As nightfall descended on April 19, word spread quickly in the refugee community of Hong Kong that a fire had erupted on a footbridge in Sham Shui Po, a derelict low-income district on the Kowloon peninsula. The countless impoverished families who call it home, live in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers, which carry the neon lights that serve as beacons of affluence and promise of good fortune.
On the night of the fire, affected refugees were forced to carry their bags and bedding to a nearby park. This was an unnoticed relocation that underscored the transience of an unwelcome minority, which the government holds in deprivation, as a stark warning to anyone considering following in their footsteps.
About 30 refugees continue to spend the night in cardboard boxes, leaving at daybreak to avoid the glare of public shame. They receive limited assistance from the government, which is largely insufficient to secure basic accommodation with runaway rents in the city and welfare services diminished by rampant inflation.
The fire brought a flash of attention to alarming social problems that refugees now seek to address through an association established in February 2014. As the only registered refugee-led organization in Hong Kong, the Refugee Union aims to safeguard the rights of refugees, while mediating disputes between its members, the authorities and service providers. It also educates new members about their rights and privileges in a society that has generally preferred to keep them in the dark.
Many refugees feel compelled to work illegally to pay for daily expenses, such as rent, utilities, food and clothing. By doing so, they become easy targets of law enforcement tasked with branding them as undeserving delinquents who abuse the asylum process for personal gain. Their cardboard huts provide poor refuge from inclement weather and an even poorer safe house from arrest.
“It is shocking how the government treats the most poor in this city,” said an African refugee familiar with the area. “Some elderly homeless people live in unspeakable squalor for years and nobody cares. We refugees suffer the same indifference and neglect, which is why we do outreach here to help impoverished residents too.”
The union has successfully used collective action to assist individual members whose grievances have been ignored when they are presented to the government individually. Last summer, for instance, the Refugee Union was submerged by media requests for interviews after it occupied a pedestrian area in the city’s financial center. This action aimed to draw attention to the only government-contracted service provider disbursing welfare assistance. New guidelines have since been issued by the government to increase the number of service providers and provide food coupons as an alternative to a food distribution chain that refugees alleged subtracted value from their rations.
Despite being under-resourced, the Refugee Union is growing steadily in numbers and influence. Out of a refugee population of about 9,000, the Refugee Union now has over 2,000 members. It effectively liaises with government departments on behalf of its members and has been called to legal proceedings to assist stranded refugee plaintiffs.
There are bimonthly meetings at the union’s office to gather views on problems that require prompt collective action. WhatsApp and Facebook are leveraged to spread the message that the Refugee Union is ready to help anyone in need. The organization teaches new members how to effectively negotiate their subsistence living conditions, while encouraging them to stand up for their rights without the fear of retaliation.
“It is risky business, but I’m doing it for my family, my fellow asylum seekers and those who will come one day,” explained one of a few dozen refugees who founded the Refugee Union. “After all, if I don’t do anything, what kind of human being am I?”
A few months before the fire in Sham Sui Po, a South Asian refugee circulated an instant message about a blaze in one of a dozen remote slums where hundreds of asylum seekers live precariously: “There is a fire in a Pat Heung slum. A Sri Lankan refugee is DEAD. We need help!” This message mobilized the marginalized, yet increasingly competent community. The flow of messages reached advocates who informed reporters and within hours the incident was making headlines in the local press.
It came as a shock when a second slum fire erupted less than a month later. Nobody was injured in this disaster, though there was significant loss of property after several gas cylinders exploded, leveling many refugee dwellings.
On these three occasions, asylum seekers raised the alarm and the Refugee Union arrived swiftly at the scene to ensure fair treatment of the refugee community, who might otherwise have been depicted as perpetrators, not victims. A police cordon that prevented reporters from getting close to the second fire was lifted at the sight of a membership card flashed by a determined Refugee Union leader.
Members now take pride in a harsh situation by acknowledging there is no shame in seeking asylum, an emerging concept they might have found hard to explain to their children months earlier. As many refugees often say, “When you see no light at the end of the tunnel, you cannot keep quiet.”
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