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Trouble in paradise

Months before Hong Kong’s Occupy unleashed popular frustration onto the streets, a refugee movement adopted occupation tactics to protest the social marginalization of asylum seekers.

Francesco Vecchio Cosmo Beatson
27 March 2015
Refugee protest, Hong Kong, February 2014. Demotix/Geoffrey Cheng. All rights reserved.

Refugee protest, Hong Kong, February 2014. Demotix/Geoffrey Cheng. All rights reserved.For more than a decade, asylum seekers from Africa and South Asia have beaten a path to Hong Kong. They have been attracted by its international reputation for rule of law, a rather liberal visa regime and economic prosperity comparable to coveted asylum destinations in Europe and North America.

Despite the city’s growing reputation in developing countries, about 7000 asylum seekers currently languish at the edges of society. Their high expectations for liberty, fairness and prosperity are not reflected in policies that seek their social marginalization. Now they are speaking out.

Months before Hong Kong’s Occupy unleashed popular frustration against the government’s apathy towards electoral reform, a refugee movement had been engaged in an occupation protest, calling for scrutiny of the politics that depicts asylum seekers as deviant vagrants.

Asia’s world city

To ensure that the ugly face of indigence does not perturb the cultivated facade of sophisticated modernity projected by Hong Kong overseas, asylum seekers are reluctantly provided token ‘humanitarian’ assistance. This is insufficient to prevent destitution. The predictable outcome is acute physical and psychological hardship for foreigners left to fend for themselves without support networks. Despite the ban on working, the majority are compelled to engage in income-generating activities, and do so most notably in narrow socioeconomic sectors where policing seems complicitly intermittent. The exploitation of refugee labour that is cheap and flexible goes hand in hand with an age of reckless subcontracting and damaging socioeconomic polarization.

In Hong Kong, impoverished residents cope by working day and night in multiple low-paying jobs, or taking entrepreneurial risks in niche sectors. They have unwittingly bought the government line that a welfare state would destroy the city’s prosperity, and heed the sirens of neoliberal governance demanding self-reliance. In this vicious ecosystem, the matrix of inadequate government assistance and deterrent policies contributes to marking thousands of asylum seekers as expendable pawns in the rags-to-riches dramas relentlessly played out in ‘Asia’s World City’.

College-educated Paul arrived in Hong Kong from Pakistan in March 2009. He is still an asylum seeker with a pending case. This reproachable delay confines him between a past he wants to forget and a future of prosperity that might never happen. The assistance he receives from a charity organization contracted by the government is barely enough to rent a filthy room in slum-like conditions in Hong Kong’s rural districts. Emergency food rations are provided every ten days, but he is expected to meet every other daily need himself. He laments that his fate was sealed when he sought asylum in Hong Kong. Daily indignities destroy his self-respect “as I beg for assistance with rent, food and incidentals, under threat of arrest and jail if I dare to work”.

The confinement of asylum seekers in Hong Kong does not conceal them from the public eye, behind barbed wire on remote islands. Instead it is akin to an ‘open prison’ where the lack of legal status and economic rights, coupled with discrimination by obvious markers like skin colour, define their extraneousness to law-abiding society. Nonetheless, it is segregation. Such a condition homogenizes individuals by classifying them according to an unwelcome immigration status, labelling everyone with the harsh directives of removal orders.

An Occupy for refugees

It is against this lamentable backdrop that scores of asylum seekers united in February 2014 to protest what they argue are intolerable living conditions. For six interminable yet exciting months, Paul and fellow incensed asylum seekers displayed unprecedented courage and self-determination by occupying public spaces in the financial heart of Hong Kong. They raised grievances about the injustice and chronic economic hardship they faced for prolonged periods as asylum claims dragged on.

We believe there is much to learn from this growth of assertive consciousness that, born of emotional frustration and years of suffering, speaks of the corruption of a system that unjustly penalizes asylum seekers for breaking the law when no alternatives are available. In a 200-day occupation movement, asylum seekers demanded policy changes and declared that they were no longer willing to submit compliantly to unfair treatment.

Charities are today facing an unprecedented dilemma. As philanthropic institutions face increased pressure from government regulators and financial constraints, it is harder for charities to retain or expand their scope of operation when more complex grant proposals compete for ever scarcer donations. However, attentive consideration should be given to the vitiating effect of altering a charity’s mandate by supporting and lending legitimacy to government policies that might conceal ulterior motives. A case in point is the charity assistance that delivers immigration and social control payloads, which indirectly leads to correctional services, removal and deportation.

The refugee occupation movement reminded us of an old lesson, namely that the act of giving implicitly requires a worthy cause. In the refugee sphere this cause is increasingly hard to appreciate when asylum seekers are broadly stigmatized as undeserving drifters intent on pocketing benefits. Given the limited resources available to charities, ‘beneficiary selection’ is a regrettable phenomenon that produces remnants denounced as unworthy of primary attention and concern. On the one hand, we witness asylum seekers forced to work illegally because charities become increasingly unable to fill the vast gaps left in government services. On the other, asylum seekers may adapt their behaviour, by appearing as mendicants to secure the limited aid distributed by cash-strapped charities.

The occupiers blasted the unfair conditions that inevitably reduced them to the status of reluctant supplicants. Rather than focusing on the dehumanizing condition of being an asylum seeker, this group turned the table on their oppressors, demanding that their status as beneficiaries of state assistance be constitutionally defined. The refugee occupation movement marked an important identity shift for asylum seekers in Hong Kong, who are now set on a path of renegotiating their socioeconomic marginalization.

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