Education is for all

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, LEGCO, Refugee

Posted by Zamira Monteiro

This week, we interview David (name changed), a refugee from the Middle East who joyfully told us about winning the elections to be on the board of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) at his children’s school. Refugees are largely invisible in Hong Kong, and because of this, there are never enough stories about how refugees can and do positively contribute to their local communities. When we heard David’s story, we just knew we had to share it with you.

Tell us about the situation in your home country? Why did you have to leave?

In my country, there is war. There are terrorist groups which occupy many areas, and the regions are not safe. There are bombings all the time, and because of that all the schools are closed. I came here for my children’s safety, for my family. Because of the job that I had, my life was in danger – certain forces were trying to track me down and kill me – so I had to leave to make sure my family was safe.

So what is life in Hong Kong like for your children?

My children get to go to school here. They get to do activities like football. They are class monitors and also prefects, so they are doing very well. But during the vacation time, it can become very difficult because they have no classes, no school activities, so what else can they do?

I understand that you’re very passionate about education too. Tell me about how you get involved with the school’s activities.

I believe that education is for all: whether you are a local Hong Kong child, an asylum seeker or a refugee child, all children must be able to have an education. I also join in the school’s activities. I help them when they need, and I also join the sports day and the PTA. Every year, for the last three years, I have even received a cup from the school for being a good father!

So the school knows that you and your family are refugees and they support you?

Yes, the school has been very understanding of our situation, and they are very supportive and helpful. The problem is not the school, but the government policy. The Hong Kong Government does not provide enough assistance. For example, they will give money for tuition, textbooks and for transport to school, but they give this money in December and school starts earlier in September. How can we pay those costs if we don’t have any income here? Also the government does not provide money for school uniforms, stationery or after-school activities. How can I provide these for my children if I am also not allowed to work?

So how is it that you ran for the PTA elections?

The school asked if I wanted to be in the PTA elections. At first I said no because I did not know about the election. But they insisted that I participate. So I said okay, even though I did not understand the process. I went there and then realised that it was an election! It is very difficult for me because I am the only one from my country in the PTA and English is not my first language. I thought it would be very hard. I was worried because it’s the first time that I have done something like this. The other parents had come prepared with ideas for programmes they wanted to do if they won the election, but of course I did not know that I had to write a speech. Luckily, I was the ninth speaker, so I had some time to think. I had nothing to lose, so I just spoke from my heart, with passion. I said that this school is my home and that I will be the first person to help with everything. The school organises a picnic every year, but I said that instead they can take the children and even their parents to museums so that they can learn more about Hong Kong culture and history – share this with the families, not just the students. My other idea is also to have a box in the school where everyone can anonymously donate items, especially new items, so that less advantaged students don’t have to use old, second-hand uniforms or other used items.

How did it feel when you won?

I was very surprised and confused. I remember someone told me that refugees cannot go to school in Hong Kong or be part of the PTA, but we can, I can. I thought I would have no voice in the school since I am an ethnic minority and not a Hong Konger, but I won. Everyone was hugging me, it was great.

So what do you want to do now that you are on the board of the PTA?

I remember I said in my speech that I don’t like only hearing people talk, I want to see action. So now, I want to see what I myself will do. I want to meet with parents and see what they need and pass on that information to the school. Also, I want them to know who a refugee is, who we are, and that refugees can be educated and professionals. I want the Hong Kong public to know that refugees are normal people, just like them.

 

Justice Centre staff and refugee advocates will be attending the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s (HKIEd) Forum on “Educating Hong Kong’s Refugee Children: Policy and Practice” on November 6, 2015. Visit HKIEd’s website for more information.

Voices for Expression: Rapping with Refugees

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Refugee

Posted by Ian Lam

“In pain, I was drained in both body and mind
But gotta find my own way, walk the thin line.” – Find My Own Way (MC Anjum) 

We are creatures of narratives. From our sophisticated moral code, to why you bought that iced skim milk latte this morning, our actions have reasons rooted in one story or another. Stories are simple things which help us understand the world, but they do demand one thing: for the audience to listen with an open heart, at least until the end of the tale. This is a story of hip hop and our journey of reflecting social injustices through the power of personal stories.

