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Podcast: The Refugees Stuck In Hong Kong Who Will Never Make It To U.S.

Forty-five refugees died this week in the Aegean Sea when two wooden boats capsized near two Greek islands. Japan reportedly rejected around 99 percent of refugees, who applied for asylum in 2015. The refugee crisis is testing the policies of European countries, as more and more governments incorporate policies that close off their countries to those fleeing violence in Syria and other parts of the world.

The United States leads the world by tightening the process for obtaining a visa waiver and making it an even more arduous struggle for refugees, especially those in Syria, to obtain asylum. Central American families, who fled so they would not be killed in their home countries, face the prospect of federal agents rounding them up in the dark of night to be sent back to the terror they thought they escaped.

This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast we examine another dimension of the global refugee crisis. Journalist Zachary Senn, who wrote a piece for Shadowproof titled, “Shunned by the West, 10,000 Refugees Seek Asylum in Hong Kong,” joins the show to talk about what he saw at the Chungking Mansions. He stayed in the tower houses, where asylum seekers are housed.

Senn talks about the country’s open border policy and why he wanted to write this story about refugees. He puts what he saw into a global context, and it becomes abundantly clear that no country in the world wants refugees. Hong Kong is another example of what happens because of callous and indifferent border policies in the United States.

During the discussion portion, the show’s hosts, Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola, talk about Central American families, who President Barack Obama’s administration are deporting in raids intended to instill fear in immigrant communities. We highlight the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and finish the episode with a discussion of Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Bernie Sanders’ campaign and why it is important to challenge those attacks.

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Below is a full transcript of the interview with Zachary Senn.

GOSZTOLA: You were in Hong Kong, and you had an opportunity to go and cover asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Tell us who some of these asylum seekers are — where they’re coming from, how they end up in Hong Kong. I suppose that will probably lead into you sharing what you saw when you went to the Chungking Mansions, which is where a lot of these asylum seekers are housed.

SENN: A lot of the asylum seekers, who flee to Hong Kong, are usually members of kind of like an upper class in their country of origins because they have to have some amount of money to flee to Hong Kong in the first place because they’re traveling through multiple borders. So, a lot of the people in Hong Kong are former politicians, intellectuals, members of prominent families, who have been forced to flee due to a shift in political or economic situations in their country of origin.

Primarily, there’s quite a few people from eastern Africa. I would say that makes up the bulk of the refugee population, although there’s several people from south Asia, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and then a large number from southeast Asia, like Vietnam and Laos as well.

And, the Chungking Mansions are this complex of six towers that really haven’t been renovated since the 1960s. The Chungking Mansions have been called the “ghetto at the center of the world” by an esteemed anthropologist that worked there. So, the Chungking Mansions are kind of like a halfway house. A lot of the asylum seekers, who end up in Hong Kong, stay in the Chungking Mansions when they first arrive hoping to eventually move on to better accommodation.

But the accommodations that they get while they’re staying in the Chungking Mansions are pretty brutal from most of the accounts I heard. One of my sources described sharing a room without fifty other people, and he said it was so tightly packed that they had to take turns sleeping on the floor.

Eventually, most people are able to move out of the Chungking Mansions to slightly better accommodations, but some people are not. And there’s this very definitive under culture that is occurring in the Chungking Mansions, and it’s very extremely interesting to watch and live among.

KHALEK: You talk about in your piece the fact that it’s illegal for them to work. So, what do people do? How do they make money to survive?

SENN: That’s a very good questions. So, the Hong Kong government does provide asylum seekers, who are awaiting their deliberation from the unified screening mechanism, with a small monthly stipend for food and then they provide them with a small monthly stipend for accommodations. But that stipend is nowhere near enough to sustain life. So, it kind of forces the asylum seekers into illegal working situations.

Unfortunately, a lot of them are forced into prostitution or drug trafficking while others are forced into hotel and other service industries. And then manual labor, like construction work, is pretty common as well.

GOSZTOLA: Tell us about what happens to people who come to Hong Kong and how they can become stuck in Hong Kong after they fled their countries.

SENN: Right, so in Hong Kong, they have this device called the unified screening mechanism that is supposed to process people, who have made asylum claims. But the Hong Kong government cannot send someone back—they made this ruling in a court case a few years back—that they will not send someone to their country origin if that person says they will be killed if they returned.

But the unified screening mechanism does not have to determine them to be legitimate asylum seekers based on that definition. They can be effectively stateless because they cannot be returned to their country of origin because they will be killed. The Hong Kong government won’t send them back, but they also won’t declare them legitimate asylum seekers so they can’t be forwarded to a third country after a stay in Hong Kong. So, they effectively become stuck there because they are not deemed legitimate asylum seekers.

GOSZTOLA: What made you decide to cover this story? There was a lot happening, and I know because I was working with you on it that you were there to cover the election in Hong Kong but you ended up doing a story on refugees.

SENN: That’s a good question. As I started doing research on the local district council elections, I came across a little blurb about the Chungking Mansions in a piece by the BBC, and it kind of just scratched the surface on this issue of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. And I thought I want to learn more about this, but there’s really nothing out there. I decided to stay in the Chungking Mansions while I was covering the election, hoping just to educate myself about it. But as I did more and more research for the piece on the district council election, I kind of decided to shift my focus to the refugees because I thought there was a really interesting story about these people that hadn’t been covered before.

GOSZTOLA: These people, who you were able to talk to about their living conditions and what they were going through, were you finding that these were people—I mean, Hong Kong wasn’t their first choice. They wanted to get to European countries or possibly they wanted to get to the United States. Is it so that they had chosen Hong Kong because that was the only route they could actually get and make it to Hong Kong?

SENN: The reason the majority of people flee to Hong Kong is because they have an extremely open border policy. I believe 152 nations do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong. A lot of people told me they would have loved to have gotten asylum in the United States, in Canada, or Australia, or somewhere in Europe. But due to the visa program, by the time they got approved for a refugee visa in the U.S., they would have already been killed. As anyone who has ever tried to enter the U.S. as a foreign national can attest, it’s a lengthy process to obtain a U.S. visa. So Hong Kong provides a very quick point of entry. You can enter without any type of paperwork besides a passport.

GOSZTOLA: That policy is very different from the fear mongering and the way that people here in the United States have closed off the country. Does this opening of the border? Were you finding this was accepted and it’s a proud part of Hong Kong?

SENN: The open border policy really is an integral part of Hong Kong’s identity as an international city-state. They very much pride themselves on being an international territory. They do not see themselves as Chinese or British, but they see themselves as being a very worldly city.

That being said, I heard considerable from asylum seekers that the police in Hong Kong are very racially motivated. I heard a lot about African asylum seekers being stopped frequently and asked for papers, being detained illegally and unnecessarily. So, while they pride themselves on being a world city, as one source told me, they’re a city for the rich. I think that a lot of times the richness of someone is determined on the basis of their ethnicity in Hong Kong.

GOSZTOLA: While you were there, was there anything you took away about how this fits into a global crisis with refugees? Because it is something that many, many agencies are trying to grapple with right now.

SENN: It’s very small amount of refugees that are in Hong Kong in comparison with Europe or the United States. It’s around 10,000. But on a per capita basis, the population of Hong Kong is only 7 million. It’s a pretty considerable amount on a per capita basis.

I think something that really stuck out to me was most of the refugees do not want to stay there because they say it is not a welcoming environment, and they hope that the West will be a more welcoming environment. But I wonder if that will no longer be true with a lot of the rhetoric that is being flung around in the West today and in this upcoming election cycle. So, I found that to be a little worrying. There’s just a lot of uncertainty for the refugee population there.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."