On a sticky, summer day more than a decade ago, Daniel, a human rights lawyer in an East African nation, was walking out of church after a regular Sunday service when he was approached by a friend working for the government who told him he had only two hours left to live. Daniel had not only defended political prisoners—an enormous risk in his volatile country, which was on the brink of civil war—but he’d been openly fighting against the politicians who were trying to stall a new election. He had now become an immediate target for assassination.
Daniel decided to flee. He said goodbye to his wife and five children and began the long journey to a new life as an asylum seeker. The plan was to go to Australia, but Daniel instead ended up in Hong Kong.
When he first set foot in Hong Kong, immigration officials wouldn’t allow him to shower for five days. After being released, his new life in the Asian metropolis consisted of a constant cat-and-mouse game with the Hong Kong police. He and other asylum seekers would pack up their belongings each morning and stay in Kowloon Park, a green oasis in one of Hong Kong’s most densely packed shopping centers, until police arrived, at which point they’d decamp again. Refugees slept in the streets and bathed themselves over dirty public toilets.
Life has always been hard for refugees in Hong Kong; today, it’s taken a turn for the worse. Now, instead of playing hide-and-seek with beat cops, Daniel and others like him are facing a government—and local media—that is trying to label the city’s asylum seekers as violent criminals.
Hong Kong, one of the most crowded cities on earth, is on the verge of its own mini-refugee crisis. There are about 11,000 refugees waiting to be “substantiated,” or officially recognized and granted legal status, by Hong Kong’s Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), a system introduced two years ago to expedite asylum claims but which has been accused of doing just the opposite. Conservative politicians are now deriding the situation as a “fake refugee problem,” are advocating for internment camps, and accusing asylum seekers of being criminals.