The story behind the label

Photo credit: Ian Lam

Photo credit: Ian Lam

Having worked with asylum seekers for a period of time to help them in the USM claim process, I felt I was always at arm’s length from the population. Interviewing clients for their asylum claims as a law firm student intern or as a Justice Centre volunteer gave me insights into their individual plight. Research into their countries of origin gave me a general idea of what they were fleeing from. Yes, I had a grasp of the facts necessary to support an asylum claim, but I had no understanding about their experience in Hong Kong or back at home. Who were they, really, behind the mere label of “asylum seeker” or “refugee”?

It then hit me – with language and cultural barriers, no ability to integrate in Hong Kong and concerns about their security – refugees have little means to tell their own stories. Knowing this, my partner Aston and I (via our group Thought Experiment Hong Kong) started the Voices for Expression: Rap & Poetics workshop series with the Social Justice Alliance, a refugee-led community group supported by Justice Centre. Driven by the hip hop philosophy of expressing one’s raw personal narrative through music, the project aimed to help participants to develop the tools to express themselves in rap/poetic verses over the course of six workshops that were hosted at The University of Hong Kong, courtesy of HKU Law Faculty’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL).

Voices for Expression

Photo credit: Ian Lam

Photo credit: Ian Lam

The start of the workshop was not easy; I felt that a life of constant struggle and fear had conditioned some of the participants to protect themselves by expressing as little information as possible. Yet, although breaking the ice was difficult, their passion to learn soon flooded the classroom. I was genuinely surprised when the workshop participants profoundly empathized with the personal aspect portrayed in rap/poetry. They dug deep to articulate difficult experiences in their own words, despite many not having English as a first language.

Then came the hard social justice questions that hip hop inevitably deals with: discrimination, economic segregation, and the power of community representation. I had initially assumed that the discussions would be largely driven by their personal experiences, but I couldn’t have been more wrong – their level of political insight into the composition of institutional structures and intricacies of different modes of governance bordered on academic.

What really surprised me was the will to learn and perfect their craft. One participant in particular barely spoke English when he arrived in Hong Kong, but he wrote and rewrote his lines and practiced fiercely to capture the exact tone of expression – all to convey his thoughts to you, the listener. Another participant, eager to learn, stayed long after class to discuss the details of music production and sound editing.

Telling the story

As the workshop series drove on, each Emcee grew in ability and confidence, and their thoughts slowly blossomed into their verses: MC AKK’s “To Leave Your Country” tells a tale of a young man leaving his violent homeland, with traces of homesickness echoing in the background. MC Ray, with a deep empathy of those shackled in suffering, chains his words to ignite the will to survive and grow in his “Recreate Your Own Path”. MC Anjum’s “Find My Own Way” details the fear of persecution and the bureaucratic repercussion of being labeled a “refugee” in Hong Kong. MC Tina raps about the daily struggle and psychological torments of an asylum seeker’s daily experience in her “Life is Difficult”. MC Jawe’s “Child Soldier’s Life” explores the results of psychological conditioning and the relationship between a state’s political will and a soldier’s duty. Finally, MC Change’s “Africa Unite” is a cry for social unity and ethical politics, also serving as a critique on the state of democracy in Africa. I am proud to announce that you can now download the full album below, with each Emcee’s song and written verse.

As I switched off the lights after our final 10-hour recording session, I was humbled. With the warmth of MC Jawe’s goodbye hug, I understood that the six Emcees’ stories, will and perseverance have been crystallized into the recordings. I hope we have done a satisfactory job and done “justice” to their stories.

I am grateful to the Social Justice Alliance for the seamless collaboration effort and participation in the project, Justice Centre Hong Kong for their endless support and practical guidance, and HKU Law Faculty’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) for their generous support in providing access and facilities for the development of the project. And of course, MC AKK, MC Anjum, MC Change, MC Jawe, MC Ray and MC Tina, who have showed me the power of one voice.

“Honor, relight, kindle the freedom of rights
Dispel the shadows as the candles ignite!” Africa Unite (MC Change)

 

PhotoIan Lam (aka MC Ember) is a former legal volunteer at Justice Centre and co- founder of Thought Experiment Hong Kong. He is a postgraduate student of law at the University of Hong Kong.

 

 

You can now download and listen to the full Voices for Expression album on Thought Experiment Hong Kong’s Facebook page! The copyright of the vocal recording and written verse belongs solely to each Emcee.

