A refugee family in Hong Kong runs out of food due to the high cost of living
A Bangladeshi refugee family that is prohibited from working strives to make it through in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Beijing – The brown eyes of 41-year-old Rana* are filled with a look of sorrow as he leans against the lone, grime-covered, grated window of his little apartment in Hong Kong’s working-class Sham Shui Po neighborhood.
The Bangladeshi asylum seeker remembers the recent accident that left him unable to walk for several days as one of his severely swollen feet is angled high up against the wall of peeling, off-white paint.
I was carrying some tools when a metal girder collapsed on my leg while I was on a building job. It genuinely hurt. “I’m fortunate that nothing broke,” he remarks.
Many of those seeking asylum in the former British colony for decades, like Rana, have been forced to eke out an existence in incredibly difficult circumstances, from subpar accommodation to strict restrictions on daily activities.
He was legally breaking the law when he was hurt because most asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not permitted to work. However, he believes that he had no choice due to his family’s dire financial position.
With his arms folded and a frown on his face, he replies, “Sometimes I have to do work, even though I know it’s unlawful.”
The government provides each asylum seeker with approximately 40 Hong Kong dollars ($5) every day via e-cards for meals in place of paid employment. However, that is just above the $4.82 Hong Kong dollar ($3.75) per hour minimum wage for city employees.
The daily allowance hardly covers basic expenses, even in what was once the most expensive city in the world. What options do we have?
The stipend that asylum seekers receive has remained fixed since 2014 despite the cost-of-living squeeze being worse than it has ever been and rocketing inflation that has made everything from food to power and clothing less cheap.
The Refugee Union, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization run by refugees and asylum seekers, conducted data that indicates that the cost of several basic foods has increased by a factor of two this year.
Chinese lettuce is a staple in the area, and according to a separate investigation by the NGO Justice Centre, the average price per kilogram increased more than fourfold from 5.70 Hong Kong dollars to 24.90 Hong Kong dollars ($0.73 to $3.20).
Consumer inflation in Hong Kong reached its highest level since 2015 in September. Rana’s wife, Akter*, looks down at the chaotic traffic and adds, “We ran out of food.”
The couple spends the majority of their time in their tiny, 200 square foot (18.6 square meter) apartment in a run-down tenement building in an area known for its “coffin dwellings,” so termed due to their diminutive size. Only a dimly lighted, rat-poop-filled stairwell leads up to their apartment, which is on one of the top stories.
Black market products are being sold by hawkers and vendors in the streets below. On mats laid out on the ground, elderly women in poverty offer away their valuables; other people collect trash in order to recycle it for a living. Akter continues, his voice veering from initial anguish to utter irritation, “We had to sell stuff in the house.” It’s just too pricey. everything in its entirety. We don’t receive enough money from the government.
Rana started working illegally part-time on a construction site to support the family a few years ago after being forced to the breaking point. However, there is a very high danger. He was separated from Akter in 2018 after he was found working and was sentenced to 13 months in a Hong Kong prison.
Before the girder fell on his leg and hurt him, rendering him momentarily unable to walk or work, Rana resumed his job in November.
“I’d rather not be performing this. However, what options do we have? He says, deliberating between breaking the law and starving his family.
Food costs a lot of money.
The stress of caring for a two-year-old and a six-month-old adds a whole new dimension for Akter, 32. She moves around the room, nevertheless, with a purpose: to tidy, gather toys, and handle whatever problems the day throws at her.
My kids are very little,” says Akter, who only prepares one batch of meals in a sizable steel pot each day to feed the four members of her family. They may not be eating enough, and I’m concerned. But food costs so much money. Vegetables are expensive for us.
She typically prepares substantial rice meals, and on better days, she may simmer poultry and eggs. According to the couple, their family has never dined out. Following a rape and her family’s rejection of her, Akter left Bangladesh in 2017.
She had the chance to start over, apply for asylum, and make a livelihood in a major global city in Hong Kong, which appeared to be a land of possibility. But it took some time to get used to that new life. She claims that for the first two years, she did nothing except cry while walking the streets.
