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Confronting the Stigmatization of Refugees in Hong Kong

Editor's Note:

Originally from the US, Anna came to Hong Kong to pursue her master's degree. After a month of intellectual discussions with asylum seekers, facilitated by professor Gordon Mathews and The Wandering Voice, Anna saw the need for tackling the stereotypes on refugees and recognizing their contribution to the city's vibrant and diverse culture .

A juggernaut in global finance, a sea of skyscrapers, a myriad of bustling street markets, a relic of British colonial history, a city where east meets west. This is perhaps what comes to mind when most people envision Hong Kong. A stroll through sites such as Victoria Harbor, Central Financial District, Temple Street Night Market and Avenue of Stars quickly solidifies Hong Kong’s reputation as one of the most iconic destinations around the world. However, the city’s complex tapestry extends far beyond this portrait commonly painted by visitors. A glance into the narrow alleyways of places such as Chungking Mansions and Sham Shui Po may reveal deeper undertones of the city, contrasting the aforementioned aromatic perspective. A more comprehensive picture of the city lies in the lives of those who live in the shadows, in disguise, in uncertainty. They are asylum seekers and refugees yearning for security in this concrete jungle.

The terms ‘immigrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ must be defined to provide a basis for this essay. In view of the Syrian refugee crisis, there has been active discourse in the media surrounding migration and refugees. The above-mentioned labels are often used interchangeably in social rhetoric, despite holding vastly different definitions. Immigrants are defined as individuals migrating from their country of origin to live permanently in another country. Reasons for migration vary widely, but a chief purpose among them are economic prospects. Conversely, the United Nations defines a refugee as an individual who has fled their country of origin due to fear of being persecuted for race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. To be concise, the difference between an immigrant and a refugee is that refugees are generally forced to flee their country, albeit there are blurred boundaries between the two in real life situations. According to the UN, an asylum seeker is an individual who has fled their country of origin for the above-mentioned reasons, but their request for “refugee status” or sanctuary has yet to be processed.

​Hong Kong in its glory, was built on the backs of migrants and refugees from around the world, perhaps most notably by mainland Chinese who fled communism in the mid and late 1940’s. Despite the integral roles of migrants and refugees in Hong Kong’s society, the city has been reluctant to sign onto the UN’s Refugee Convention, which recognizes refugees and protects their rights. Thus, the city primarily serves as a transit point where many are deported or relocated to other destinations, albeit with a minute few successfully establishing residency. Nevertheless, refugees arrive on the shores of Hong Kong with their hearts filled with hope and minds filled with ambition to work towards a better future. Unfortunately, media machines have consciously or inadvertently portrayed these individuals as helpless, dangerous, apathetic, and uneducated. This image has unjustly villainized and victimized these individuals, reinforcing stigmatization and pushing them further into the shadows of society.

Living in the shadows and in disguise may take away one’s voice, thus becoming a prop in someone else’s narrative. This false narrative often delivered by the news media and international agencies, paints an unfavorable portrait of refugees in Hong Kong. Their messages paint a black and white image of refugees, dichotomizing them into two convenient categories—victim or villain. Classifying all refugees into familiar profiles makes it digestible for the public, but this narrow perspective only contributes two shades to an infinitely large color pallet which make up the vibrant hues of refugees. In other words, refugees cannot be encapsulated into groups, for they are individuals with varying identities and backgrounds.

Platforms such as the Wandering Voice can provide a conducive environment for learning and exchange between refugees and the public—enabling both parties to engage in open dialogue. It is important to note that fruitful exchange is most successful when participants leave their judgements about refugees at the door. Assumptions from the public may cause refugees to withdraw or pressure them to distort their personal narratives to cater to the expectations of spectators. Furthermore, preconceived notions about refugees act as obstacles which obstruct the process of learning and further understanding refugees.

In conclusion, casting spotlights upon shadows can reveal the dynamic nature of refugees in Hong Kong, who certainly do not fit into the mold shaped by the media. They lead all walks of life, they contribute to society, they are ambitious, they are knowledgeable, they are resilient, but most importantly, they are human. In order to confront the stigma against refugees, the narrative should be returned to these individuals so they can communicate their own unique stories. We should confront stigmas by sparking discourse with refugees as individuals rather than accepting images portrayed in the media. We should wisely recognize our dearth of understanding, and encouragingly listen to different narratives. We should learn from Hong Kong’s deeply-rooted cultural diversity and continue to acknowledge the roles migrants and refugees played in building this metropolis.

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