This article was written on behalf of the Refugee Concern Network, a group of individuals and organisations working collectively to better the lives of refugees and protection claimants in Hong Kong and advocate for their rights, and was first published in Chinese in Ming Pao on 19th June 2020. Read the Chinese version here.
Refugees and asylum seekers, known as protection claimants in Hong Kong, arrive in our city with few possessions to call their own, fleeing violence, abuse, and trauma in their home countries. With some waiting years for their claims to be finalised, they also face hurdles accessing many aspects of society including work and education. This lack of support and resources is only exacerbated in the face of a pandemic like COVID-19.
June 20 is World Refugee Day commemorating the strength, courage, and resilience of the 70.8 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. All of these characteristics have become even more crucial during a crisis like COVID-19 which has tested who we are as people and who we are as a community, challenging us to push past our own fears and disruptions to look out for others. Over the past few months, we have seen refugees step up to support each other during a time when they have largely been forgotten by the rest of society.
In 2018 the UN General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees to strengthen international support for refugees and the countries who host them. While we often describe refugees based on their needs and their vulnerabilities, because we want to convey the urgency of supporting refugees and the great injustices of their situation, in Hong Kong we also see how stakeholders and NGOs can successfully work together towards the goals of easing pressure on host countries and enhancing refugee self reliance, to highlight the incredible strength of the refugee community.
While the Hong Kong government has offered parents an education stipend to kindergarten, primary, and secondary school students across the city, refugees and asylum seekers are ineligible for this support and have been left to adapt to school closures on their own. In order to support one another, a group of refugees who graduated from a Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) programme hosted a special class to discuss parenting during this challenging time. The group also put together a list of parenting tips that were shared with the wider community, to support others who are also adapting to this new reality. Other parents coordinated a homework support system so that students could have access to volunteer support for online learning.
While access to basic food and hygiene supplies has been unpredictable, especially for refugees, who are limited to spending their monthly governmental stipend of HK$1200 at Park N Shop, NGOs like RUN, UNHCR, Branches of Hope, and Centre for Refugees have increased weekly distributions of supplies. A number of refugees have also gone the distance to help each other to collect supplies, run errands, and even share their own limited food items so that no one gets left out.
While social distancing rules limit the ability to go outdoors or gather with friends, refugees have doubled down on their commitment to community by encouraging each other to stay physically and mentally healthy. They translate critical information and news related to COVID-19 into different languages for non-English speakers, check in regularly with each other via text messages and calls, share videos of their home workouts to stay accountable to health goals as a group, self-organise small-group hiking outings, and coordinate babysitting for those with young children, offering much-needed relief to mothers, particularly those who are alone in Hong Kong.
Make no mistake – refugees have very real needs during this time that would benefit from enhanced assistance from the government and inclusion in relief measures that have been offered to Hong Kong residents, but they have also shown their tenacity during this challenging time. Their actions speak volumes. They are resilient. They show that we all depend on each other and that we are stronger together than we are as individuals. They live out the meaning of compassion and community. We have much to learn from them.