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EXPOSÉ: No Life for Hong Kong’s Refugees

Emmanuel Serna

In light of World Refugee Day (June 20), we take a look at the shocking reality of living conditions for Hong Kong’s refugee community through the lens of French photographer, Emmanuel Serna and his photo series, ‘No Life’.


Gleneagles Hospital

There are currently around 10,000 refugees living in Hong Kong, most of whom have fled persecution in their home countries. But Hong Kong is not the safe haven they were hoping for. Before I began documenting the lives of refugees in Hong Kong, I never imagined that I would be faced with a world so dark in every sense of the word. Dark in terms of the bleak realisation that these young people, full of desire and hope for a better future in our city, would never find it. Dark in the sense of living in the shadows of society in unsanitary slums where the Government ignores their situation.

According to official figures, there are currently around 10,000 asylum seekers living in the New Territories of Hong Kong, mostly coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Nepal. There are also a small number of them from Somalia, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After reading an article on the Internet that revealed the existence of these refugees and the slums where they live, I decided to make this report. The association Vision First, one of the few organisations coming to their aid, helped me to get in touch with them. I was warmly welcomed by these people, because few people are interested in their situation and they have a great need to be heard.

These people are my neighbours, but in the four years that I have lived in the New Territories, I have never really paid attention to them. I took them as ordinary citizens, foreigners like me, but it was far from my imagination that they were enduring miserable lives every day, stuck in dark and filthy slums, dreaming of a brighter future.

Emmanuel Serna No life-7

Most of these refugees have fled persecution in their home country and have sought to find refuge in Hong Kong, but our city is far from the haven they were hoping for. Unlike China, Hong Kong has not signed the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and since 1992, has only given 31 refugees status out requests from 20,000 applicants.

Paradoxically Hong Kong has signed the Convention Against Torture Scheme (SAT), which prohibits the expulsion of people to a country where they risk torture. This dual system leaves asylum seekers in a long and cruel wait, where they can neither obtain asylum, nor work or leave Hong Kong for another country.

Upon their arrival to Hong Kong, the refugees stay in a detention center while their passports are confiscated, they are registered as “asylum seeker” or as a “victim of torture”. On average, it takes three years to process their application, but some are still waiting after eight years.

Meanwhile, they receive a subsistence assistance from Social Services of $1,500 for rent and electricity (paid directly to their landlord) and $1,200 for food in the form of vouchers usable in a single chain store that only allows them to buy food, but absolutely no hygiene products. They also receive $300 (the only cash payment) in order to go to the many convocations of the immigration services.

According to the Government, this aid is calculated to prevent people from falling into poverty but, at the same time, not to attract flows of refugees. This assistance is insufficient for daily survival and even less for families with children or those with diseases.

Emmanuel Serna No life-4

In a city where rent is the highest in the world, refugees have access only to tiny rooms, mostly without windows, in unsanitary slums. Initially these slums were not intended for habitation, they are old pig and chicken farms, containers, or sheet metal and wooden huts built and refurbished by unscrupulous owners who saw a way to win some easy money. These slums are dangerous and there are often fires because of faulty electrical systems.

The Hong Kong Government doesn’t have any problem with such practices and even provides lists of renters to the refugees. The rent can go up to $4,000 or more, forcing some of the refugees to live at three or four to a room of a few square meters, some even sleep up to three in the same bed. There are no official figures on the number of slums but Vision First has identified nearly 70, accommodating up to 30 persons, around the New Territories.

This extreme poverty forces the refugees to work illegally, and risking a sentence of up to three years in prison, as they are prohibited to work. Some of them do recycling or sell food, but they spend most of their time in their rooms sleeping or between fellow sufferers to discuss and dream of a better future. I hope that my photography will raise public awareness of the living conditions of refugees in Hong Kong and shine a light on these forgotten souls who deserve to have their stories told.

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Read more! Take a deeper look into the issue of poverty in Hong Kong in our recent articles, The Hidden Scars of Poverty in Hong Kong and The Beauty of Reality.

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