The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Hong Kong and the Ss. Peter and Paul Church hold a regular meal gathering for refugees every two month at Yuen Long Catholic High School. Here refugees are given rice from church volunteers. (ucanews.com photo)
Every two months Catholics and refugees gather together to share a meal at a high school campus that adjoins Ss. Peter and Paul Church in the Hong Kong district of Yuen Long.
Hosted by the parish and St. Vincent de Paul Society, the aim of the "meal of love" is to break down barriers between Hong Kong laypeople and refugees, who mostly come from South Asia and Africa.
"We hope the gatherings are a bridge of communication, offering locals the opportunity to meet refugees so as to reduce misunderstandings and eliminate bias," said David Shum from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
"The refugees are not allowed to work so many of them inhabit the Yuen Long district because of cheap rent. Some even stay in a former pigsty," said Shum.
A few dozen volunteers at a July 10 gathering prepared a halal lunch and distributed formula milk powder, biscuits, diapers and a bag of rice to some 100 refugees from 50 families.
In addition to the meal and relief items, the organizers also arranged a "flea market," which offered free books, toys, clothes and shoes that are all donated.
"Let them pick what they want, so they can feel dignity. Hong Kong people are affluent and have a lot of things not in use. But these are most needed by the poor," Shum said.
Father Gervais Baudry, the parish priest, said that since the launch of the meal gathering last year, word of mouth has meant that more refugees participate in the gatherings.
"We serve believers in the church but we also need to care for non-believers. The pope invites us to reach out, meet people and serve them," said Father Baudry.
"We have to dialogue with them to express the words of God and let them feel God's grace," said the priest.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society also invites other NGOs to the gathering. One is the charity PathFinders who provides assistance to single mothers and migrant children.
"We offer counseling for them and help them go through the application procedure to return home. We also sponsor their air tickets," PathFinders manager Lia Ngatini said.
About 70 percent of the people that her organization assists are from Indonesia, she said. The next largest group, she said, are from the Philippines.
Donated items are provided to the refugees for no free at a "flea market" at the church-run gathering. (ucanews.com photo)
Hong Kong's refugee situation
One of those who attended the gathering at the school is Daljeet Singh, 33. He has a long scar left on his chin from when his family attempted to kill him for eloping with his girlfriend, now his wife.
Their marriage was not approved by either of their families, who adhere to India's caste system. With help from friends, the couple fled to Hong Kong and became "torture claimants."
All asylum-seekers in the city are regarded as torture claimants since Hong Kong never signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951, only the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) in 1992.
"We came here to save our lives," said Singh. Their screening process could take over 10 years.
Torture claimants are not allow to work and must live on a monthly allowance of HK$3,000 (US$387), an amount hardly enough to survive.
As of 2015, out of 3,000 torture claims only 18 applications qualified, a rate below 1 percent. Over 11,000 cases are still on the waiting list.
Daljeet Singh with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter at the gathering. The Indian family are waiting for a screening process to verify their refugee status. (ucanews.com photo)
Like Europe, Hong Kong is debating on how to handle refugees. Some worry refugees will abuse the social welfare system so they demand the government pulls out from UNCAT.
In March, Ambrose Lee, a deputy of the National People's Congress and former Hong Kong secretary of security, told the press that Hong Kong had spent more than HK$300 million verifying claimants. The total expenditure could rise to HK$1.7 billion by 2017 due to the dramatic increase of claimants in recent years, he said.
The authorities claim that many claimants are economic refugees.
Some people have suggested confining refugees to camps to curb the influx, blaming newcomers for deteriorating public order and safety. In the past seven years, about 1,000 claimants were arrested for working illegally and over 3,700 were arrested for theft, drugs and other crimes, Lee said.
But many in Hong Kong are mindful of the fact that about one-quarter of the local population arrived as refugees from mainland China during the 1950s.
Shum said that most of the people who come for the meal at the school campus have mostly been in Hong Kong for three years and only 10 percent are genuine refugees in the strict sense.
Some were forced to be soldiers and some are pro-democracy activists persecuted in their own countries. There are also people who fled religious persecution, "like a former Muslim and his daughter who were endangered after he converted to Catholicism," he said.
Non-eligible refugees also include overseas domestic helpers who get pregnant out of wedlock. "Some of the fathers are refugees so their children are stateless unless they return to their home countries. But they fear their child would be discriminated against because of their skin colors," said Shum.
"Those who come for the gathering are not all Christians but we help them regardless their religions. Just like God, we have to spread mercy and love and help whomever in need," Shum said.
"We hope our actions could become the sign of Christ's love, letting non-Catholics understand how the Catholic Church cares about the vulnerable," he said.