Stateless in Hong Kong and Happy to be

“We are evangelists, you know what that means?” I nodded. “In Pakistan there are many problems, there are no problems like that in Hong Kong.”

Khuram is a well-built man with straight black hair down past his shoulders. What he means by saying he is an “evangelist” is that he is a Christian.

He is also a problem for Hong Kong authorities because he got himself smuggled into the territory as an illegal alien, banking on the chance he would be classified as an asylum seeker. He is one of perhaps 5,000 such refugees, lost in a legal limbo from which he appears unable to escape, or indeed even wants to. He is happier being an illegal alien, even occasionally doing jail time, than he would be back in Pakistan by far.

Khuram’s English, although passable, is limited. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2009 speaking none, travelling legally to China, and then, in Shenzhen, paying around HK$3,000 (US$387) to be smuggled aboard a speedboat to Hong Kong. Now, he says, the going rate is over HK$10,000. Many in Pakistan afford that by selling their homes or land, or going into debt.

Khuram lives in the storied – or infamous -- Chungking Mansions, one of Hong Kong’s enigmas, a sprawling warren of low-rent apartments, phone-repair stores and guest houses that was completed in 1961 and has remained a constant even as the local shops around it have been driven out and been replaced by Burberry, Rolex and Bally. Life is, as his English-speaking friend Mukhtar best describes it, “fucking boring.”

Once Khuram arrived, he was soon picked up by local police and, when he was found to have no legal travel papers, was interned in an immigration center in Tuen Mun, on the western end of the Kowloon peninsula. After around a month, he was released and given a piece of paper which he carries at all times, showing his status as an asylum seeker. He will never be classified as a successful one.

But that’s fine. Khuram is not allowed to work, but is instead given a small stipend, enough to cover, as he puts it, “rent, food, and nothing else, not even clothes.” Although he wouldn’t admit to doing it personally, many in his position do some kind of illegal work to supplement their stipend, according to a social worker who has spent years working with asylum seekers like Khuram, a crime for which the penalty is between a year and 18 months in prison. Many therefore spend their time in Hong Kong in and out of prison.

Yet, despite all this, Khuram would rather remain in limbo with no income or prospects in Hong Kong than countenance returning to Pakistan. There, he says, there are “many religious problems” and as a poorly educated Christian it is almost impossible to get a job. Hong Kong, at least has none of that. His brother, a torture victim, came to Hong Kong from Pakistan last month by the same process, and is just now gaining asylum seeker status.

Khuram is by no means alone, by the estimate of a social worker who asked not to be named. They are mostly young men, overwhelmingly from the subcontinent, especially Pakistan. Many, like Khuram, left for religious reasons, but others cite general political violence and high unemployment as important factors. Very few regret their choice, and many, if deported, simply return under another name. Some have been deported and returned as many as eight times.

This has created a “Catch-22,” the social worker says, a “lose-lose situation” for the Hong Kong government. As a party to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, Hong Kong is obliged to host asylum-seekers, and, if they can gain that status, cannot deport them.

As a city of only 7.5 million, however, Hong Kong is unable, on its own, to permanently absorb so many migrants. On the other hand, unless they gain refugee status, someething only around 10 of the 5,000 in the territory have ever achieved, or visa sponsorship to another country (Khuram knows of only one person who escaped to Canada via a real and rare visa.) They cannot leave.

As a halfway measure, the Hong Kong government discourages immigration as much as it legally can, offering only the bare minimum as a stipend with harsh penalties for violating the terms of their stay with illegal work in the hope that would reduce the number of migrants that arrive. This has the side effect of damning any hopes for the future for those already there.

Unlike other refugee crises Hong Kong has previously faced, such as that of the Vietnamese Boat People in the late 1980s, this particular situation is remarkably under-publicized, and many Hong Kong residents are unaware it even exists. It seems clear that action must be taken, and publicity is a necessary impetus to action, but the question of what kind of action is a complex one, and one with no easy answers.

One solution, supported by the previously mentioned social worker, would be, as Singapore has done, to leave the UN Convention and regain the right to deport all those found on Hong Kong’s shores. Having done that, the government would then be free to create a viable future or a path to citizenship for those already present without concerns over incentivizing future immigration.

But this could well be seen as shirking Hong Kong’s responsibility and violating its pluralistic identity, and many asylum seekers, who have family or friends at home who wish to come to Hong Kong are wary.

What would be the most simple long-term solution to this issue would be for countries with large enough landmasses and populations to absorb immigrants with fewer issues than Hong Kong to be more ready to accept them, but, since there seems to be no sign of this happening in the near future, perhaps the best solution is the imperfect one: simply to close the doors.

Archie Hall is a summer intern with Asia Sentinel