Some names have been altered and identities obscured to protect those featured.
Village houses and flats overlook a ramshackle slum in Lam Tei, a suburb in Hong Kong’s New Territories. As of December 2014, the ex-British colony is home to 9,618 asylum claimants.
In the rural village of Ng Ka Tsuen, Sanju, 28, stands in his bedroom, which is riddled with damp and mosquitoes. He and his roommate share the HK$6000 (US$773) rent each month. Sanju fled Pakistan in desperation three years ago after being attacked by militants.
“It burnt to a crisp”, says Cosmo Beatson, executive director of refugee NGO Vision First. He stands at the site of a fire which ripped through Ng Ka Tseun in January killing a Sri Lankan asylum claimant. The Lands Department is forcing the landlord to evict remaining tenants in the dilapidated village, though fire hazards remain strewn around the site.
Up to 30 asylum claimants, many with babies and small children, have been living for several years at a former chicken farm shed in nearby Cheung Po Tseun. Many claimants fled countries within the Indian subcontinent or unstable states in sub-Saharan Africa. Some have been waiting in limbo for up to nine years as their refugee applications are processed.
All remaining residents are being evicted from the Cheung Po Tsuen slum. Though Hong Kong has a labour shortage in key areas, asylum claimants are prohibited from working and are provided with a housing allowance of HK$1500 (US$193) per month.
With families to look after and housing rents in Hong Kong among the highest in the world, some asylum claimants risk fines and imprisonment by working. For many, it is the only way to survive.
Drinkable water is rarely available in the slum areas. Exposed wiring, pests, damp, leaks and fire hazards are commonplace and utilities are unreliable.
In the village of Chung Uk Tseun last month, another fire ripped through rudimentary structures housing asylum claimants.
Muntar, 25, from New Delhi stands in the slum dwelling which he and his wife once shared. He escaped the fire with the rest of the villagers, but the couple lost many of their possessions.
The heat from the fire was enough to melt glass. Several explosions rocked the area as gas canisters, used for cooking, exploded.
Living conditions in the village of Lam Tei are basic and unsanitary. With asbestos or tin roofs, the huts are cold in the winter and sweltering during the humid summer months.
Ahmed Nasser, 38 from Pakistan, sits in a tiny room which he has been renting for three years. He arrived in Hong Kong seven years ago and shares the sub-divided dwelling – formerly a pig shed – with several other asylum claimants.
Bathing and cooking facilities are basic. Asylum claimants complain that International Social Service Hong Kong (ISS-HK), which currently provides services to claimants, does not supply them with enough food. Soon, claimants will be given shopping vouchers instead of food items which are often said to be sub-standard or expired.
Following a court order last March, it is now the government’s responsibility to screen asylum claimants for evidence of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
Though China signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, it was not extended to its Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Those who are granted refugee status are referred to the UN and resettled abroad. However, only five asylum claimants have been screened in the past year.
The remaining residents of this dark sub-divided slum dwelling in Lam Tei will soon be evicted. “Dogs live better than refugees in Hong Kong” says Mani, a long-time asylum claimant.
Visit VisionFirst.org for more on the plight of Hong Kong’s asylum claimants.