This blog was written by Peter from East Africa, one of the participants of Voices for Protection, a refugee-led advocacy project of Justice Centre Hong Kong. The programme includes a twelve-week traineeship where refugees from different backgrounds learn how to advocate for their own rights in a safe and professional manner.
Last month, a group of refugees from Voices for Protection had a rare opportunity to visit the Legislative Council to meet with LegCo member Fernando Cheung. It was a great achievement for us to be hosted in such a location considering the prejudice, discrimination and attitudes often directed to the refugee community while we are in Hong Kong. The unwelcome gestures and disapproval accorded to us by some members of society cannot be over-emphasised. Refugees have been labelled economic migrants, opportunists and all kind of names that belittle them and add to their myriad of problems, despite having run away from their homes due to torture, political persecution, wars and political upheavals that have threatened their lives. They chose Hong Kong as their safe haven where they would be protected and their safety would be guaranteed – being a model of democracy and rule of law.
It's not surprising to note that many local people don't understand refugee issues, let alone know who a refugee is. To give an example, I had a weird experience the other day. I had just walked out of the Star Ferry Terminal in TST towards Canton Road when I was confronted by two local journalists from a television and radio station. A lady asked me, "Are you afraid of contracting Ebola?" I responded back confidently, “No, I am not.” “Why?” she went on, “It's killing many people in Africa.” “Yes, that's true,” I said, “but I am not from that part of Africa. I come from East Africa. Ebola has never affected my country.” Still, she asked, “How about your family? Aren’t you afraid that they will get infected with the disease?” “Not really,” I explained, and told her where I come from and why I don't think it's possible for my family to get Ebola. It was clear to me how the local people can view foreigners, especially Africans, in Hong Kong. They seemed ignorant about Africa as a continent and maybe about African people themselves, erroneously basing their knowledge on Africa as being a tiny country in some part of this world. Surely if even journalists are not that informed, then what about the general public? It was amazing, if not surprising. Stereotyping seems to be the order of the day.
Checks and balances?
In our meeting with him, Fernando informed us that it's not easy to convince other LegCo members to support refugee issues. He said it was hard to push refugee rights forward because refugees themselves do not constitute any political constituency. He also reminded us that Hong Kong has its own share of problems, like people living in poverty and ethnic minorities who do not enjoy equal rights and privileges and as such are also disadvantaged. What surprised me, and most of the other members of the group who I talked to after the session, was his braveness and openness in discussing LegCo’s inability to push through or even have control over the Executive. Thus the government structure and the way the system is constituted prevents meaningful policy change from happening. It became evident that the Office of the Chief Executive is too powerful and independent of the Legislature. The latter cannot then influence it, merely acting as an advisor whose advice can be ignored at the whims of the CEO as there lacks accountability mechanisms and recourse. The situation becomes more complicated due to LegCo’s composition and membership; it is made up of publicly-elected members (geographic constituencies) but also members from functional constituencies, the latter of which find their way there through professional groups and business organisations. These two groups never seem to see eye-to-eye, and LegCo membership is always out-numbered by pro-government forces, thus achieving consensus on critical issues is next to impossible.
A paradigm shift
It dawned on the group that the refugees have a long way to go; it was a great moment of truth that most us were never prepared for. Unless the political dynamics in Hong Kong change, achieving what we are advocating for is indeed a tall order. It will take time and more efforts, and a change of tact and strategy is required from refugees themselves and various individuals and NGOs supporting them. I was therefore persuaded that the political changes being fought for through the Hong Kong Occupy Central Movement are inevitable as Hong Kong people fight to exercise their voting rights in 2017 by achieving universal suffrage where they can elect all their leaders – starting with the Chief Executive to LegCo members who can hold the Chief Executive to account. There is need for paradigm shift in the structure, composition and organisation of the Hong Kong Government if meaningful change is to be achieved in all sectors of society. The system needs to change promptly.
The views expressed in this blog represent the personal views of the author/s and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions or policy of Justice Centre Hong Kong.