “Unified Screening Mechanism”. As of April 2020, there were only 179 cases substantiated and granted protection under this system, which gives an approval rate of one percent, one of the lowest in the developed world.

The main reason for this is that the system is intentionally rigged with lack of fairness, lack of legal representation, low-quality decision making and a general lack of humanity. It is hard not to see general disdain and cynicism for human rights in this protection system. 

Cases relating to war-torn countries like Yemen and  Burundi will be rejected for reasons showing a profound lack of understanding of human disasters and almost malicious ignorance, with assertions and questions by immigration like “Yemen is a part of Pakistan”  and “ Why do you seek protection if the gun trigger was not actually pulled?”

Arbitrary detention is also nothing new for this vulnerable group, and a continuous threat when an asylum seeker needs to sign at immigration. Legal representation is systematically brushed under the carpet, especially when a case is being appealed. 

Sadly, for the Hong Kong population standing up now for freedom of expression and freedom of thought, this treatment has been daily bread for asylum seekers and refugees for a long time here, but has conveniently gone unnoticed since this did not affect the local population directly.

Hong Kong Airport. File Photo: GovHK.

Like 15 per cent of the Hong Kong population, refugees and asylum seekers live under the poverty line, with stipends for rent of HK$1,500 per month and a prepaid food card with HK$1,200 per month. The difference with citizens, however, is that this group has no right to work or means to truly integrate, and needs to rely on non-governmental organisations to survive, with no family or support network to step in.

The current pandemic has threatened the very existence of many non-governmental organisations serving this vulnerable group, creating even more uncertainty and exacerbating trauma.

”I have lived my life in two countries and my hope has been taken from me in both. My childhood and my family was taken from me in my home country and, in my adult life, my hope was taken from me in Hong Kong. I have never found a place I can call home”, said Asha, an asylum seeker from East Africa.     

June 4 in Hong Kong. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

With the world watching George Floyd’s cruel and pointless death in the United States, Hong Kong should take this opportunity to combat all kind of racial discrimination and racial inequality faced by African and minority communities in Hong Kong. Africans and ethnic minorities are not criminals, they deserve respect, justice and support, not condemnation.

Let’s all take World Refugee Day as a start for self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and remember that their lives matter too.

The last year has shown that the benchmark for the treatment of its own citizens by the Hong Kong leadership is very low, and this does predict worsening conditions for asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong in the long term, and many Hong Kongers as well.


Virginie Goethals is the co-founder of RUN Hong Kong, an NGO that rehabilitates refugees in Hong Kong through sports and education, with a special focus on women. Maria is the pseudonym for a lawyer from Africa who has been in Hong Kong for six years and is fleeing government persecution with her two children.

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