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Profiles of asylum: From the ancient city of Mosul to Hong Kong

Aug 6th, 2020 | Detention, Immigration, Personal Experiences, Refugee Community, Rejection | Comment

“Mosul is an ancient city. It was actually called Nineveh before. Have you heard of it?” Alex told me. Most people heard of Nineveh, a Biblical city with a name that echoes across millennia, bubbling with history and myth and revelation and, most recently, a cycle of occupation and violence to match its historic stature. Alex continued, “Before the American occupation in 2003, we could go out with our friends and have picnics outside. It was safe. Some people used to go camping. It was totally safe. It was a good place.”

During 254 days of detention in 2014, Hong Kong Immigration officers at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre asked Alex repeatedly why he had left his country. “They suspected that I was a terrorist when they found out I came from Iraq. Then I told them about my past incidents, one with Islamic State, another with the US Army and then another with the Iraqi Forces. I told them life was worse than hell. I think they got scared. Imagine, they don’t know who you are and you have no documents and you’re telling them about life in a war-torn country full of massacres that I witnessed with my own eyes …”

After fleeing from violent conflict in Iraq in April 2010, Alex traveled from Turkey to Cyprus to Malaysia to Indonesia to Singapore to South Korea and finally, in 2014, he reached Hong Kong. Along the way he experienced a series of detainment, interrogations, beatings and the occasional act of kindness. As he described his experiences, he was describing the life of someone outside of the law, someone whose attempts at finding hope and peace are impeded by the structures set up to determine the validity of his claims, structures which deal with him and other refugees primarily as criminals. “What I have faced, what I have suffered, what I have seen … the pain that I’ve felt, it’s really hard to express.”

When a person applies for asylum in Hong Kong, they are administered by the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), a process designed to determine the validity of their claims. Alex had no passport to prove he was an Iraqi citizen, nor help from an embassy. He explained, “Immigration killed my case. They totally rejected my identity. They said my Iraqi identity is not accepted. They said we can only accept you as an ‘Arabic speaker.’ I mean, does that make sense? I asked them, where am I from?”

So there was Alex, a young man from an ancient city, who had once worked alongside his father installing windowpanes in Mosul’s quiet suburbs, now an undocumented “Arabic speaker” with no recognized history of citizenship or travel due to his decision to leave the very country which makes him a suspect. The choice to flee from violence and to put himself through hardship and uncertainty becomes not admirable and courageous, but suspicious. During his 9-month detention, Alex was humiliated, beaten, and kept in solitary confinement over ten times. He was losing his mind, losing his sense of self and purpose. Alex experienced his lowest points in Hong Kong’s detention system.

“The hardest times I faced were when they kicked me into the solitary confinement cell. That killed me from inside. It made me want to commit suicide. If you look at that cell there’s no window, there’s no one to talk to. It is full of mosquitoes and cockroaches walking on the wall and ceilings everywhere. The lamp in the ceiling was always on hurting my eyes when I tried to sleep. I used to ask the officers to switch it off and they refused. I felt lower than an animal. It felt like they were taking revenge against me for some reason.”

Why is a safe city like Hong Kong so undesirable for those seeking asylum? “In this city I cannot go here and there as I have no money. I mean if I have nothing to do where can I go, what can I do? In Hong Kong refuges are not allowed to work. We are not allowed to have income. We are not allowed to get a bank account, to do any basic things in life.” Then there is the question of hope. More than a decade into exile, Alex is no closer to what he set out to achieve. “I believe anything is possible in this world, but it is hard for me to expect any positive things in Hong Kong. There are a lot of refugees with good skills but there is no encouragement. It seems the government does everything to discourage us and crush our hopes. Basically, they don’t want us to be well.”

Despite this, Alex balances despair with optimism by choosing to face the reality of his situation and his role in managing his physical and mental health. After his release from detention, Alex chose to do for himself what no one could do for him staying positive, keeping healthy and helping those around him. He found a supportive community amongst Hong Kong’s asylum seekers and activists. Through the Refugee Union Alex has met “good people that give me real respect and make me feel like I’m human. There’s no discrimination. There’s no racism. There’s no animosity. There’s no hatred. That’s perhaps what makes me feel that life is still beautiful. Refugee Union has helped me a lot. It’s about how to relieve your stress, how they make sure to create fresh hope in life, not to increase tension, not to make you more depressed, not to make you want to give up. Forget about all your troubles, we’re going to try to help you or at least keep you busy and make you feel that life is still good.”

Even with a community of friends, however, there are limits to how much Alex can allow himself to feel free and at peace. “I really don’t want to focus on my case in Hong Kong any more. I will start to overthink. I will start to worry and get anxious. I mean there are a lot of negative things. It is really better for me just to leave this case aside. Six years in Hong Kong and nothing has moved forward. I lost hope in Hong Kong Government. I really don’t have any hope for another opportunity.”

