When Zima did her weekly grocery shopping in March, she was shocked by the prices.
“A package of chicken that used to cost HK$39 was HK$50,” she recalled. A litre of milk went up from HK$35 to HK$49, and the tomatoes she used to pay HK$8 for were now HK$12.
She worried her family of three might not have enough to eat for the month, because they would run out of money.
The 32-year-old fled Pakistan in 2015 together with her husband and son, claiming religious persecution as members of the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim sect.
They are among almost 13,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong who are feeling the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as food prices have risen and access to protective equipment such as masks has proved a struggle.
While their cases are processed and go through the courts – which can take several years – asylum seekers receive monthly stipends from the Hong Kong government, including HK$1,500 (US$194) for rent and a HK$1,200 food allowance in the form of a prepaid supermarket card. The only cash given to them is HK$200 per person for monthly transport.
Zima, who is eight months pregnant, said that, just as she feared, her family ran out of food a week and a half before the end of March.
Desperate, she called her case worker at the government-appointed social welfare provider, International Social Service Hong Kong (ISS-HK).
“I sent them a picture of my empty fridge. I did not have milk to drink or bread. My son was hungry,” she said.
The centre said she could collect emergency supplies, but the cost would be deducted from the family’s food card the next month.
The family had some relief in the form of food coupons from Christian Action, a non-governmental organisation that has helped thousands of asylum seekers since 2003.
Covid-19 has killed more than 260,000 people and infected more than 3.6 million worldwide. Hong Kong has recorded more than 1,000 cases, four of whom have died.
To help ease the burden on businesses and citizens, the government last month announced a HK$137.5 billion (US$18 billion) relief package. However, refugees and asylum seekers are considered illegal immigrants and do not qualify for this assistance.
Jonnet Bernal, manager of Christian Action, said the pandemic is a global public health issue affecting all parts of society, and this community deserves help too.
“Refugees who have lived among us for decades should not be ignored or overlooked,” she said.
Refugees are not entitled to free masks provided by the government, leaving many feeling even more isolated and fearful, she added.
Jeffrey Andrews, a social worker helping refugee and ethnic minority communities, said many do not have access to basic health protection, such as masks and hand sanitisers.
“The government has not done enough to reach out to everyone and be inclusive. If there is an outbreak in the refugee community, it's going to affect all of us,” he said.
Hong Kong does not grant asylum as it is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. But it maintains a policy of non-refoulement, the assurance that asylum seekers will not be sent back to a country where they may be persecuted or tortured.
According to the Hong Kong Immigration Department, between late 2009 and March 2020, there were 30,365 non-refoulement claims made. Almost four in five of all claimants were male, and most were from Pakistan, Yemen, Rwanda, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
Only 200 applicants have succeeded so far in being granted refugee status, which means they can be resettled in a third country.
If the Immigration Department rejects a claim, the individual can appeal to the Torture Claims Appeals Board, then the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal, a process that can take years.
Those who succeed in their non-refoulement claims and are recognised as refugees are referred to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, for resettlement in a third country, something that can mean even more years of waiting. Due to the pandemic, the agency has temporarily suspended the resettlement of refugees since March 17.
For Hong Kong’s thousands of asylum seekers, the pandemic has meant added anxiety about managing costs as well as safeguarding their health.
Responding to queries from the Post, a government spokesman said the anti-epidemic fund is meant to help local businesses stay afloat, keep workers employed, relieve the financial burdens of individuals and businesses and help the economy recover once the pandemic has been contained.
The spokesman said it does not cover asylum seekers.
ISS-HK spokeswoman Connie Hui said requests for extra food are assessed and granted in emergencies, such as a fire, or if domestic violence forces an asylum seeker to leave home.
“For other cases, the case worker evaluates whether the food credit is utilised sensibly before granting extra in-kind supplies of food,” she said, adding that all three ISS-HK centres have kept to normal operating hours since Covid-19 hit Hong Kong in January.
Asylum seekers have to spend their food credit at the ParknShop supermarket chain, which said the pandemic caused a surge in demand for food and daily necessities both in Hong Kong and globally.
Explaining the higher price of food, the chain said the rise in product costs and overseas delivery charges meant retail prices of some items had to be adjusted.
While the government does not provide masks, sanitisers and other disinfectants to asylum seekers, it does accept donations from individuals and charities and channels the items to these families.
“Up to April 23, ISS-HK has distributed 13,300 disinfection items including face masks, hand sanitisers and disinfection packs to service users in need,” the government spokesman said.
That covered nearly half of those using the agency’s services.
Zima said she has to rely on NGOs for masks and hand sanitiser as she cannot afford to buy them. A pack of 50 disposable masks can cost up to HK$300 (US$39).
Rashid has been relying on Christian Action for support, including food coupons. The 25-year-old Sunni Muslim was 16 when he arrived in Hong Kong alone in 2010 from Somalia.
He said his mother died when he was small, and his father was killed when their village was attacked by the terrorist group al-Shabab.
One of the rare cases to succeed in being recognised as a refugee, Rashid has been waiting to be resettled in the United States since 2014. Over the years, he got married and had a child, a boy now two years old.
He is one of a tiny number of refugees allowed to work, under a programme that allows registered refugees to apply for permission from the Immigration Department to get a job. As of April’s end, just 48 asylum seekers and refugees had permission to work, the department said.
Rashid was thrilled to start as an intern at a five-star hotel last year, but when the pandemic hit the hotel industry hard, he found himself out of work.
“When I got the news to stop work, I thought it would be for a couple days,” he said. “It’s been more than two months. This month, I have money to pay my rent, but how about next month?”
To get back on government welfare, he will have to prove that he has stopped working. But he hopes to start working again once Hong Kong eases its pandemic restrictions.
“I cannot apply for social welfare assistance, and I can’t work, so I am stuck,” he said.
Christian Action has been helping refugees like Rashid find jobs as waiters in private clubs, as gym attendants, in hotels and at a recycling plant.
It said 17 of the 32 refugees currently employed as part of its work programme have been affected by the pandemic. Some have had their pay cut, while others were not paid or did not have their contracts renewed.
Bernal worries that asylum seekers who already felt isolated by last year’s anti-government protests will be pushed further into the shadows.
Many have told her they have been afraid to go out during the pandemic, for fear of getting infected.
Among them is Zima, who says the Covid-19 crisis made her relive the trauma she experienced before fleeing Pakistan.
“In Pakistan we were scared to go out because we feared for our lives. Now we’re scared to go out again,” she says. “I feel so anxious and depressed sometimes that I feel like I'm back in Pakistan, and we are hiding at home.”
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