Few are aware of it, but Hong Kong is home to some 12,000 asylum seekers, who fled their native countries as a result of forced labour, torture or persecution. With the Hong Kong government accepting less than 1 percent of asylum cases and paperwork taking years to process, thousands are trapped in limbo, unable to work, educate their families or fully integrate into society. Established in 2014, Justice Centre Hong Kong provides legal support to individuals seeking asylum, and helps to shape public policy to better support them. We speak to Justice Centre’s executive director Piya Muquit about the important work they do.
Tell us how you came to join Justice Centre.
I am a qualified barrister and have been working in the field of human rights for over 20 years, most recently as Head of Policy and Advocacy at UNICEF UK – I joined Justice Centre in 2015. I was initially fairly sceptical
about moving to Hong Kong to take up a role working with refugees, given it is a developed country not known for refugee issues. Upon doing further research however, I discovered that there is actually a significant refugee population in Hong Kong, around 12,000 at present, and the legal and humanitarian situation leaves a lot to be desired.
Tell us about Justice Centre’s mission.
Justice Centre Hong Kong works to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, survivors of torture, human trafficking and forced labour. Our mission is to enable our clients to access their rights through legal and psychosocial support, policy, advocacy and research, while strengthening the rule of law in Hong Kong.
What are some of the major challenges faced by asylum seekers in Hong Kong?
The first challenge faced by asylum seekers is being allowed to remain in Hong Kong. Since 2009, only 103 refugees have had their claim for protection in Hong Kong accepted, whilst 14,206 claims have been rejected. This equates to a less than 1 percent chance of success, compared with around 30 percent in other developed countries. Asylum seekers also have to contend with living within the limited resources they are provided with by the government. They are given a shoestring housing allowance of $1,500 a month and supermarket vouchers equivalent to $40 a day.
Finally, one of the most frustrating aspects of life in Hong Kong as a refugee is the lack of financial independence and contribution they can make to society. Refugees are never given the right to work or even volunteer in Hong Kong. We have people, with proven claims and recognised refugee status, who have been here for decades, with no right to work, which can be hugely damaging to their mental health.
What kind of people do you help?
Our clients come from a very wide range of backgrounds. Every year we typically help people from more than
50 countries! The background of our clients varies greatly but we prioritise the most vulnerable, for example those who have suffered torture, single women and families with children.
What have been some of the most rewarding moments?
Our most rewarding moments involve the successes for our clients. Even if they are small victories, they can make a huge difference to their lives. It is always encouraging to see a positive immigration decision, which is an achievement in Hong Kong given the low acceptance rate. What I find most rewarding are the moments that often do not receive much airtime. For example, we are assisting a torture survivor who lost contact with his family after fleeing his country. He was able to re-establish contact with his wife and children after some time, and we assisted him to ensure that they were not summarily removed upon arriving in Hong Kong. He introduced us to his family after their arrival, and he was full of joy at the simple fact that he was reunited with his loved ones. Rare moments like this make it all worthwhile.
What is one thing you wish people knew about the people you help?
There are a lot of myths in the Hong Kong media about refugees, and we want to change public opinion and remind people here that many Hongkongers are in fact descended from refugees who fled persecution from China during the Cultural Revolution and the civil war. The people arriving now are no different from their grandparents or great-grandparents who fled to Hong Kong in the hopes of starting a new life for their family here. Many are highly educated and were of a high social status in their countries of origin.
Tell us more about the activities you organise for the asylum seekers.
We have run hiking groups for our clients and we also host events for them. For example, we held a celebration for World Refugee Day and hosted meals during Ramadan. These activities provide a valuable opportunity for our clients to interact with Justice centre staff, volunteers and supporters in a fun and informal setting. Through these programmes and events, refugees are able to overcome past traumas, rebuild their physical and mental health, and strengthen support across communities and cultures.
Spread the word. We would love you to encourage others to look into the reality of life for refugees in Hong Kong. Many people simply never come across Hong Kong’s refugee population and the more people know, the more they can help.
Give money. Donations are always welcome. We are continually raising funds to support our work, including our legal and psychosocial team who aim to give Hong Kong’s refugees the best chance they can of protection. You could hold a fundraiser to help support the work we do.
Give your time. We run volunteer placements in our team, particularly for lawyers and those interested in policy work, and we always welcome more applications to join us. We always need interpreters so if you speak a second language, please get in touch.