The ruins of the old city of Mosul
The ruins of the old city of Mosul – Copyright: Emre Rende

 

JULY ROUNDUP

Aug 5th, 2020 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugee Union was founded in 2014 with visions to safeguard protection claimants’ rights and to ameliorate their prospects. Since our commencement of services, we have been working closely with our partners in the community and organising diversified programmes to actualise members’ psychological and social well-being.

Our Featured Articles

This month we are thrilled to be featured in two articles. Sophia Zhang from Shatin College wrote about the stories of asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong based on her interviews with our members. Her article has been published on our blog. Ka Wang Kelvin Lam, our volunteer and a researcher of the Department of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), highlighted the importance of the refugee community. He wrote about the ways asylum seekers and refugees here cope with hardship in times of COVID-19 pandemic by using our organisation as a case study. His article has been published with Routed Magazine and the blog of the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS).

Stop Indefinite Detention

We are aware of the indefinite detention happening in the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC). Without a reasonable justification, such an act sharply differs from the general practice of the Immigration Department on arrest and detention, not to mention other issues (say, hygiene and delayed medical treatments) the detainees are suffering from. Among them, some are asylum seekers and refugees. They are currently in a hunger strike going against CIC’s indefinite detention. All lives matter. With the CIC Detainees Right Concern Group, we the Refugee Union always stand with the detainees and condemn all inhuman treatments.

Donations Keep Going

The coronavirus disease continues to surge Hong Kong and across the globe. In this difficult time, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to our donors for lending us a helping hand. This month we received donations of different items, which include daily necessities and protective equipment for our members. Thank you very much for our donors’ generous support!

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Please stay tuned to our official website and social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) for the updates, and feel free to contact us by visiting our office or sending us an email at info@refugeeunion.org should you have any enquiry.

Meeting refugees at the union

Jul 15th, 2020 | Personal Experiences, Refugee Community | Comment

Tom* sought asylum in Hong Kong twenty years ago. He is from Pakistan and met his wife here during this time. They now have four children (16, 10, 8, 5 years old) – all asylum-seekers. While Tom used to work in construction back home, he has not been able to work at all in Hong Kong. Under the city’s law, refugees are banned from working, though many choose to pursue illegal jobs to make ends meet. However, in response to this, Tom said: “I cannot pursue illegal work, I do not dare – what will happen to my wife and children if I go to jail?” But without employment, living in limbo has taken a toll on him: “My life is empty,” he tells me, “Twenty years. I’m wasting my time. I only bring my children to school and back, nothing else to do.” There are tears in his eyes as he speaks and I have to look away.

When asked what the most difficult aspect of refugee life is, Tom sighs: “Life is hard here because everything is so expensive.” Just recently, his youngest daughter’s school decided to change the uniforms. However, he could not afford the new uniform and had to ask the school if they could delay the payment for a month. Luckily, the school was able to let Tom’s daughter stay in school, but Tom frets over where to find the money for the fees. Refugees live on a scant $3200 monthly from the government, often finding themselves lacking sufficient income. Parents, like Tom, are under enormous pressure to provide for their children in the notoriously expensive city of Hong Kong.

Yet many have also found solace in this city. Hannah* is a Ugandan refugee: “I came to Hong Kong hurt and broken,” she says. Hannah has since converted from Islam to Christianity, which played a pivotal role in her life: “I would have been dead, but God heard my prayers.” Though initially her life in Hong Kong was difficult, Hannah has now found a community at her church, friends who supported her when she was admitted to hospital and money for treatment was scarce. “If you believe in God, anything is possible,” she beams, “I’ve let go of my troubles. I appreciate what I can achieve. I know God has a plan.” Hannah now volunteers at the Refugee Union, a place she describes as a safe haven that listens to the voices of the marginalized. “How can I not help when they’ve helped me?” she asks. “Everyone should put their feet in another person’s shoes and feel their life.”

Anne* is also an Ugandan refugee, once a teacher back home. She came to Hong Kong a decade ago in search of safety away from the authoritarian regime under Yoweri Museveni. “The big difference between Uganda and Hong Kong is that here there is security and the rule of law. In Uganda, people go out one day and don’t come back. People die silently. I had to leave. If you have any power, you must. If you don’t find a way out, you will be dead.” Anne herself had her land and property taken away forcefully by the government. She cannot return to Uganda as she fears she will be labelled a terrorist and thrown in jail and possibly tortured. “We are trying to tell the truth, but now we are the government’s enemies,” she shakes her head.

Under the iron fist of the dictator, corruption, censorship and violence plague Uganda. “Uganda shouldn’t be a poor country. It is only because of poor leadership and management. The President doesn’t develop the country at all. He came to steal, kill, destroy and spoil our future. He treats human lives as a business.” As a mother back home, Anne finds it painful to watch the news, because it reminds her of her family and her people. “We’ve lost our futures, we’ve lost everything. In our heads, we are still connected to Uganda. Sometimes we become insane thinking about this. I cry in my sleep, because all I want is for my people to be safe and to be free. Is that too much to ask?”