Social Justice Alliance is a refugee-led community group supported by Justice Centre. The SJA was set up by refugees and prioritises soft advocacy and positive interaction with the Hong Kong population. To find out more about how you can support SJA, please contact Betsey at betsey@justicecentre.org.hk

Thought Experiment Hong Kong is a group co-founded by Aston Law and Ian Lam that seeks to facilitate personal connection and substantive interactions within the city as well as to promote the importance of critical thinking and substantial communications. To find out more about Thought Experiment Hong Kong, please visit their Facebook page or website

What does ‘decent work’ look like to you?

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Fundraising, Human Trafficking, Refugee, Research, Slavery

Posted by Jade Anderson

“Imagine a perfect day in a perfect job. You wake up, and everything is exactly how you would like it to be. You feel respected, you feel happy, you feel fulfilled. You get along great with your boss. What would decent work mean to you?” This is the question we have been asking domestic workers in the past couple of weeks in preparation for our upcoming report.

IMG_0044_2

Foreign domestic workers participating in a focus group for Justice Centre’s research project.

This week, on October 7, 2015, the World Day for Decent Work was observed across the globe. In numerous countries rallies, street demonstrations, conferences and cultural events were held to spread the message and demand respect for workers’ rights. In Hong Kong today, discussions of what constitutes ‘decent work’ have never been more appropriate. These same questions have also arisen during Justice Centre’s research project to examine the situation of human trafficking and forced labour among foreign domestic workers (FDWs).

As a Researcher who has been involved with the FDW study since the beginning, I’ve come to see how ideas about decent work are really at the heart of concepts like human trafficking, forced labour and modern day slavery. These terms can mean so many things to so many people. At first glance, it can seem obvious that we’re all in agreement, but when you get down to writing a survey, you have to decide which questions to include or exclude and at what point to count a series of experiences as exploitative enough that it becomes forced labour or even trafficking into forced labour.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our research has been speaking with domestic workers themselves about these terms and asking them what they think. In addition to surveying over 1,000 foreign domestic workers, we have also been running focus groups with different groups of women with the support of domestic worker organisations throughout Hong Kong. The groups have been varied; some women have been activists, some have been receiving skills or self-improvement training. Some have been in shelters trying to resolve difficult situations with their employers.

When we asked these women the question “what does decent work look like to you?” they have generously shared their stories and ideas with us. Many have been at pains to point out that they have great employers who support them and respect their contribution to their household and to Hong Kong in general. One woman noted with pride that her employer never referred to her as her “helper,” instead introducing her to her guests as her “chef” and then publicly thanking her for her hard work. The women in this group agreed that such acknowledgment and respect is a large part of what decent work means to them. Decent work to them looked like an eight-hour work day, having some “me-time” and respite, being able to save money and feeling like they are part of the employer’s family.

But not all the women had positive experiences. Many shared stories of unending and unappreciated work, where every task they complete is corrected and “never good enough”. They told us again and again that you are “lucky” if you get an employer who respects you. The women with “good” employers also considered themselves “lucky” and swapped stories about “bad” employers they had in the past. One woman remembered that she had been woken at two in the morning to clean a ceiling fan in the living room. When we asked another group of domestic workers what they would tell another person back in their home town about coming to work in Hong Kong as a domestic worker, one woman explained that she would tell them “No! Don’t come to Hong Kong, I don’t want anyone to experience what I have encountered.”

For many of these women, the term “modern slavery” reflects not their actual status as “slaves” in Hong Kong but the attitude of many employers and people in general towards them as not the same, not their equals. In every group, women spoke of the lack of choices they have in their everyday lives; about what clothes they wear, what they can eat, when they can eat, when they can use the bathroom, when they can rest or sleep. Many women have commented that they need to get permission for everything and anything. For these women, the term ‘slavery’ resonates powerfully with their experiences of living and working in Hong Kong. This should give us pause for thought.

One of the things that has struck me the most during these discussions is that the women and men who come to Hong Kong as domestic workers want to work. They know that they are supporting their families and building futures for themselves. Being a migrant is often a source of pride. They are happy to be contributing to their employers’ households and to Hong Kong. And they appreciate many things here, like the rule of law, the efficiency of the city and good transportation! But they want their work to be recognised as work, not just “help”, by the households they work for and by the people and Government of Hong Kong.

