Living at society’s margins and below the poverty line: Refugee Perspectives

As told to Mhairi McLaughlin

In 2005, Nino* was forced to leave Togo as a result of political violence which played out during his country’s presidential election. He fled in search of help for himself and his family. 12 years later, he lives in Hong Kong with his wife and two children, still looking for help.

Do you enjoy living in Hong Kong?

Living here is not something you can enjoy. You start in the wrong place – the room that you have to sleep in is like living like an animal.

I arrived here in 2005 and in 2006 the government started giving accommodation to the refugees the room was tiny, just enough room for a bed. By the time my wife arrived with our two children in 2009, we were each allocated HK$1200 per month for rent. We managed to find a room on the 9th floor of a building. But my wife is anaemic, she struggled with the stairs and she still does now – over 10 years on and we’re all still there.

We started talking to the media about the tiny allowance we are given by the government and this helped us bit in being given more money for transportation – we were going crazy stuck in our room all day. As a human being you cannot stay in a room 24 hours a day – you need to be able to go out and see your friends. There is a constant worry about how we will pay for our rent as well. A friend used to help us out with money which meant we can afford our flat, but this friend has had to move away so again we will have to look for accommodation. But all we will be able to afford is a studio apartment  – how can 2 kids study in a studio apartment?

The refugee situation in Hong Kong is something which is very hard to compare. This is how we are treated by the government: if you are not Chinese, or if you don’t have money – forget being cared about.

Do you see any progression in the next 5 years? 

Not at all – the government will not raise our allowance but house prices will continue to rise. And the number of refugees in Hong Kong will grow and grow.

Right now there are around 15,000 refugees. After the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the number doubled because China kicked out the refugees and sent them in boats to Hong Kong. I think we can expect 20,000 refugees by 2020. Maybe more.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. Nino preparing a dish from his home country.

Where do most refugees live? 

Some live in slums, however refugees have started fighting about these slums (in NT e.g. Kam Tin) – these places are illegal and dangerous. This is the only place you can get a house if you are a refugee. If you have kids, and they are ill during the night for example , ambulances won’t come because it is so inaccessible. There are no basic amenities, schools, shops, hospitals. Either this they live under bridges, in the lobby of Chungking Mansions; they are homeless.

The worst part of it is that there is so much money in HK, but it is so unequally divided…

When you go to the International Social Service (ISS – who grant accommodation to refugees) they are not doing anything to help. They just help you to sign a contract, and then they get paid.

The government has a bad policy which punishes poor people – the immigration officers get paid a lot of money to help refugees but the refugees get almost no money. When you go to Skyline Tower in Kowloon Bay for your interview (to determine whether you can be categorised as a refugee), you are surrounded by an immigration officer, interpreter and a lawyer – all which cost so much money. You sit there for 6 or 7 hours while they ask you nonsense questions, going around in circles just so that they can say they have done the interview but in the end they don’t grant you refugee status.

The government has set up a mafia of people who take a lot of money to be allowed to do whatever they want. The government does not respect the taxpayers money.

How do we stop this happening? 

The best way forward is to tell the media, tell students and encourage change. So far the students have been given the wrong information.

A few years ago I made a programme with TVB news about our family being homeless and the day after the programme the government gave us enough money for a deposit for a flat. The government always try to cover up stories with money.

How about help from NGOs? 

I don’t believe that the NGOs [alone] help matters, because [some] do not treat the refugees correctly. They only help refugees so that they can get paid. They help you to prepare for your interview and then when the case is rejected, they don’t go to court to appeal with you. It’s half a job.

*name changed for confidentiality. Please note that views expressed are interviewees own.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ferlin says:

    Im also in a status like this ,all interviews done with interpreters but in the end they reject my claim on (USM) non refoulement claim.Its very unfair they grant others with their untrue reasons .I ended up begging help from people .as well as my transport to go sign every 2wks .Even still they let me appeal on Tribunal still they reject my request .Is this how we are to be treat .We are also human being need to eat and survive …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. TOTC Admin says:

      Thanks for your comment Ferlin and coming forward with your personal experience. It takes bravery. If you have not already, it’s worth approaching Refugee Union /Vision First for assistance, especially when approaching the courts.


  2. Joshua Fong says:

    Refugees, if you are truly refugees, what you need to run away from is war and persecution. You are alive here, so stop complaining, or you may choose to go back to your nice home, if this is not a right place for you.


    1. TOTC Admin says:

      Maybe if you spoke to refugees, Joshua Fong, you’d realise it isn’t as simple as moving back to their country of origin. It is a shame you have this attitude but you are welcome to your opinion.

      This is a public forum for open dialogue and welcomes different views. However if you post disrespectful comments or make personal attacks, we reserve the right to delete your comments.


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