Refugees and Asylum Seekers
in Hong Kong
An “asylum-seeker” is a person who has been forced to flee his home country for protection from a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political affiliation or gender.
A “refugee” is an asylum-seeker who has successfully had their claims of feared persecution substantiated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
This distinction is important as the UNHCR will only assist those with “refugee” status to resettle permanently in a safe country. Most of the Project Spark families are asylum-seekers waiting for their claims for protection to be validated so that they can obtain refugee status.
in Hong Kong
There are approximately 14,000 asylum-seekers and refugees currently living in Hong Kong. The majority of these come from South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern countries with approximately 10% coming from African countries.
Despite Africa representing only a small portion of the overall asylum-seeking/refugee population, a large portion of Project Spark families come from Africa. One reason for this is that the asylum-seekers from Asian countries often have friends or families already living in Hong Kong who can support them in contrast to African asylum-seekers who have few or no connections in Hong Kong and must depend on NGOs for the majority of their support.
Why Hong Kong
Asylum seekers come to Hong Kong to escape ethnic and tribal violence, political threats, war and civil conflict, torture, and human rights abuses. Events such as the Arab Spring, tribal genocide in Rwanda, and civil war in Sri Lanka have all driven families to Hong Kong.
Due to its liberal tourist visa policy, asylum seekers can fly into Hong Kong without showing a visa when boarding a plane from their home country. This is an attractive – and often necessary – option for anyone fleeing from a life-threatening situation.
Hong Kong is also considered a safe country and far enough away from many refugees' home countries and the dangers they are fleeing. They are assured a certain degree of anonymity in Hong Kong that provides protection.
Once asylum-seekers land in Hong Kong, they are required to file for protection with Hong Kong Immigration. Unlike most countries, the Hong Kong Immigration Courts must first validate an asylum-seeker's claim for protection before referring the case to the UNHCR to be considered for refugee status and resettlement.
This process can be long and discouraging – often taking more than ten years and not always ending successfully. A few reasons for this is the low priority these cases are given on Hong Kong judges’ schedules and Hong Kong’s lack of investigative expertise necessary to substantiate these claims.
Until a verdict is reached, the Hong Kong government considers asylum-seekers illegal as they have over-stayed their visas, and thus they must relinquish their passports to Hong Kong Immigration. In exchange, they receive a Recognizance Document but not a Hong Kong Identification card. This limits their access to many services in Hong Kong.
Livelihoods and living Conditions
Asylum-seekers are not permitted to work or volunteer in Hong Kong and refugees must apply for a permit to work which is rarely granted.
As a consequence, asylum-seekers and refugees must rely solely on a stipend from the Hong Kong government to live, but this stipend falls well below the poverty line. Currently, the government provides each adult asylum seeker/refugee a monthly stipend of HK$3,300 to cover housing, utilities, food, and transportation.
Children of asylum-seeker and refugee families are permitted to join Hong Kong government schools beginning in Primary 1 but do not have access to Early Childhood Education unless they receive assistance from an NGO. Children also must rely on NGOs to fund their school uniforms, books, stationery, and transportation to and from school. Some refugee children are assigned to English medium schools designed for migrants and ethnic minorities, but some are required to attend Cantonese medium schools.