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Lost Generation: The children of asylum seekers face an avalanche of challenges

Children in Hong Kong’s asylum-seeking community face numerous obstacles when it comes to education and psychological support, leading to a lack of purpose, stability and identity.

Fourteen years ago, the West African nation of Togo erupted into violence following the death of the country’s long-serving dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had ruled for almost four decades. Among the scores of protestors rallying against the coronation of the dictator’s son was the brother of Muhammad Bilal*.

Amid the chaos, Bilal’s brother was imprisoned. Bilal spoke out against his brother’s unjust incarceration, which led to raids on the family’s home, harassment and death threats. In 2005, Bilal and his family sought sanctuary in Hong Kong, where his son Ismail*, aged 9, and daughter Hana*, 8, were born and raised. 

Although Ismail and Hana have always called Hong Kong home, being born in a local public hospital has never afforded them, nor any other children of asylum seekers, the right to “acquire a nationality and be registered at birth” even though Hong Kong has been a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1994. 

While the convention covers the right to freedom, welfare and adequate living standards for child asylum seekers, in reality, children born in Hong Kong as asylum seekers aren’t granted citizenship or permanent residency and therefore experience limited freedoms. Bilal’s Hong Kong government-issued birth certificates for his children simply read ‘Not Established’ under ‘resident status’.

Unfortunately, there is very little information publicly available on why the children of asylum seekers are not granted residence in Hong Kong and, when Ariana reached out to the Security Bureau and the Immigration Department, both declined to comment. Neither are there “specific laws or ordinances that stipulate the government’s responsibility and obligation” to grant asylum-seeking children a right of abode or equal education.

“This situation creates a mentality of ‘otherness’ for the children,” says Janice Chan, a former psychosocial coordinator at Justice Centre Hong Kong, an NGO that works to protect the rights of forced migrants.

“I saw the same self-perception of isolation and not being accepted by society and, above all, there is intergenerational trauma. Even the parents suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and depression have trauma that they can pass down to their children. The child is living with it every day.” 

Chan’s assessment explains how unpredictable reactions among children can adversely affect their education and social life at school. For instance, Hana and Ismail began to exhibit various levels of aggression and seclusion after learning about their asylum-seeking status from a doctor who said he couldn’t perform a minor operation because their father couldn’t afford the fee. Up until this incident, Bilal had hidden the family’s status from his children so as not to disrupt the perceived normality of their lives. 

Similarly, the children once overheard their parents telling a teacher at school that they were struggling to pay for basic necessities, such as uniforms. Both events profoundly impacted them. “Hana was trying to make herself invisible, never responding to anything I asked her, while her brother was getting into fights with his classmates,” Bilal says. “His teacher told me that he’s angry with himself and would throw tantrums whenever he was treated differently.” 

Bilal tried to discuss the issues with his children but it was challenging, as he was also coming to terms with his own sense of powerlessness. “An individual who knows that nothing can happen without rights simply won’t talk,” he explains. “I’m speaking for myself also. I’m just as helpless and alone as my children.”

I’m just as helpless and alone as my children.

Muhammad Bilal

Signs of trauma   

A Malaysia-focused study on refugees and mental health published in 2017 found that a critical stressor in children, in addition to school-related struggles, can be traced to their parents’ violent experiences and post-flight issues. Mental health illnesses such as PTSD and anxiety in asylum-seeking parents can be transmitted to children, the study asserts, if insecurities and disturbances are pervasive over time and across situations for the family. 

The author of the study, Nicole Marie Gosnell, who is a doctoral student in the School of Psychology at the University of Maryland in the United States, writes that grievances of everyday survival often give rise to “negative emotions, poor mental health and quality of life as a refugee.”  

Chan agrees but calls for a mental health study about asylum seekers specifically in the context of Hong Kong. “In my 10-year career [in this field] I haven’t come across other projects and programmes which have worked with this kind of intercultural and multicultural trauma,” she says, adding that evidence-based research with the aim of supporting asylum seekers in Hong Kong is long overdue.

“Back when I used to do outreach with schools in 2014, I found that local public school teachers had very little knowledge about dealing with complicated situations in which asylum-seeking children felt isolated due to the lack of opportunities available to them,” Chan says, noting that the resources to deal with asylum-seeking students facing emotional difficulties were limited. “When a child comes into contact with certain struggles that remind them of horrific situations, it might trigger negative behavioural reactions that the teachers need to be prepared to address.”

Mary Shannon*, an expat teacher at a private primary school, shared her experience working with asylum-seeking children. “They are full of energy and enthusiasm but tend to find it very difficult to focus.” She says they exhibit noticeable behavioural changes after returning to class from mandatory visits to the Immigration Department.

“Living in uncertainty, regular immigration appointments, restrictions on travel and employment all make a refugee’s life extremely difficult,” Shannon says. “Even if parents try their best to shelter their children from these issues, children can still sense it.”

