Blog post by Ka Wang Kelvin Lam, a Master of Philosophy student in Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he is researching migration in Asia and immigrant integration. Kelvin is also passionate about doing social services in relations to the well-being of migrants. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The novel Coronavirus disease ‘Covid-19’ is a global pandemic at the time of writing. Speaking of Coronavirus, many Hong Kong people still recall the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which caused more than a thousand infections and hundreds of deaths in the small city with a population of 7.5 million. With the lesson of SARS, Hong Kong people know that they cannot afford to drop their guard: the border soon closed, the city was placed on lockdown, people masked up and maintained social distancing.
In this time of turbulence, I spent time with and interviewed a number of asylum seekers and refugees stranded in the city between January and April in 2020, to understand from their perspective how their lives were affected by the pandemic. It is important to make sure that their voices are included in the public agenda as these ‘voices in limbo’ are often the ‘voices being forgotten’ in society.
There are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as of 2019. They originate from different parts of the world, especially Africa and the Middle East. Many were forced to flee their homes under conflict and/or persecution. After a long struggle for survival, some 7,000 of them are taking refuge in Hong Kong, an international financial hub in Southeast Asia. The city does not accept refugees and is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention but primarily shelters people who are at risk of persecution through non-refoulement. These cases will go through an initial screening by the Hong Kong government. Substantiated ones will be referred to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for determination and resettlement. The process in practice can take over ten years. In a liminal state between resettlement and repatriation, the asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong are prohibited from working but reliant on a monthly stipend of about HK$3,000 (US$387) as their bread and butter, far lower than the city’s median monthly wage of HK$18,200 (US$2,348) per individual. Worse still, the stipend is supposed to cover every aspect of their lives, which includes food, accommodation, transport and other daily necessities.
Although Covid-19 does not merely affect Hong Kong but other parts of the world, the city’s situation is quite unique. The Anti-Extradition Bill movement has lasted for more than one year since March 2019, putting the asylum seekers and refugees here in a state of strain.
Deprived of Protective Personal Equipment
Now the pandemic is worsening their situations. Most of the asylum seekers and refugees I interviewed told me that they did not receive any protective personal equipment (PPE) from the government despite a growing risk of infection. As a woman from Sudan stated:
‘The government gave us nothing. I have no mask. I went to the supermarket and they said no more. I don’t worry about myself. For me, I can stay at home all the time, but my children always want to go out. Last time I said no, and they kept shouting “mammy, mammy”, which made me feel annoyed.’
In line with the government’s precautionary measures, many community organisations, charities and churches where they used to seek help from were temporarily out of service, especially when the number of confirmed cases rose. Other asylum seekers and refugees also told me that they looked for PPE such as surgical masks and hand sanitisers on their own but in vain, as the whole city was scrambling for the same items. As a man from Nepal stated:
‘I heard from news reports saying that people were queueing up for face masks, but it is too late when I knew that. Or else I would have reserved some for my family.’
Without adequate protection, some asylum seekers and refugees chose avoiding outdoor activities. Yet, it is not possible for everyone to stay at home all day, even locals are showing signs of anti-pandemic fatigue. For the asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong, those who have children in their families suffered the most. As a man from Egypt added:
‘We have four people living together in a tiny space (a sub-divided unit of about 40 square feet), including my wife and children. The government told us to stay at home for our own safety, but it is not working for our family. Even me and my wife can do it, my children cannot.’
Other issues I would like to draw readers’ attention are the spread of rumours and negative media framing. They both added insult to injury and gave the asylum seekers and refugees in the city a hard time.
Spread of rumours
Social media provides convenience to people by enabling them to share information and happenings in an easier and instant way, but it also allows the easy spread of misinformation. In times of covid-19, limited social support and anxiety weakened the asylum seekers and refugees’ abilities to differentiate between factual and unverified information. As a man from Iraq shared with me his experience:
‘I shared the post (about drinking boiled garlic water to prevent from infecting covid-19) on Facebook because I thought it may be useful to my friends, but I did not know it is fake.’
In another case, a woman from Indonesia also ‘learned’ from the internet that covid-19 can be transmitted through the air. She refused to open the window at home after reading the information. These experiences show how spread of rumours may in fact create troubles and extra psychological burden for the asylum seekers and refugees.
Negative media framing
The pandemic is making people worldwide increasingly xenophobic, and my observation is that mass media has played a large part in constructing these notions. In the case of Hong Kong, some newspapers framed the asylum seekers and refugees and other minority groups as ‘troublemakers’ at this period of time. They kept reporting negative stories about them, for instance, claiming that they are defying the rules for precautionary purposes and committing crime for their own benefits when the whole city was combating covid-19. Mass media is the primary means of communication that reaches the public. Negative media framing may lead to a more unfavourable public attitude towards the asylum seekers and refugees.
In this article, I described how the asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong were affected by the pandemic. Deprived of PPE, spread of rumours and media negative framing all put them in a vulnerable situation. Hong Kong emphasises the culture of self-reliance, while covid-19 discriminates nobody. This is a time for mutual support. The city needs more inclusive policies in order to pass through this public health crisis and to deserve its name as an ‘Asia’s world city’.
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