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Refugees in HK; In the shadows, but fighting for their rights

When Hong Kong’s highest court upheld a law that prevented local refugees from working in 2014, they underestimated the resolve of asylum seekers for a better life. Many immigrants say they will continue to seek equal status just as they did prior to migrating to Hong Kong.

When Kaze Aurelyen first came to Hong Kong from Cameroon in 2006, his struggle for equality was nothing new. He was an ambitious University student not only fighting for his inalienable rights in his native country, but also for his survival.

When Aurelyen protested a newly implemented government policy that required Cameroonian students to pay unforeseen University fees back in 2005, he, along with other fellow students organized peaceful protests in Buea, Cameroon. Those peaceable protests would ultimately turn violent, which resulted in the deaths of several students.

“My father, brother and sister were killed by the Cameroonian Government for protesting. Many people kept quiet…, “he said. “I was captured, but I was let go near the Nigerian border by one of the soldiers who told me I had to pretend I was killed, with the promise that I would not return. “

When Aurelyen arrived in Nigeria, he earned enough money to travel to Burkina Faso. “I was too afraid to live in and stay in Nigeria, “he said. “It was much cheaper to leave from Burkina Faso.”

Aurelyen later met a businessman who helped him migrate to Hong Kong. “I met a man who had pity on me and had done business in Hong Kong,” Aurelyen said. “He said it was a safe place to be, he helped me get to Hong Kong.”

When Aurelyen arrived in Hong Kong, he described it as a place where they knew the law and could protect people. But in his 11 year stay, he has never been employed. He, along with other fellow refugees has relied on government assistance for basic subsistence. Working has not been a legal option. 

“Hong Kong’s vision of you changes when they know you are a refugee,” he said. “Asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are treated the same under the law.”

Gabriel, who fled the Ivory Coast, has also resided in Hong Kong for 11 years. “I cannot go back to my home country, it’s too dangerous. Life is better in Hong Kong as far as protection. Of course I want to work. If I am caught working, I go to jail for 15 months… The living wage hasn’t gone up since I’ve been here. The cost of living has gone up, “he said.

There are an estimated 11,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Refugees currently receive a living wage of 1,500 HKD for rent, 1,200 HKD for food and 230 HKD for transportation per month.

Peter, who migrated from Kenya and is a spokesman for Vision First Refugee Union Center in Hong Kong said, “The government spends 640 million HKD per year on asylum seekers. The government wouldn’t have to spend so much money if they would let us work. …We are referred to as illegals, not refugees. The law [not allowing refugees to work] was discouraging and it killed our spirit…We are optimistic that the policy can change.”

Mark Dely, a human rights lawyer, works with asylum seekers in Hong Kong. When asked why the government won’t allow Hong Kong’s refugees to work, “he said. “The fear of floodgates of people arriving is what the government fears.

“Another option could be to resettle them or for them to marry a local,” said Dely. “Refugees cannot volunteer for services under the law.”

A statement by the Secretary of Security, which is responsible for immigrant matters, seems to reaffirm Dely’s opinion: “Secretary for Security has stressed that it is a proven fact that the prospect of gainful employment attracts a severe influx of illegal immigrants. “ – Mateo Lawrence (Immigration Department of Hong Kong).
Dely, who expressed his frustration at the government’s policies towards refuges, does foresee a possibility for the law to change, but not in the near future.

Aurelyen, Gabriel and Peter have all defied policies in their native-countries that had put their lives at risk before arriving to Hong Kong. Despite the dissuasion of the government, they don’t plan on quitting their pursuit for equality, and none of them plan on leaving Hong Kong.

Aurelyen now has a wife, an asylum seeker from Indonesia, and three children. His children also carry the same status as other asylum seekers, and if the law doesn’t change, his children will not be allowed to work, volunteer for services or receive full medical benefits into adulthood.

“I will continue to march and protest, I don’t know what the future will hold,” said Aurelyen.

Local refugees will continue to challenge the law that doesn’t allow them to work by trying to change the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people. If Hong Kong’s government thought they would be dissuaded from enduring their fight, they were wrong.

“We can continue to engage the media, students and outreach groups. Young people in Hong Kong have an open-mind.., “said Peter. “We must continue to reach them.”

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