When it comes to training Hong Kong teachers to better support asylum-seeking students who have been through traumatic episodes, however, Shannon explains that most teachers in the local system are overworked and stretched too thin, hence why they will be less likely to find the time to support children’s individual needs.

“Knowledge, awareness and compassion can really help, so schools do need to support their teachers and have staff meetings to share observations, concerns and goals for those vulnerable children, whether they are asylum seekers or local children,” Shannon notes. 

Terence Shum, a research assistant professor from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University of Hong Kong and a long-term volunteer with human rights NGO Christian Action, agrees, arguing that the education system fails to offer psychosocial assistance to asylum-seeking children.      

He says there’s also currently no policy guiding teachers on how to handle the psychological stresses that these students often face. “The [Education Bureau] should provide sensitivity training to identify, assess and readily assist refugee children who undergo visible emotional changes,” says Shum.

With regard to mental health intervention, the Education Bureau responded in an email that “referrals to other health care professionals such as psychiatrists will be made by the school-based education psychologist on a needs basis to ensure that appropriate assessment and intervention will be provided for the students.” 

Should financial aid be necessary for covering mental health support services, the Education Bureau writes that “where strong humanitarian and compassionate grounds exist” the Student Finance Office of the Working Family and Student Financial Assistance Agency will offer those means.

Reaching the glass ceiling

In Hong Kong, limited access to a full and proper education affects not only children born here, but also those who arrive as older children fleeing persecution and violence in their home country.

For a 15-year-old Yemeni teenager named Ali Hussain*, this happened in early 2015. At that time, civil war was raging across the country as a result of a militant uprising against the Saudi-backed government; Hussain’s family faced daily bombardments as the military attacked village after village.

By the end of the year, the UN, describing the conflict as a “major humanitarian crisis,” reported that coalition bombings had killed over 5,000 people, while more than 200,000 have lost their lives since the war began and countless more have been displaced. “It was like staring at death,” Hussain says.

Ali Hussain, a 15-year-old Yemeni teenager
“It was like staring at death,” 15-year old Yemeni refugee Ali Hussain says of the conflict in his country.

At risk of persecution due to the family’s rebel connections, Hussain and his parents decided to leave Yemen. As 2015 drew to an ominous close, they packed their possessions and flew to Hong Kong where they have been living as protection claimants ever since. But escaping the war did not bring them the freedom they dreamed of, nor did it offer them the chance to move on with their lives.

When asylum seekers arrive in Hong Kong, the government offers ‘non-refoulement’ protection. This is an international refugee law stipulating that a country or territory is prohibited from deporting any individual back to their country of origin if he or she can present a ‘well-founded fear’ of life-threatening persecution or torture. However, once an asylum seeker submits a non-refoulement claim, the Immigration Department confiscates their passports and the individuals must remain in Hong Kong as they await the verdict.

Even if their cases are verified after months, and sometimes years, of waiting, Hong Kong does not allow asylum seekers to settle in the city and enjoy full rights of residency. “The minute it hit me that I couldn’t leave Hong Kong, I found myself in a very dark place,” says Hussain, describing his first bout of depression after learning that his status as an asylum seeker would restrict his freedom. “I wanted to call Hong Kong my new home because I was starting my life over, but what can I do if the city rejects me? There’s nowhere for me to go.” 

A new reality

While asylum seeking families await their fate, parents are prohibited from working. However, children have the right to an education. Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has the authority to decide which children can study in public schools, which is then paid for by International Social Service. 

In Hussain’s case, the teenager began studying at Caritas Tuen Mun Marden Foundation Secondary School, an English-medium public school, in 2016. Due to his limited proficiency in English and Cantonese, Hussain had to repeat Form 4 to Form 6.  This didn’t affect his self-esteem, in fact, he recalls feeling even more motivated to study. School, he says, distracted him from anxiety and uncertainties, from thoughts of the monthly visits to the immigration facility, the occasional stop-and-frisk searches by police officers on the street, and the nerve-wracking wait for court hearings. 

But the more time he spent in Hong Kong, Hussain says, the more frustrated he became, especially with his limited rights as an asylum seeker. Moreover, for students who are protection claimants, applying for extra-curricular activities – such as athletic or academic competitions – is usually out of the question, given language barriers, costs, and potential travel required.  

Hussain remembers working hard to improve his English-language skills in the first semester, in the hopes of creating as many opportunities in the city as possible. Not long after he started school, he received a scholarship offer to participate in a cultural immersion programme in mainland China. It was a testament to his progress and a great opportunity. 

Unfortunately,  Hussain had to turn down the scholarship because protection claimants are not allowed to travel while their claims are being assessed. “I was happy. Everything was returning to normal, and then suddenly the one chance to change my situation is taken away from me.” 

