Education is an alienable right, after all… if you are a child refugee in Hong Kong

By Tegan Smyth

Nino*, is a refugee from Togo. In 2005, he was forced to leave his country following a series of violent events which played out during a presidential election in his country.

He arrived in Hong Kong the same year, with only the clothes on his back. He has been in search of help for himself and his family ever since, however he feels the system has let refugees like him down. Although his two children were born in Hong Kong, they are denied the right of abode. Conservative estimates are that there at least 600 other children in the same predicament as Nino’s kids; born on Hong Kong soil but living as stateless persons.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. A baby born in Hong Kong to a refugee mother.

“We need more support for the children. The government pays the school fees but not the books, uniform, shoes,” said Nino, when we spoke to him at Refugee Union.

Both of his children attend a local school in Hong Kong that requires them to pay HKD$914 per semester for books although other refugee children have had to pay up to HKD$1,500 per semester. Books are a prerequisite to attend their school – as is transportation – so access to education is not a guarantee for many refugee children.

Hong Kong’s current policy is to allocate an allowance to refugees, consisting of HKD$1,500 for rent, HKD$1,200 for food (in vouchers), HKD$200 for transport and HKD$300 for utilities each month. For refugee parents like Nino, this is falls far short of what is required to cover the remaining costs of his children’s education, especially since it is illegal for refugees to work while their asylum claims are being processed.

Over the past year, Nino has only been able to send his children to school, thanks to donations from Vision First, a local pastor and some individuals in the Hong Kong community. However, he does not feel this is a sustainable solution. Like many refugees, Nino believes that the no-work policy that is imposed on refugees makes it especially difficult for him to give his kids an education.

“Because refugees aren’t allowed to work, they can’t provide these basic things for their kids. In primary school, refugees manage to get some support but it’s not enough. I want to be able to buy a computer for my kid so that he can do his school work at home.”

During our interview, Nino’s kids are playing with a friend in the Refugee Union office. They are babbling in a mixture of English and Cantonese, as befitting their lives here, as the only place they have ever known is Hong Kong. Their carefree demeanour is in stark contrast with Nino’s, as the past twelve years for him have been of bare survival. His first seven months living in Hong Kong were marred by homelessness, he slept at Star Ferry pier with several other refugees.

Photo: Tegan Smyth. An uncertain future awaits this young girl in Hong Kong as her parents are still waiting for their claim to be processed.

Now he is one of the core coordinators of Refugee Union, a refugee-led society that was created to help refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong become more self-sufficient. He is involved in lobbying the Government and ISS, to give greater assistance to refugees in the city.  In the context of education for refugee children, it has been an uphill battle for Refugee Union and other advocacy groups to even get the government to recognise their children’s rights to education.

“Before, the government was paying half of the school fees. Because of Vision First [a local refugee/asylum seeker advocacy NGO], the government is now paying the full fees.”

In the meantime, he hopes that people are made aware of the predicament refugees and their children find themselves in.

“It is important that everyone in Hong Kong knows how refugees are living in Hong Kong, and the problems they are facing, so that something can be done to help,” he said.

At the forefront of his mind are his children and those of his peers. He hopes to build a future for them here, he fled political violence at home in the hope he could give his children a better life. Although Hong Kong enjoys greater political stability, families like Nino’s still find themselves in legal limbo. After more than a decade, his family’s refugee claim has still not been processed.

Despite Nino’s children growing up multi-lingual and calling Hong Kong their only home, they will remain excluded from the Hong Kong’s workforce and society, if the current policies prevail.

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