Meanwhile, Rana, a political refugee, fled Bangladesh after receiving threats as a result of his involvement in opposition politics. 2016 saw him arrive in Hong Kong. He says, “I can’t go home again.” But I can’t continue to live like this.
The couple, who fell in love and met in Hong Kong, made an effort to create a home by sticking photos of loved ones to the wall.
However, the situation is bad: cockroaches dart throughout the tiny, one-room flat, around pot and pan rims, and in floor gaps.
The space is barely large enough to fit their bed in lengthwise. Because there is no other place, laundry is hung to dry barely above their heads.
With a worn-out shrug of his thin shoulders and an expressionless face, Rana replies, “I don’t have pals who can help.” “We are all facing the same challenges.” The condition of refugees
Hong Kong is one of the world’s most unequal cities despite its wealth. There are getting fewer and fewer options for survival for asylum seekers, a weak, marginalized underclass.
There are an estimated 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong, the majority of them are unable to find work.
Hong Kong has adopted its own “Unified Screening Mechanism” to evaluate asylum requests, despite the fact that 143 nations and territories have ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
Asylum seekers cannot apply for a six-month work permit until their non-refoulement claims are granted, so to speak.
However, such cases are incredibly uncommon; as of the most recent data from the Immigration Department, just 291 non-refoulement requests have been approved since late 2009.
The procedure can often take years. Less than 1% of asylum petitions since 2014 have been verified, according to official data. And of those, 65% occur after an appeal, indicating that there were problems with the first procedure.
Refugees in Hong Kong are as a result entrapped in abject poverty.
The huge disparity is underlined by the simultaneous presence of more than 125,000 millionaires and 1.65 million people living in poverty in the 7.4 million person city.
Although the city’s core business district is flanked with gleaming skyscrapers, Michelin-starred restaurants, and upscale clothing stores, on the street below, destitute domestic employees who have nowhere else to go spend their free time relaxing on ripped pieces of cardboard.
a culture that cares more
The city’s strict pandemic policies caused ParknShop, the only supermarket chain where refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong are allowed to spend their food subsidy provided by the Social Welfare Department, to experience food shortages earlier this year, almost resulting in disaster amid panic buying.
Because ParknShop does not carry halal meat, it further marginalizes Muslim asylum seekers like Rana and Akter.
According to a poll conducted by Refugee Concern Network and published earlier this year, 73 percent of asylum seekers struggle to buy food and approximately 60 percent are unable to buy other needs like toiletries.
Since only food goods are covered by the government subsidy for asylum seekers, many are forced to rely on donations from local charity for non-food requirements like diapers.
Since the pandemic began, Rana and Akter have received milk powder and diapers from a nearby charity, providing them with a rare moment of comfort.
Other equally serious stresses are intensifying in addition to the simple necessity of sustenance. As record heat hit Hong Kong this year, including some of the hottest days since records began in 1884, the effects of climate change and high heat have been increasingly evident in the family’s aging apartment.
The use of air conditioning has become even more expensive as a result of the rising cost of energy.
The family was compelled to leave the house during the height of daytime hours to cool off in public libraries and malls, where they cannot afford to make any purchases, because their electricity bills skyrocketed this summer as a result of higher temperatures and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rana says, “The AC got too much for us to pay.” Even if we were doing nothing, it was too uncomfortable to remain at home.
Asylum seekers like Akter and Rana run the risk of being overlooked in the world’s cost-of-living crises due to this perfect storm of deteriorating circumstances.
When John Lee, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, was sworn in as chief executive in July, some people’s hopes were raised because Lee promised to create a “more caring society” in his election manifesto.
For Akter, Rana, and their small family, who are struggling to make ends meet, no progress has yet materialized. Instead, they long for the chance to work for themselves and make a life.
Rana replies, his deep-set eyes starting to fill with tears, “I would like a future, I want a future.” “Because I don’t have one right now,”