Hong Kong – Slumped against the lonely, dirt-covered, grated window of his tiny apartment in Hong Kong’s working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, there is a look of desperation in 41-year-old Rana*’s brown eyes.
One of his feet, visibly swollen, stands high against the wall of chipped, off-white paint as the Bangladeshi asylum seeker recalls the recent accident that left him unable to walk for days.
“I was at a construction site with some tools and a metal beam fell on my leg. It hurt so much. I’m lucky nothing broke,” he says.
For decades, many of those like Rana who sought refuge in the former British colony have been forced to make ends meet in extremely harsh conditions, from substandard housing to harsh restrictions on daily activities.
Most asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not allowed to hold jobs, so technically he was breaking the law when he was injured. But he feels his family’s desperate financial situation leaves him no choice.
“Sometimes I have to work, even though I know it’s illegal,” he says, folding his arms.
Instead of paid work, each asylum seeker receives about HK$40 ($5) a day for food from the government via e-cards. But that’s only slightly above the minimum hourly wage of HK$37.50 ($4.82) for workers in the city.
The daily allowance is barely enough to get by, especially in what was until recently the most expensive city in the world.
“What choice do we have?”
Nevertheless, with the cost of living bleaker than ever and skyrocketing inflation making everything from food to electricity and clothing less affordable, the allowance received by asylum seekers has been frozen since 2014.
Prices for some staple foods have doubled this year, according to research from the Hong Kong-based non-profit Refugee Union, which is run by refugees and asylum seekers. A separate analysis by the NGO Justice Center found that the average price per kilogram of Chinese lettuce, a local staple, more than quadrupled from HK$5.70 to HK$24.90 ($0.73 to $3.20). In September, consumer inflation in Hong Kong reached its highest level since 2015.
“We ran out of food,” says Rana’s wife, Akter*, staring at the hectic traffic below.
The couple spends most of their time in their cramped 60-square-foot apartment in a ramshackle tenement building in a neighborhood notorious for “coffin houses” — so called for their small size. Their apartment on one of the top floors can only be reached via a dimly lit stairwell full of rat droppings.
Below, the streets are a cacophony of street vendors and traders selling goods for the black market. Impoverished elderly women sacrifice their belongings on mats scattered on the ground; others collect waste to make money from recycling.
“We had to sell things around the house,” says Akter, whose tone shifts from initial sadness to sheer annoyance. “It is too expensive. Everything everything. The government is not giving us enough money.”
After being pushed to her limits a few years ago, Rana started doing illegal part-time work at a construction site to make ends meet for the family. Yet the risks are enormous. In 2018, he was sent to a correctional facility in Hong Kong for 13 months after being caught working, which separated him from Akter.
In November, Rana returned to work, before being injured when the beam fell on his leg, temporarily rendering him unable to walk or work.
‘I don’t want to do this. But what choice do we have?” he says, pondering the choice between breaking the law or leaving his family without food.
‘Food is so expensive’
For Akter, 32, the pressure of taking care of a two-year-old and a six-month-old takes things to a whole new level. Yet she walks around the room with purpose – to clean, collect toys and solve whatever problems the day throws up.
“My kids are very small,” says Akter, who cooks just one batch of food each day in a large steel pan to feed the family of four. ‘I’m afraid they don’t get enough to eat. But food is so expensive. We can’t afford a lot of vegetables.”
She usually cooks large rice dishes and on better days she stews chicken and eggs. The family has never eaten in a restaurant, the couple says.
Akter fled Bangladesh in 2017 after she was raped and her family disowned her. Hong Kong seemed like a land of opportunity, where she could start over, seek asylum and make a living in a global megacity. But that new life took some getting used to. For the first two years, she says, she just walked down the street and cried; she barely ate.
Rana, meanwhile, is a political refugee who escaped from Bangladesh when he was threatened for his involvement in opposition politics. He arrived in Hong Kong in 2016. “I can’t go back home,” he says. “But I can’t live like this.”
The couple, who met and fell in love in Hong Kong, made an effort to build a house by pasting pictures of loved ones on the wall.
But the conditions are abysmal: cockroaches scurry through the one-bedroom apartment – which is just wide enough to fit their bed lengthwise – along the edges of pots and pans and between cracks in the floor. The laundry hangs to dry just above their heads because there is no other room.
“I have no friends to help,” says Rana, shrugging his thin shoulders wearily and an expression on his face. “We’re all in the same situation.”
The status of refugees
Despite its wealth, Hong Kong is one of the most unequal cities in the world. For asylum seekers – a vulnerable, marginalized underclass – there are fewer and fewer ways to survive.
Hong Kong is estimated to have 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority of whom are excluded from employment. Although 143 countries and territories have agreed to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, Hong Kong is not a signatory to either, instead adopting its own “Unified Screening Mechanism” to assess asylum applications.
This means that asylum seekers can only apply for a work permit for six months if their non-refoulement claims are accepted. But such cases are extremely rare: according to the latest figures from the Immigration Service, only 291 people have had their non-refoulement claims accepted since the end of 2009, and the process can take years.
According to official data, less than 1 percent of asylum applications have been declared valid since 2014. And 65 percent of those happen on appeal, suggesting problems with the initial process.
As a result, Hong Kong’s refugees are trapped in desperate poverty.
The sharp gap is highlighted by the fact that the city of 7.4 million simultaneously has more than 125,000 millionaires and 1.65 million people living in poverty.
While the city’s central business district is lined with glittering skyscrapers, Michelin-starred restaurants and high-end fashion stores, poor housekeepers, with nowhere else to go, spend their free time on the sidewalk relaxing on the torn shreds of cardboard boxes.
A more ‘caring’ society
Mounting pressure almost culminated in disaster earlier this year amid panic buying as the city’s strict pandemic policies led to food shortages at 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. ParknShop does not sell halal meat, further excluding already marginalized Muslim asylum seekers such as Rana and Akter.
A survey published earlier this year by Refugee Concern Network found that 73 percent of asylum seekers had difficulty purchasing food and about 60 percent were unable to purchase other essentials, such as toiletries. The government grant for asylum seekers only allows for food, therefore non-food supplies such as diapers cannot be purchased, leaving many to rely on donations from local charities.
In a rare consolation, Rana and Akter have been receiving powdered milk and diapers from a local charity since the pandemic hit.
In addition to the bare necessities of food, other equally serious pressures are mounting. The effects of climate change and extreme heat have become increasingly palpable in the family’s aging apartment as record heat hit Hong Kong this year – including some of the warmest days since records began in 1884. Rising energy costs have in turn made the use of air conditioning even more expensive.
After electricity bills skyrocketed this summer, partly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and partly due to higher temperatures, the family was forced to leave home during peak hours to cool off in public libraries and shopping malls, where they can’t afford to buy anything. “The AC became too much for us to pay,” says Rana. “It was too uncomfortable to stay at home, even if we did nothing.”
This perfect storm of deteriorating conditions means that asylum seekers like Akter and Rana risk becoming a forgotten population in the global crisis of the cost of living.
Hopes grew for some when Hong Kong’s new CEO John Lee – who promised in his election manifesto to forge a “more caring society” – was sworn in in July.
But some improvement is yet to come for Akter, Rana and their young family as they struggle to stay afloat. Instead, they dream of getting the chance to make a living.
“I would like a future, I want a future,” says Rana, his deep-set eyes beginning to well up as he speaks. “Because I don’t have one right now.”
*Names changed to protect privacy