Local Voices: Discussing the plight of Asylum Seekers

Harmony “Anne-Marie” Ilungaa, founder of refugee support programmes Harmony HK and Learning Together, talks about the biggest challenges facing asylum seekers:

“When I first came to Hong Kong with my mother and brother from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was 12 years old and I could only speak Lingala and French. This made it difficult for me to interact with other people and I felt left out. But after I picked up English, everything got better.

“The biggest challenge for asylum seekers in Hong Kong is that they don’t know what the future holds. They are not allowed to work, which means they can’t support their children and basic needs. This can negatively affect their mental health.”

Stuck in Limbo

Kelley Loper, the director of a human rights law programme at the University of Hong Kong, explains the legal status of asylum seekers:

“Refugees and asylum seekers are still, technically speaking, ‘illegal immigrants’ in Hong Kong. They are not granted any legal status or permission to stay. They are essentially stuck in limbo, do not have the right to work, and are forced to put their lives on hold.

“Hong Kong provides basic protections for refugees who are at risk of persecution, torture, or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet, they are not allowed to settle in Hong Kong and must wait for a third country to accept their resettlement request. There are more refugees in the world who need resettlement than places available, so this causes a long, often fruitless, wait.

“Hong Kong should grant status to refugees and others at risk of serious harm. Along with such a status, they should provide the right to work, so they can lead more dignified lives.”

Holding Pattern

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, shares his thoughts on the plight of refugees:

“Hong Kong is not a friendly place for refugees. The city didn’t sign any conventions relating to the status of refugees, which means asylum seekers can stay here temporarily but can’t obtain permanent residence.

“Asylum seekers are living in pain. The application process [for refugee status] is very lengthy – many wait for over five years, and thousands are stuck in the city and have no way to leave. I talked with many asylum seekers – they can’t do any meaningful work, so they tend to develop emotional or mental disorders.

“Refugee children are in a particularly precarious situation. They call Hong Kong their home, yet their prospects are on hold as the government does not subsidise their education after secondary school.”

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong.

Melting Pot

Timothy Chan, organiser of Refugee Kitchen at Kowloon Union Church, explains why it’s important to break down social barriers:

“There are 30 to 40 refugees in our church activities, and they really enjoy cooking. Since their cuisines are very delicious, I started having the idea of a ‘Refugee Kitchen’ back in 2016. Hongkongers love eating, so why don’t I combine that with public education and empowerment of asylum seekers?

“We organise Refugee Kitchen once a month. Refugees from different countries cook dishes for 35 local guests who give a donation to join the activity. They have a chance to spend time with refugees, who share their stories about coming to Hong Kong and introduce the culture of their countries.

“Hongkongers generally don’t know much about African countries and their culture, so they are very interested and engaged. A refugee chef told me she felt more accepted by the community after having a chance to interact with Hong Kong people.”

Young Voice

Rax Cheng, an 18-year-old student, says Hongkongers lack empathy for asylum seekers:

“In general, Hongkongers are not very friendly towards asylum seekers. Our conservative mindset, combined with insufficient education, leads to a lack of understanding about their issues – not to mention the media in Hong Kong paints a nasty picture of them.

“I admit that I am a Hongkonger with prejudices. Some South Asians made me feel unsafe, because my impression is that they have likely committed robbery or arson before. I don’t understand their language, so that makes me feel uncomfortable about interacting with them.”


Bureaucratic Blockades

Paul Pun, secretary general of Caritas Macau, shares his views on the government’s current measures:

“Though the government has measures in place to vet the identity of people applying for refugee status, in our opinion, it seems that these measures are not proactive enough. For example, they lack coordination and cooperation between relevant government departments and NGOs – in many cases, asylum seekers do not know what they should do.

“In the long run, we feel that the government can adopt more positive measures at the airport and customs, such as permitting NGOs to set up special counters to help refugees and asylum seekers.”

Due Process

An associate professor at the City University of Macau’s Institute for Research on Portuguese-speaking countries, Francisco Leandro explains why the asylum determination process is so complicated: 

“Making a fair, fast, and transparent determination of the legal status of each asylum seeker is difficult. On the one hand, the process has to ensure that two important principles are observed at all times: non-discrimination and non-refoulement.

“On the other hand, due process must also guarantee that the system is not abused for other means – be that human trafficking, religious persecution, money laundering, political purposes, or simply as a way to establish new economic migrants.

“People are starting to talk about the issue in informal groups, which will hopefully lead to new legislation that better protects vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers.”

Perceived Constraints

Ana Catarina Alvarez D, a social worker at Good Shepherd Centre, says Macao is not equipped to handle refugees:

“There used to be camps in Macao for refugees and asylum seekers in the 1960s and 1970s, until most were absorbed by other countries with pathways to citizenship. A few chose to settle in Macao and marry local residents. 

“Today, with Macao being an over-crowded city, space and resources can be a challenge. As of now, if asylum seekers were to come, I think little can be done to provide for their needs. It won’t be as easy as it was before, when it was much less crowded.”

Invisible People

Lina Ferreira, a journalist in Macao and the producer of 2016 documentary “Boat People” shares her views on how the situation has changed over time:

“Macao follows international conventions concerning refugee practices, having approved a law in 2004 to provide basic needs such as food allowances, accommodation, healthcare, and school for children.

“Despite a reputation for welcoming refugees in the past, there are so few cases of people seeking refuge today that asylum seekers are basically invisible. In 2015, I interviewed an asylum seeker in Macao who had been waiting for a response for four years.

“Macao people need to pressure the government to speed up the process, instead of making them wait for years without the ability to work. This is unlike the case with the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s who were informally allowed to work, giving them some dignity.”

Young Voice

Ryan Wong, a 14-year-old student from Yuet Wah College, believes asylum seekers should have the right to work:

“Most people think that refugees and asylum seekers come from countries that have a lot of wars, but some actually come from places with oppressive governments. They escape these conditions to find better lives elsewhere.

“In Macao, instead of prohibiting asylum seekers from working, I think we should give them job opportunities so they can have financial freedom. This would be a better way to support them.”