Introducing the Refugee Union, Hong Kong: A refugee led society

Vision First, Hong Kong

RU-logo-webVision First strives to resist humanitarian expediency and the violence of certain government policy by advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, hereafter called refugees. At the same time it engages the Hong Kong public and state actors about the consequences of denying refugees legal status and their due agency.

Refugees are largely constructed in public and official accounts through a lens which either views them as criminals and illegal economic migrants who abuse the asylum mechanism to exploit the prosperity of this city, or position them in relation to limited resources and a liability to government coffers and welfare services.

Nonetheless, a ban on working and insufficient welfare assistance force refugees to engage in informal economic activities as a means to survive. By doing so they necessarily raise their profile with law enforcement authorities, while their arrests evince deviant behavior that stokes fear about Hong Kong being flooded by foreign criminals and welfare cheaters.

In order to reveal the persona of refugees whose faces are paraded in the news when a recycling yard is busted by immigration officials, or a boat of would-be refugees is reported to have “sneaked” into Hong Kong, two years ago, Vision First supported the establishment of a union of refugees, that later gave birth to Hong Kong’s first refugee-led society.

The Refugee Union demonstrates the available routes for civil society to openly protest and engage the government’s power to render refugees illegal and unwanted. As a RU spoke person said, “refugees are grateful for the chance of affirming their duty and right to reveal government cruelty and shortcomings, to promote unbiased information and strive for an inclusive society”. In fact, as refugee issues become more politicized amid an increasing numbers of people reaching Hong Kong to seek asylum, the Refugee Union is better positioned to communicate refugee experiences and foster critical understandings of the daily challenges faced in order to have a “normal” life.

On 22 and 23 March 2016, representatives of the RU were at the University of Hong Kong to illuminate on the liminality of their experience. For example, they receive only HK$1500 for rent and HK$1200 for food, which are inadequate to meet their basic needs. Refugees may experience delays with rental assistance, which aggravate their suffering as they face a heightened risk of being evicted and thus becoming homeless. One presenter experienced the abuse of a landlady who forced her to live for over a week without electricity and water despite her being unable to provide for herself when legally incapacitated to raise an income and denied timely assistance.

The student audience made sharp observations, bringing to light the insufficient level of understanding of refugee issues and the city’s obligations under domestic laws and international covenants. One student asked if it was fair to compare Hong Kong to Western nations, noting that Hong Kong is a tiny and overcrowded city, thus implying it should be spared from accepting refugees. Confusion is widespread in the public between receiving refugees out of compassion and legal obligations.

One RU presenter concluded by saying, “refugees at Refugee Union will continue to engage university students to foster an informed debate about the present and future of refugees in Hong Kong: We hope we can contribute to their maturing into responsible leaders”. Yet this can only be achieved “if we enjoy the understanding and support of the broader community who are the main stakeholders in this city. In light of the recent media campaign that homogenizes refugees into demining categories of vice and crime, our work has never been more challenging”.