It is our hope that this research will provide enough evidence to push the Hong Kong Government to implement fairer policies so that foreign domestic workers can not only be less vulnerable to forced labour, but also enjoy decent work, as valued contributors to Hong Kong society.

Jade is a researcher at Justice Centre Hong Kong. 

 

 

 

We are extremely grateful to those who have made and continue to make this research project possible, in order for us to provide concrete evidence of the existence of human trafficking and forced labour in Hong Kong. The report, and its findings, will be launched next month. Read more about our Human Trafficking and Forced Labour research project here.

Thank you to the migrant worker groups and foreign domestic workers who generously gave their time to complete the survey and participate in the focus groups.

Financial support for this project has been provided by a mixture of funders, including the Macquarie Group Foundation, as part of a four-country study on domestic workers in source and host countries, working with Farsight.

A big thank you also goes to 24 Hour Race, a student-led organisation, who have chosen us as one of their charity beneficiaries for 2015, with proceeds from the race funding our trafficking research.

A Multicultural City?

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Illegal immigrant, Media, Refugee

Posted by Zamira Monteiro

Untitled

Status of Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong 1997 – 2014

A study on the status of ethnic minorities, released this week, by Prof. Puja Kapai at The University of Hong Kong found that poverty rates amongst ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong are much higher than those of the ethnic Chinese population, and are getting worse. This week I also learned that a village in Yuen Long put up a sign urging residents not to rent houses to ‘South Asians’, in order to “improve the safety of the village”. Additionally, we at Justice Centre have recently seen a flurry of media pieces about refugees and ethnic minorities in Hong Kong – unfortunately with mostly negative connotations.  As an Indian national myself, hearing news like this saddens me so much; it makes me worry about the way refugees and other ethnic minorities are perceived by the public and how this may impact on their social inclusion in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, I know first-hand about discrimination. I am a young, employed English-speaking woman who has had a rather privileged life. I am able to stand up for myself and can afford a decent studio apartment on Hong Kong Island. Yet in my first week in Hong Kong, as a Master’s of Human Rights Law student on a very tight budget, I was turned down by four landlords. Yes, four in one week. I was even told that because I was Indian, I would ‘smell of curry’, which would apparently seep into the walls of the apartment. This is just one of several unpleasant experiences, but it makes me wonder: how much harder is it for refugees – who are also ethnic minorities – but who live here with even fewer rights?

Being a refugee in Hong Kong comes with interwoven, multiple experiences of difficulties, and often compounding forms of discrimination. From refugees telling me that passengers sometimes refuse to sit next to them in the MTR to them feeling like they can’t answer the most frequently-asked question in Hong Kong “What do you do?” out of a fear that telling the truth would be a sure-fire way that the other person would never talk to them again – when you are seeking asylum, getting by in Hong Kong can be very difficult. Barred from working (though many are able or skilled professionals), they are forced to rely on insufficient government assistance and then are often vilified for doing so.

Over the past few months, Justice Centre has spoken out repeatedly about the disingenuous and damaging rhetoric employed by the Hong Kong Government to sweepingly label refugees as “illegal immigrants” – a term that is especially misleading considering that the Immigration Department requires a person to overstay their visa before they are even eligible to seek protection, essentially forcing them into this illegal status. Moreover, there is an important difference between a refugee and a migrant, and you can read more about why terminology matters here.

But what has also repeatedly popped up in the media is the thinly disguised, or often blatant, claim that refugees are mostly ‘fake’. The most recent example can be seen by comments from the Director of Immigration himself, Eric Chan, who made these very claims to Xinhua Web TV. This is just one of over a dozen press statements since July by the Immigration Department that focuses on making negative associations between the Unified Screening Mechanism and abuse, cost or crime. It is apparently so much easier to insist that refugees are ‘fake’ as opposed to inviting unwanted questions regarding the fairness of a system that has less than a 1% recognition rate, far lower than the 43% average rate worldwide according to the UNHCR. The most worrying trend is that barely any focus is placed on ‘protection’ – the humanitarian principle that should be at the core to the Unified Screening Mechanism.

I worry greatly about how these official government statements are then portrayed in the media and subsequently interpreted by the public – which impacts not just on how refugees are perceived, but ethnic minorities generally as well. The Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, Alexander Betts, recently stated, “Words that convey an exaggerated sense of threat can fuel anti-immigration sentiment and a climate of intolerance and xenophobia.”

