HONG KONG— In downtown Hong Kong, refugees continue a six-week protest outside the social welfare department of the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Denied the right to work, living on food handouts and apparently housed in accommodations unfit for humans, the protest is focusing attention on the harsh conditions faced by refugees and asylum seekers in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
About 6,000 asylum seekers live in Hong Kong, perhaps hoping one day to share in the prosperity of a city in which the World Bank calculates per capita GDP exceeds that of the United States.
Barred from seeking employment even if granted refugee status, Refugee Union leader Saeid Mohammadi says asylum seekers in Hong Kong are marginalized and destitute.
In 21 years, he says, the government has approved asylum for only 11 out of 13,000 victims of torture. He says he has been in a stateless limbo since fleeing Afghanistan seven years ago.
“Hong Kong signed the [U.N.] torture convention. But their policy is to keep refugees in extreme poverty, destroy them mentally so they will commit some crime. Then the police will arrest them and reject their case because they broke the law - this is what [they] want," said Mohammadi.
Early morning commuters rush to offices in downtown skyscrapers as a pregnant Nepali refugee emerges from a tent pitched on the sidewalk.
Lama Inu, 30, and dozens of her peers occupy a protest camp outside Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department.
Their aim is to highlight the plight of refugees forced to choose between living in poverty in Hong Kong or returning to countries where their lives may be in danger.
In a city often cited as the most expensive in the world, most refugees survive on a rental allowance of $200 a month, and three monthly food parcels from the Social Welfare Department.
Food and rent are provided under a $26 million contract won by Swiss-headquartered NGO, International Social Services.
The food is cheap and often rancid, the refugees allege. And last month, a judge issued an injunction ordering International Social Services to fulfill its obligations when its staff failed to pay Inu’s rent.
“My landlord kicked me out. I begged them: we had no home, clothes, nothing. For four days I did not change my dress or take a shower. The doctor admitted me to hospital because I might have a problem with my baby. We are suffering. But I will fight," said Inu.
While International Social Services did not comment, a Social Welfare Department statement said its contractor has been providing [refugees] with in-kind services on its behalf since 2006.
It said this was “to prevent [refugees] becoming destitute … while not creating a magnet effect” that draws more refugees to Hong Kong.
The Social Welfare Department added that before providing rent, “ISS would also conduct spot checks and home visits to premises to assess the hygiene, home environment and safety condition [sic].”
But traveling into the countryside with advocacy group Vision First, VOA was introduced to South Asian refugees housed in a run down pigsty.
Asylum seeker Shahzad Khan, from Pakistan, points to his mattress lying beside a feeding trough. Electrical wires dangle under a holed roof and an open sewer runs nearby.
“We do not need anything from them, money or food. We just want work. When I came here I went to work, but spent 15 months in prison [as a result]. You can see, this place is for animals. There is no future here," said Khan.
Angered by our presence, we are set upon by the landlords of the pigsty Khan shares with 15 other refugees.
While we are forced to leave, like thousands of other asylum seekers, Khan does not know how long he will be trapped in one of the wealthiest cities on Earth.