‘Learning’ to be self-reliant: What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean to the refugee community in Hong Kong?
‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.’ As Warsan Shire in her poem Home pinpointed, asylum seekers and refugees are often portrayed as vulnerable groups in society, while the current coronavirus pandemic has aggravated their predicament. Taking refuge in Hong Kong – one of the world’s costliest cities located in Asia – is especially the case. But at the same time, crisis begets opportunities. In this article, I use Refugee Union, a local refugee-led organisation where I volunteer, as a case study to show the importance of the refugee community in empowering asylum seekers and refugees to cope with hardship, in particular, gaining access to social support and maintaining solidarity at a time of turbulence.
In 2003, an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) led to over a thousand infections and hundreds of deaths in Hong Kong. 17 years later, a SARS-alike coronavirus labelled COVID-19, again, surges in this small city and across the globe. In a state of panic, people all mask up and scramble for daily necessities and protective equipment while rumours spread, resulting in these utilities skyrocketing in prices and shortages. But for asylum seekers and refugees who are in economic hardship, small increases in food prices can force them into difficult situations in which they and their whole families might need to live with hunger for a month.
Why is this the case? Currently, it is estimated there are around 7,000 asylum seekers and refugees stranded in Hong Kong, and the majority of them are from Southern Asian and African regions. I use the word ‘stranded’ as the city does not accept refugees but primarily shelters asylum seekers who are at risk of persecution via non-refoulement until their results are determined, which could take more than ten years. Seeking asylum, however, does not guarantee sound protection but might be another kind of struggle. Asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong are prohibited from working and are solely reliant on a monthly stipend of approximately HK$3,000 (far lower than Hong Kong’s median monthly wage of HK$18,200 per individual), which include HK$1,500 for accommodation, HK$1,200 for food, and HK$200 for necessary transport, to barely survive in a liminal state between subsistence and destitution. Prices inflate, while their assistance has never been improved since 2014. Having projected a feeble economy, the government recently launched a HK$137.5 billion relief package to alleviate the plights of local businesses. Regrettably, asylum seekers and refugees, as ‘illegal immigrants’, do not qualify for aid, not even receiving the protective equipment like surgical masks and hand sanitisers.
‘Who can help us? Our rents are high, but landlords won’t reduce, charities and churches are closed, we went to our caseworkers, but they cannot help.’ Some asylum seekers and refugees depicted their hardship when the city is in lockdown and with social distancing. Unlike normal days, now with the pandemic, they can by no means reach out to the local community for a helping hand. Being forgotten, asylum seekers and refugees, without an alternative, need to ‘learn’ relying on their own. Two months ago, Refugee Union with its members petitioned the government for an urgent increase in assistance. ‘There is no magnet but only destitution.’ Some of them complained about their status quo. Differing from the government’s belief that a better welfare provision will turn Hong Kong into a magnet for economic migrants (or ‘bogus refugees’, the term anti-refugee camps often use), one can infer from their narratives that asylum seekers and refugees do not share the same view. They submitted petitions and voiced their needs outside the headquarters of the Social Welfare Department for the whole week. This is, in fact, not their first time mobilising collective action. Some years after ‘Refugee Occupy’ in 2014, the asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, are, again, coming together to safeguard their substantial rights and interests regardless of the hurdle of social distancing.
Not getting a positive response from the government, though, asylum seekers and refugees still see a silver lining. Their repeated attempts to strike for what they deserve gained considerable media and public attention. Later, there were more and more donations of daily necessity items and protection equipment from some kind-hearted people and groups in the community delivered to the centre of Refugee Union. Although most of the activities have been suspended or cancelled owing to the pandemic, the centre still serves as a platform for asylum seekers and refugees for self-help: sharing resources and views, and most importantly, maintaining solidarity at a time when people are getting worried and meanwhile more xenophobic than ever before.
In this article, I described the plights of asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong during the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted the importance of the refugee community in alleviating their hardship. The recent public health crisis has marked another milestone of refugee self-reliance after the first step in the ‘Refugee Occupy’ movement in 2014. However, this is just the beginning and the local refugee community still has a long way to go. Hong Kong, with its neoliberal tradition and unique cultural context with the Lion Rock Spirit (a can-do attitude with perseverance and solidarity), emphasises heavily the value of self-reliance among citizens. With minimal support from the government, I can foresee that the local refugee community will play a more influential role in promoting refugee self-reliance and advocacy (for example, claiming the right to work of asylum seekers and refugees, and requesting more transparency in screening procedures) in the coming future.
Ka Wang Kelvin Lam
Ka Wang Kelvin Lam is an MPhil student in Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on migration and immigrant incorporation, with regional expertise in East and Southeast Asia. Currently, he also volunteers for Refugee Union, a local refugee-led organisation, and has initiated a number of service projects consisting of language classes, cultural tours, and other educational activities, for over a hundred asylum seekers and refugees stranded in Hong Kong. Kelvin can be contacted at email@example.com.