[Chinese Version available, please select “Chinese” as website language]
Writting／Rachel Li – Justice Centre Hong Kong
Editing／Amnesty International Hong Kong
Imagine you are a refugee in Hong Kong during the COVID-19 pandemic.
You fled home when the police knocked on your door at midnight. In your dreams you could still hear the screams and the bullets flying by. You are now alone in a foreign country, where you do not speak the language and hardly know anybody. Your asylum application has dragged on for years.
You may have developed symptoms of COVID-19, but you do not know how or where you can seek medical assistance.
Your family, including your young children, must report regularly at a police station as part of your recognizance conditions. But you have not been able to buy facemasks and are not provided with any as part of your monthly social welfare assistance. You are terrified to travel with your children on public transport without masks.
For months you have struggled to buy food with your pre-paid food card at designated supermarkets. Staple food items such as spaghetti and rice are constantly out of stock due to spikes in demand. Food prices have also become sharply inflated and unaffordable, while the amount of food allowance provided by the government remained static. You worry about feeding your family.
Refugees and civil society organisations supporting the refugee community have spoken about some of these challenges faced by the 13,000 people seeking asylum and international protection in Hong Kong. While COVID-19 does not discriminate, it undoubtedly exacerbates entrenched inequality in our society. Folks from marginalised communities, including refugees, are particularly vulnerable due to their socioeconomic status, legal status, gender, health conditions, and other intersecting factors.
Take the crucial right to access healthcare as an example. Refugees are charged as “non-eligible persons” at a considerably higher fee at public hospitals. While they may apply for medical fee waivers, there is a lack of information about the availability of this mechanism. The application procedures can also be complicated and time-consuming, especially if there are language barriers. For refugees with insecure immigration status, such as those who are unable to register their protection claims or those who are pursuing Judicial Review proceedings, the fear of being detained and deported further disincentivizes them from seeking medical treatment. There is an overall lack of accessible information – in relevant languages – on how refugees can access medical care in the times of COVID-19.
In other jurisdictions, such as the UK and Scotland, free testing and treatment are provided for refugees and asylum seekers regardless of their legal status, with relevant information accessible on the National Health Service (NHS)’s websites.
COVID-19 makes clear that the health and well-being of everyone in Hong Kong is interconnected. Ensuring the health and safety of all members of society is therefore crucial to the efficacy of the public health response. Regrettably, the government’s public health response thus far appears to have overlooked the needs of the refugee community. Why does the government appear so reluctant in ensuring the refugee community is protected during this crisis?
One reason is that refugees are treated as burdens. Because the 1951 Refugee Convention has not been extended to Hong Kong, the government limits its responsibility to non-refoulement, that is, the obligation not to return people to situations where they will be at risk of serious breaches of fundamental human rights or persecution. The result of this policy is a piecemeal system that fulfils the bare minimum. Hong Kong’s refugee substantiation rate is one of the lowest among developed jurisdictions at less than 1%. Even with substantiated claims, refugees are not granted refugee status. Instead, they are classified by the government as “illegal immigrants”, a status which is inherited by their children even if they were born in Hong Kong.
The most significant impact of this permanent illegality is that refugees are denied the right to work. Consequently, they are forced to rely on the government’s assistance aimed merely at preventing destitution. This monthly assistance includes food allowance of HK$1,200 in the form of pre-paid supermarket cards, HK$1,500 paid directly to the landlord, HK$300 for utilities, a toiletry bag with personal hygiene items and some petty cash for transportation. In the times of COVID-19, the refugee community’s inability to become self-sufficient means that they struggle to put food on the table, or are at heightened risks as they are unable to acquire sanitation products.
But there is a glimmer of hope even in these uncertain times. Across the globe refugee doctors, nurses and medical professionals are working on the front line against COVID-19. Germany and Ireland are considering allowing refugees with medical training to provide support in the battle, and in the UK refugee doctors are calling upon the government to fast track their accreditation. The talent and potential in the refugee community is huge.
“When can Hong Kong go back to normal?” we ask. But what sort of normalcy are we going back to? The COVID-19 crisis has offered us an opportunity to reflect collectively on what type of society we would like Hong Kong to be. I hope it is one where we treat each other with more compassion and humanity, one where we can all live with dignity, equality and freedom.
Earlier in this month, 13 organizations including Justice Centre have jointly signed and sent a policy recommendation letter to various Government departments regarding to support the refugee community in Hong Kong during the COVID-19 pandemic (Press here for the letter）.
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