Nothing makes me happier than seeing my clients reclaim their dignity by living normal lives after years of trauma,” says social worker Jeffrey Andrews, who has devoted his career to helping asylum seekers in Hong Kong find homes.
He is our guide for the Refugee Walk, a regular tour organised by Christian Action to give the public an insight into what life is like for both asylum seekers and refugees in the city.
Asylum seekers are people who have left their home country to take refuge somewhere else, but they have not officially been granted refugee status by the authorities.
As of 2017, there were around 14,000 asylum seekers in the city. Some are waiting to be given refugee status. Some have already had their applications rejected, and face a very uncertain future.
Driven from their home countries by the threat of war or persecution, many asylum seekers choose to escape to Hong Kong, a relatively safe, stable region. The majority come from South Asia, while some are from Southeast Asia, and a small minority are from Africa.
To be an asylum seeker is to exist in a kind of limbo: waiting for refugee status can take as long as 15 years, and in the meantime, asylum seekers cannot work. Homeless and unemployed, they depend on supermarket coupons from the government, live in shared dormitories, and are given the lowest priority at public hospitals
Fortunately, organisations such as Christian Action and International Social Service (ISS), and churches like Kowloon Unity Church and St Andrews Church, help to provide asylum seekers with additional support. They also work to raise public awareness about what it’s like to be an asylum seeker in Hong Kong through events like the Refugee Walk.
The tour begins in Arthur Street in Yau Ma Tei, and ends at Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, stopping at facilities along the way that were built to provide aid or shelter to refugees and asylum seekers.
The first place we stop at is Yau Ma Tei Community Centre. This is where asylum seekers in Hong Kong need to go when they first arrive in the city. Here, they can meet with lawyers to discuss the process of getting refugee status. Until they receive this status, they cannot have a permanent home.
This is when social workers like Andrews step in. The Christian Action Centre for Refugees – our next stop on the tour – provides halls of residence for those in need.
One of the asylum seekers we meet there is an elderly South Asian woman, who gives us a tour of her temporary home.
She lives in a small, dim flat with 11 bedrooms, a toilet and a kitchen shared between 20 people. She carries her identification papers – bearing her name and nationality, but no known birth date – at all times. She tells us tearfully that she left her home country to escape conflict, that she lost many things when she left, and hopes she can see her children again one day.
Other stops on the tour include Kowloon Union Church and St Andrews Church, which both work with Christian Action to provide funds and space for refugees and asylum seekers to cook, eat, and worship together. In addition, they offer classes in everything from English and Chinese to music and knitting. British Council also provides English lessons and organises weekly debates.
As we walk, we hear stories of asylum seekers and refugees who have had to overcome extreme hardship: leaving families behind, surviving on just one meal a day, and waiting years to be able to live with the same rights as everyone else. But with hard work and the unwavering support of volunteers, they have all found a place to call home.