Mr A and Preston Cheung from the Justice Centre share the challenging living conditions for refugees and how Hong Kongers can help.
For those of us who were brought up in Hong Kong or came here to work and study, we know it can be tough to leave the city. What most people don’t realise is, how it can be almost impossible for refugees fleeing dire situations to make a new life in the city. To learn more, we talked to Preston Cheung, a Senior Advocacy and Communications Officer ,and Mr A, a refugee who also works for the Justice Centre, both of whom help to provide legal support for other refugees in Hong Kong.
About Justice Centre
Since 2007, Justice Centre has worked to achieve justice for marginalised groups, namely asylum seekers and refugees, and victims of torture, human trafficking, and forced labour. To find out more, tune in to the #impact podcast by Regina Larko as she chats with Lynette Nam, the Senior Legal Advisor, on what the Justice Centre has achieved over the years and about upcoming projects you can help support.
The story of how Mr A, a refugee, is now helping other refugees seek justice in Hong Kong.
Can you describe your experience of arriving in Hong Kong? What did you expect? What were you surprised by?
I was a civil servant in my home country for almost eight years, working closely with government officials. I knew how we treated refugees in my own country, but they were allowed to work, study, and live much like other native citizens. So I was expecting a similar situation when I arrived in Hong Kong. I didn’t have a visa at the time as I was fleeing my country; I was told it would be granted at the time I arrived at the airport.
But unfortunately, I was getting arrested at the immigration checkpoint. Though this was only for a few days, it was hard to cope with the lack of empathy or sympathy for my situation. They kept asking me why I came to Hong Kong and what my involvement was back home. In a freezing room, I only had a small mattress, no blanket, and I was unable to sleep longer than five minutes at a time. I couldn’t even take a shower in those five days I was detained. This went on until the United Nations was able to confirm that I have international permission to land in Hong Kong.
How has your relationship with Hong Kong (as a city, as a community, as your home) evolved over the years?
I can say that without a doubt there is a lack of information. When I talk to people, they often make negative comments but then say, “Oh no, we’re not talking about you!” So my question is, then who are you talking about?
I recall when my landlord first saw my immigration papers, he was afraid to even touch it. Because I had been detained he was worried that he was dealing with a criminal. When you think about refugees, pictures and videos of faraway countries with poor and malnourished children are what come to mind. So when I say I am a refugee, people don’t believe me, they think I’ve only come here to start a better life.
But overall, with more awareness and education, attitudes toward refugees are changing slowly in the community. Social media plays a big role in educating others about Hong Kong’s refugee crisis. No one becomes a refugee by choice.
What did you have to leave behind when fleeing to Hong Kong that you still miss after spending more than 15 years in the city?
A lot! There’s a lot. Back home, hospitality is the first word you teach a child, especially when it comes to taking care of foreigners. Which is completely different from here. Here it’s more about competition than humanity. Growing up, people would ask me, “How is your health?” or “Is there anything I can help with?” So I definitely miss my culture and the people. I have no relatives or family here, it’s a big hole in my life now. And of course, I miss the food!
Most of all, I miss the freedom to do what I want and live like a normal human being.
A refugee in Hong Kong is only given HK$1,500 for rent a month and on average HK$40 for food per day. Can you share your experience of building a new life in Hong Kong on a very limited budget? What did you find the most challenging?
Imagine someone who cannot even choose what to eat from the supermarket or cannot choose where to live. You can only afford to stay in subdivided flats in the New Territories or old buildings in Kowloon that are ready to be demolished. Most times, you have to agree to live with people you have no idea who they are. It’s a loss of human dignity.
The lack of choice is what I found most challenging. You no longer feel like a human being.
How much has your life changed since you were granted special permission by the government to work in Hong Kong?
I was granted permission to work in 2013. It was a kind of metamorphosis. From somebody who didn’t have any choice to become somebody who could decide what to wear, where to eat, and where to live. From living with no plan (much like a machine) to somebody who has a schedule of things to do – it’s just feeling alive again.
Can you tell us more about your work advocating for justice for refugees in Hong Kong?
I am the Community Outreach Officer and my role is to create awareness and, of course, work with Preston. I reach out to local and international communities to help provide education about the refugee crisis.
My goal is to get the refugee community to speak for themselves, but it’s not easy if you have to hide your identity. But you don’t always have to be on the spot to speak out. For me, I am okay with being called a refugee, but there are people who will hide it—as they’re scared of the negative connotations associated with the term. So we’re slowly working on making refugees comfortable enough to talk about their life here.
What can we, as residents, do to alleviate misconceptions about refugees?
No one knows if he or she will become a refugee one day. Refugees are only different from others in terms of circumstances, otherwise, they’re also human. They are people who have talent and skills and they’re able to give back to the community if given the opportunity. Excluding refugees won’t make the problem go away. The way forward is to integrate refugees within the community.
In 1958, my country hosted refugees from Rwanda and they grew to become the key people in transport, education, health, infrastructure, and so much more. And I can tell you, when they returned back to Rwanda in 1994, we suffered. We really felt that emptiness. Refugees, if given the opportunity, can really contribute.
“We often forget we’re descendants of refugees ourselves” – Preston Cheung
How long have you been working for the Justice Centre? How did you come to be a part of the team?
I’ve been working here for two years and my work involves running our communications and policy work. When I was still pursuing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a Protection Intern for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, where I was a delegate in a forum alongside agencies working with NGOs like the Justice Centre. It’s been a natural choice for me to come back to this field.
What is the most rewarding part of your work, and also what is the toughest part?
Though my role here doesn’t directly involve client cases, it’s amazing to see how communication efforts on social media can help clients rebuild their lives and regain a sense of humanity. It feels very rewarding to be part of the change, as one of the only NGOs raising concerns directly to the Legislative Council to amend the limited financial aid and living conditions of subdivided housing for refugees and minorities.
The toughest part of it all is telling clients that despite our best efforts, things did not go our way and we couldn’t achieve the desired outcome. It takes extra courage from the clients to come forward and voice their concerns on behalf of other refugees in Hong Kong. It’s important to keep our clients motivated for them to share their concerns and also to maintain the level of trust and confidence they have with us.
It can be hard to reach newly arrived refugees to provide the help and support that they need, when they need it. The Justice Centre Hong Kong and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have joined forces to create a mobile app to help asylum seekers in Hong Kong understand their legal rights. The project was spearheaded by Georgia Dawson, a senior partner at Freshfields who has worked with Justice Centre for 13 years. Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is one of our a long-standing pro bono partners; their innovative work and collaboration has supported some of the most vulnerable members of the Hong Kong community.
What can Hong Kongers do to help with the refugee crisis in Hong Kong?
70-80% of Hong Kong’s population comprises descendants of refugees. Hong Kong has a long history as a refugee society and that is something very few recognise. But the words people use are very important; many say their parents or grandparents “fled” China, without using the term “refugees” and the missing link starts there.
We’re all migrants from somewhere at some time. If you think refugees are just dark-skinned people or South Asians, you are misinformed.
Discrimination towards refugees also comes from ethnic minorities in Hong Kong and this sort of alienation only isolates refugees even more. Refugees need people with whom they can communicate in their neighbourhood and ethnic minorities play a very important role.
We’re looking forward to the next World Refugee Day on 20 June. But every day is a good to discover organisations like ourselves and to get educated about the crisis. The opportunities to help are there, you just need to get involved.
To get involved and stay up-to-date on events, follow @justicecentrehk on Instagram.