* names were changed for privacy reasons

Written by Sophia Zhang (16) – Shatin College

Sophia Zhang blog photo - 15Jul2020

June Roundup

Jul 10th, 2020 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugee Union was founded in 2014 with visions to safeguard protection claimants’ rights and to ameliorate their prospects. Since our commencement of services, we have been working closely with our partners in the community and organising diversified programmes to actualise members’ psychological and social well-being.

Welcoming our summer interns

This month we are honoured to host Mr. Lo Kai Chung, Assistant Lecturer from the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Mr. Lo recommended two students to serve as summer interns in our office and develop programs for our members. We look forward to collaborating with them soon.

We are also thrilled to host Sunshine Action’s interns who come from different universities and colleges in the United States, United Kingdom, and Hong Kong with the aim to support the underserved groups in times of COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you team for their great efforts!

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Crowdfunding account launches

Good news! Our crowdfunding account is now available. May we take this opportunity to send our special acknowledgement to members of 180 Degrees Consulting at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) for developing this useful platform for us.

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Donations keep going

COVID-19 continues to surge the globe. In this difficult time, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to our donors for lending us a helping hand. This month we received a wide-range of items, which include daily necessities and protective equipment for our members. Thank you very much for their generous support!

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All lives matter. Today, and as always, we stand with all who struggle against racism, prejudice, and inequality. There is no place for them in the world. Please stay tuned to our official website and social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) for the updates, and feel free to contact us by visiting our office or sending us an email at info@refugeeunion.org should you have any enquiry.

Question to Legco about asylum status

May 27th, 2020 | Government, Immigration, Legal, Rejection, Welfare | Comment

Question to Legco - 20May2020

May Roundup

May 26th, 2020 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugee Union was founded in 2014 with visions to safeguard protection claimants’ rights and ameliorate their prospects. Since our commencement of services, we have been working closely with our partners in the community and organising diversified programmes to actualise members’ psychological and social well-being.

Struggling for Survival

Taking refuge in Hong Kong, one of the world’s costliest cities, is never easy for us. We, asylum seekers and refugees, are capable and eager to contribute but prohibited to work and can solely rely on a monthly stipend of about HK$3,000 (US$387), which is supposed to cover every aspect (accommodation, food, transport, and utilities) of our lives, to barely survive. Worse still, the stipend has not increased since 2014.

Now with the coronavirus pandemic, our lives are becoming more difficult. Prices of daily necessities keep increasing while our stipend does not. People are masking up while we cannot afford the protective equipment. Some donors and sponsors lost their jobs; churches and supporting organisations are closed so we can hardly seek help from the community. A few months ago, we petitioned the government for an urgent increase in stipend but regrettably did not get any positive response.

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Donations Keep Going

In a desperate situation, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to our donors for lending us a helping hand. This month we received a wide-range of items, including digital products (such as calculators and laptops) for students, toys for kids, and other utilities and protective equipment for our members who are asylum seekers and refugees. Thank you very much for your generous support.

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Despite having a hard time, we, the Refugee Union, as usual, serve with our initial heart and spare no pain to pursue a better society for everyone, regardless of who they are and where they come from. Please stay tuned to our official website and social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) for the updates, and feel free to contact us by visiting our office or sending us an email at info@refugeeunion.org should you have any enquiry.

Thank you, Shen Shu Yi Foundation!

May 22nd, 2020 | Education, Refugee Community, RU updates, programs, events | Comment

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Refugees struggle with high food prices

May 11th, 2020 | Food, Housing, Media, Welfare | Comment

SCMP - Asylum seekers struggle with high food prices - 10May2020

April Roundup

Apr 26th, 2020 | Advocacy | Comment

Refugee Union was founded in 2014 with visions to safeguard protection claimants’ rights and ameliorate their prospects. Since our commencement of service, we have been working closely with our partners in community and have been organising diversified of programmes to actualise members’ psychological and social well-being.

Strike for Survival in the Covid-19 Pandemic

Seeking asylum in Hong Kong, one of the world’s costliest cities, is never an easy task for asylum seekers and refugees with limited financial assistance but without a permission to self-sustain, while the current covid-19 pandemic has aggravated our predicament.

To express our concerns, this month we continued to deliver petitions to the Social Welfare Department, on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees to call for an urgent increase in the level of assistance to help us overcome the challenges in a difficult time.

On April 11, we are delighted to have a live chat with the Table of Two Cities, through an online platform to let the public know more about our current situations at the time of social distancing.

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Donation Keeps Going

While most of our activities have been suspended due to the pandemic, donations keep going to cater for members’ substantial needs. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to Donors for sending us a wide range of items, including health care products and other utilities. We are grateful to have all of you lending us a helping hand when we are in need.

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Despite in a difficult time, we serve with our initial heart as usual, sparing no pain to pursuing a better society with justice and fairness to everyone, regardless of who they are and where they are from. Stay tuned to our official website and social media pages for the updates, and feel free to contact us by visiting our office or sending us email at info@refugeeunion.org should you have any enquiry.

Poor hygiene conditions in Immigration detention

Apr 26th, 2020 | Advocacy, Detention, Immigration, Media | Comment

Poor conditions in CIC detention - 26Apr2020

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