Lifting the ‘no-work’ policy and contrasting cultural values: Refugee Perspectives

As told to Cynthia Chung

[Editor’s note] This is the third part of our interview with Alex* from Refugee Union. We spoke at length about the no-work policy, whereby refugees and asylum seekers are unable to work or volunteer by law. 

How would our society be different if the no-work policy is removed?

As I have said before, the millions of dollars that are currently being spent to support the refugees can be used on Hong Kongers themselves. When I walk around the streets of Hong Kong, I always meet very old people doing manual jobs. They are doing this due to lack of support from the government. Give them social welfare instead to help them meet their basic needs. I doubt you will ever see them again on the streets pushing loads of trash for sale.

Alex, preparing his dish. Photo: Matt Haslam.

There is also quite a number of very poor people in Hong Kong who can’t make ends meet, majority are as hungry as the refugees themselves. Use the HKD$600 million per year that you are currently giving to the refugees to uplift their living standards and better their lives. This would go a long way in reducing the huge wealth gap in Hong Kong. I guess that it is reasonable and noble to spend such huge amounts of money on its citizens rather than spending it on strangers that you really hate so much as to condemn them into this life of hopelessness. Mind you, the money is not enough now as it is, they need to go to the Legco again to request for extra money to meet the shortfall. How do you justify this?

Allowing refugees to work is the most responsible thing I can think of, they will start paying taxes just like everyone else, they will get back their human dignity that’s is so lacking at the moment. Give refugees back their human rights.

It will also lift off the burden of supporting refugees from the treasury and thereby direct the millions to other sectors of economy. This can also reduce the crime rate level. I have seen especially from the Chinese media how they demonize the refugee community alleging that they make Hong Kong less safe. Refugees are idle, they have nothing to do, if they were to start working, they will become productive people in the society. Crimes that they are committing are only a means of survival.


Refugees, of course, could offer many things to Hong Kong society.

Most of the refugees were professionals on their own in their countries of origin before they arrived in Hong Kong, they could add a lot of value to this city. Indeed they have the potential to help Hong Kong unleash its full potential that would move it to the next level of development through innovations. Currently refugees are wasting their lives lying idle day in day out, the government should make use them. They are untapped resource that can play a good role in this city.

With the nascent issues faced by students recently, there has been an onslaught of student suicides in recent months due to the pressure from the education system. Because you guys are from very diverse backgrounds, I feel like it would bring in a lot of new ideas and culture and better values. What do you think?

I think if you look at those societies that are very diverse they are stronger and cohesive, these societies also tend to grow faster, are very responsible and have a high sense of freedom.

I’m a bit surprised by what is happening in the local schools. I think it all goes back to your values and what you believe in. The value system of Chinese people is quite different from other peoples of the world. So are their way of life. These are the issues that are at play in the lives of their children. There is no diversity.

Photo: Matt Haslam.

I think that there is a misconception between good grades in school for example and work related environment. You can do very well in class but when you go out there and be employed you might not perform as exemplary as you did in a classroom.

So they should not focus on getting distinctions in their exams rather they should focus on a good education that prepares you well to handle challenges in life. Education should not be used as benchmark to measure success. Education should be used as the key to success, on learning and becoming educated one can then be in a position to unleash their full potential in life. Let the society lower the expectations that they shoulder on the young people. This way the pressure will go down from the students. As we speak the bar is very high, that’s not a conducive learning environment.


A lot of university students have been committing suicides, they work so hard to get into universities which are supposed to be a dream/ a place to meet ultimate happiness for them but they are still not happy when they achieve this. What are your thoughts?

What is your definition of happiness, what entails of one being happy. For me it’s making the best of what I have and thinking positively and how to move forward. Am happy when am healthy, I can afford to take good care of myself and my family. That’s what it means to be happy to me.

These kids are committing suicide due to pressure because the expectations for them is very high. The expectations reads like a business portfolio from a large multinational company. When it dawns on them that they might be unable to meet these expectations, then life stops having meaning, life becomes meaningless. When this happens they choose death.

Society has to think less of money because you don’t have to own billions to be happy. Nope. As long as you can make enough money to feed yourself, I think you are good to go. I do understand that in Hong Kong housing is a big issue, everybody wants a house and that’s okay. It should not be the problem that drives you crazy. That’s not a wish that is unique to Hong Kongers, everywhere in the world over people wants to own a decent home. But here, it borders on the extremes.

I think if you have enough money to eat, buy your clothes you should be happy. Don’t look at happiness as being able to drive a sleek Porsche or BMW as the only way to have a good life. That should not be it. Because you should define happiness in terms of being able to have a healthy body, be able to afford food, be able to buy yourself clothes, you don’t have to live in luxury to be happy. My advice to them is relook and maybe reevaluate your values, what you consider as important. Don’t focus too much on money. Do what you like to do, stay healthy, have good people and friends around you.

Get to know who your neighbors are, get to know them personally. Many of you do not even know them. You know in my country neighbors know each other very well. Here in Hong Kong people lead very individualistic lives, why is that? Cultivate communal culture, where everybody is responsible for each other.


What brings refugees together?

Culturally people tend to relate to each other. If you don’t know someone, you want to talk to that somebody and get to know them genuinely. You feel that you want to help each other, that’s the way I was brought up.

Everybody is important in a society, we are all equal. Everybody is your friend, you help and assist each other, and this brings about good relationships with other people. The society becomes cohesive.

That is not what happens around here, from what I see, people who live next door to you don’t even know you, yet you’re neighbors. If you have a problem, in my country, your neighbor is the first person to know. It’s someone you call when you have a problem. You go to that person, if you don’t have salt, you go to your neighbors and say “I don’t have salt” and they’ll give it to you. You know, people interact in a good and nice way. Of course, when you go to cities, people tend to live like they do here but it’s not even close.

In Hong Kong however, its way off, I can assure you, people don’t even care who lives next to you, what he or she does, you should be able to have neighbors who know each other who come together, who speak to each other, who share issues, you know. In the societies where I come from, African people are very communal, I think it’s because since time immemorial Africans lived in communal settings. Responsibilities were shared communally. Even though lifestyles have changed since colonization to the modern times, people still maintain those bonds to this day.

My guess as to why refugees stick together in Hong Kong is because one main reason only, they suffer discrimination and prejudice together. They understand the hardships of seeking safety in this city. And as the English men say, “birds of the same feather always flocks together”. It’s all about survival. They have realized that for them to make it here, they have to stick together as one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s