This harsh reality caused a great deal of anger and disappointment. Worse still was his family’s tenuous circumstances: They could be deported back to Yemen at any time. Hussain says the continuously looming concern was almost unbearable, triggering a series of post-traumatic episodes and recurring nightmares.

When depressive symptoms worsened for Hussain, his teachers provided a much-needed support network. But their assistance and sympathy could only go so far. “Even the principal couldn’t do anything about my situation or use my grades and the scholarship as a reason for me to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he laments. 

Fear and uncertainty have also seeped into Hussain’s daily life, affecting his mood and attitude at school where he began lashing out after the scholarship fell through. “Day and night, I was afraid of the future and afraid that my father could get caught if we were sent back,” says Hussain. “How can anyone sleep at night knowing that the army wants to kill your father?”

Ali Hussain, a 15-year-old Yemeni teenager
Hussain says the fear of being deported back to Yemen triggered post-traumatic episodes and recurring nightmares.

Dead ends

Hussain, Ismail and Hana are amongst hundreds of children of asylum seekers in Hong Kong, many of whom face daily stresses, experience PTSD, and absorb their parents’ trauma. 

Earlier this year, UNESCO published a policy report on mental health prevention for asylum seekers and found that severe exposure to violence and displacement can disrupt children’s willingness to learn and their ability to perform well in school. According to the report, which was conducted globally, adolescent asylum seekers are particularly at risk and those struggling to adapt to new school environments find suppressing traumatic memories extremely challenging. 

Like Hussain, many children experience traumatic flashbacks, irritability, and emotional outbursts – all PTSD symptoms, which can be triggered by crowded places and loud sounds – often on a daily basis. “I’m angry, and most of the time I don’t know how to express it [to my family] because no one can help me get my old life back,” says Hussain. “I feel helpless.” 

Though Hussain missed his opportunity to study abroad, the government has since changed its policy. In 2018, the Legislative Council recognised recommendations introduced by council members that would allow the children of asylum seekers to participate in overseas activities and provide subsidies for any required educational materials, subject to approval by the Immigration Department. While a positive development, children of asylum seekers remain largely disenfranchised when it comes to broader academic opportunities. For most, education stops after secondary school. 

Regardless of whether one’s refugee status has been determined or is still being processed, pursuing higher education is impossible, says Terence Shum, of Open University. “They have no future in Hong Kong,” he says, citing the controversial ‘no work’ policy for asylum seekers. For children, in particular, the pressure to adapt bars them from opportunities, such as the one Hussain was offered, indicating the failure to abide by the legally-binding Convention on the Rights of the Child in Hong Kong.  

Shum also takes the government to task for its lack of foresight when it comes to broadening the horizons of the city’s Hong Kong-Chinese students: “As cultural ambassadors, the children of asylum seekers can help foster culturally diverse classrooms and raise the cultural sensitivity of Hong Kong-Chinese students by sharing their traditional cultures and experiences in various teaching and learning environments. This would offer local students much-needed exposure to different issues through face-to-face interactions with children from other parts of the world.”

Ali Hussain, a 15-year-old Yemeni teenager
“As cultural ambassadors, the children of asylum seekers can help foster culturally diverse classrooms,” says Terence Shum.

Building bridges

Increasingly, NGOs are working with the government to launch new programmes to help the children of asylum seekers. Christian Action, for example, is working with the Child Development Centre and individual clinical therapists to run mental health counselling workshops. “Asylum-seeking kids get the bare minimum in schools from social workers,” says Jeffrey Andrews, a long-time social worker at Christian Action. “That’s why we are making linkages between private institutions and governments agencies like, Health in Action to establish holistic counselling sessions for the community.” 

Annually, Andrews says, they host community forums for members of the education and refugee space to evaluate the performance of these counselling programmes and make the necessary improvements.

In the past year alone, the programme has made significant progress, having established partnerships with mental health institutions such as The Child Development Centre and Health in Action.

Another example of inter-community alliance is a project called Homework Assistance in To Kwa Wan, which was formed in early 2019 by a church and school in To Kwa Wan in collaboration with non-profit organisations Branches of Hope and Table of Two Cities. Designed as a weekly homework assistance programme, the organisations pair asylum-seeking primary school students with volunteer tutors who help the children complete assignments and prepare for upcoming exams.  

From January to July of this year, Ismail and Hana were regulars in the programme, and, over time, began to perform better in school. “My wife and I never saw them excited about activities in school as much as they were about the homework tutorials,” Bilal says. “After such a long time, Hana began sharing both good and bad experiences from school because one of the tutors gave her the confidence to speak up.” And Ismail’s interest in improving his Cantonese also grew, as did his willingness to make new friends.

Hoping for a continuation of the project, Bilal says that his dream is to watch his children live by their own choices, rather than try to survive with none at all. “[Asylum-seeking] children hold so much potential that the government and the Hong Kong people clearly fail to see. If they have any humanity, they will put the children first.”

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.