‘I’d rather face death in Somalia than be destitute in Hong Kong’, says asylum seeker

Somali journalist Ibrahim Mohamed Hussein laments the plight of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee
Somali journalist Ibrahim Mohamed Hussein laments the plight of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee

south china  morning post -By Ernest Kao -Tuesday, April 22, 2014-An experience of the worst in humanity was not what Ibrahim Mohamed Hussein expected when he touched down in Hong Kong eight months ago, fresh from persecution in Africa.

On his flight to the city, the Somali journalist was clutching desperately at a remote hope of seeking asylum protection.

Now Hussein, 36, just wants to return to his war-torn homeland in two weeks. A man hardened by life-threatening risks reporting on the front lines of East Africa, he has chosen not to put up with any further “destitution” in the city he had once hoped to call home.

“I begged [for Hong Kong] to let me become a refugee,” the former director with Somali broadcaster Universal TV says. “But it’s not easy here. I’ve tried going two days without eating anything.

“If I will starve to death here, I would rather go back to Somalia and die at home.”

Hussein has already cheated death once – after he was kidnapped by Islamist insurgents in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu in 2009. Only a last-minute phone call to relatives secured his release with an US$18,000 ransom.

He later escaped to Uganda and then to Kenya, joining an exodus of African journalists from their home countries fleeing violence and intimidation, which was identified in a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“You know Mogadishu? They call it the most dangerous place in the world,” he says. The capital was seized by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militia in 2009.

“Some of the people I worked with are no longer alive, or are missing,” he adds, pointing to a photograph of his old news crew.

But eights months of squalor at slum-like accommodation in Hong Kong was not the life he had anticipated, either.

On his return to Somalia, Hussein says he will face the threat of death. “I am scared for my life. But I have no options.”

Like many of the 4,700 asylum seekers in the city, Hussein has been living on a fixed amount of food and a measly government allowance of HK$1,500 a month for accommodation.

“Do you know what it is like to live like this? Not even being able to get a cup of tea? Not being able to work?” he asks, referring to a February ruling by the city’s top court upholding a government ban on allowing refugees to work.

Cosmo Beatson, executive director of refugee rights group Vision First, says: “Protection without being given economic rights is not protection but an illusion. Protection means giving someone their life back, not making it worse.”

Beatson says the government should rescind its agreement to the UN Convention Against Torture if it is not planning on accepting asylum seekers.

Hong Kong is a signatory to that convention, but not the UN Refugee Convention.

“From 1992 to 2013, the government has received 13,000 torture claims but approved only 11,” he says.

Many pack up and leave when they cannot put up with the wait of, in some cases, more than 10 years to be granted asylum as their passports will expire, rendering them stateless and unable to travel, he says. “There’s no way back and no way forward for them. There’s only dismay.”

The Social Welfare Department says it monitors the assistance level to claimants and will make adjustments as necessary.