I believe that the solution to these experiences lies in the Hong Kong people. In my three years in Hong Kong I have met some wonderful people, old and young; recent history has shown us that a tremendous social conscience exists in Hong Kong, that Chinese and non-Chinese people in this city are willing to stand up against injustice and work towards an inclusive society. So I am hoping that you keep an eye out and address ignorant attitudes, highlight when derogatory terms are thrown around, or challenge one-sided or ill-researched reporting in the media. I am hoping that you join us in standing up for ethnic minorities and refugees, because we need your voice too.

Zamira is the Campaigns and Communications Coordinator at Justice Centre Hong Kong.

 

Introducing Voices for Protection WOMEN

Published on . Posted in Advocacy, Asylum seeker, Blog, Refugee

Posted by Betsey Hawkins

Betsey is an advocacy volunteer at Justice Centre.

For the last seven months, I have been helping Justice Centre as a volunteer to support Voices for Protection – an innovative advocacy and human rights training programme to provide refugees with the skills, tools, platform and opportunities to engage in advocacy and become their own change-makers in the community. Through the generous funding of HER Fund, we are pleased to announce a special intake of Voices for Protection adapted for women, to encourage gender empowerment among the refugee community and give these women a forum to be able to learn from each other in a safe space and develop the skills and tools to be agents of change.

I personally feel great excitement at the launch of Voices for Protection WOMEN.  During my time at Justice Centre, I have seen one intake of refugees complete the Voices for Protection traineeship from start to finish and witnessed the transformative power that the knowledge and skills taught throughout the programme has had on the lives of the participants. I was humbled and inspired by the graduates who were so eager to learn and actively claim their human rights; many of the graduates have gone on to engage in advocacy, media and awareness-raising activities both through Justice Centre’s work and in their own capacity.

The groundbreaking intake will provide a much needed forum for refugee women to engage in the political process. During the course of administering several Voices for Protection intakes, we learned that many women found it difficult to voice their opinions in front of men, sometimes due to cultural reasons or perhaps because of sensitive experiences in their past. Others felt that because their concerns did not affect the wider group, they were therefore not worth discussing. For example, some women may avoid a discussion about sexual and reproductive health needs in a mixed-gender forum for any of the above reasons. We have found, however, that when women come together to discuss issues amongst other fellow women, they more freely express their concerns.

Refugee women, in general, face multiple and compound forms of discrimination often due to their gender, race and asylum-seeking status. Many of these women come from countries where women’s rights are extremely limited, where some may even have faced persecution due to their gender – such as women fleeing from forced marriages or from sexual and gender-based violence. Sometimes, they may feel humiliated about what they experienced and embarrassed to talk about it in front of a male interpreter or Immigration Officer, for example. In Hong Kong, they face particular challenges. For example, I’ve learned that, with the low housing allowance they receive, single women often struggle to find appropriate accommodation here where they feel safe. We also have many single mothers who worry about providing for their children. How do you explain to your children why you had to uproot their lives, or that daddy might never be coming home?

As a mother, I understand the challenges of parenthood are difficult enough, but when compounded by these circumstances, the task of parenting seems almost impossible. Hearing their stories moves me, and I am in complete awe of the strength of the women I have met at Justice Centre; they are courageous fighters who understand the need for equality and want to help not only other women, but other vulnerable groups as well. What I am really excited about is that Voices for Protection WOMEN will engage with leaders of other women’s organisations and coalitions in Hong Kong. Our hope is that the participants will be empowered by these interactions, and I am particularly inspired by women from different walks of life teaching and learning from each other because it builds up solidarity and understanding across different segments in Hong Kong.

The protection screening process can often be very demoralising, especially in Hong Kong where refugees are often mistakenly treated as unwelcomed opportunists. Through every step of the process, refugees often feel like they have no control over their own fate and spend endless months or years waiting for decisions from others. I hope that Voices for Protection WOMEN will give these women the opportunity to be active participants in the policies and laws that affect their lives. I look forward to learning from these women’s voices, experiences, and talents, and I can’t wait to see how they change themselves, their families and their communities as a result of the experience. What I have learned over the course of this year is that, given the chance, refugees have so much to give back to the community.

If you would like to learn more about the programme or about ways that you can support Voices for Protection WOMEN, please contact Betsey at Betsey@justicecentre.org.hk

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