CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Meal of Love a welcome for torture claimants

HONG KONG (UCAN): Every two months people from the parish of Ss. Peter and Paul at Yuen Long gather together with a group of torture claimants for a shared at the high school campus that adjoins the church compound.

Hosted by the parish and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, what has been dubbed the Meal of Love is intended to break down the barriers that exist between Hong Kong locals and those seeking refuge in the city, who mostly come from southeast Asia and Africa.

“We hope the gatherings are a communication bridge, offering locals the opportunity to meet refugees so as to reduce misunderstanding and eliminate bias,” David Shum Tsz-yeung, from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said.

“The refugees are not allowed to work, so many of them stay in the Yuen Long district because of the cheap rent. Some even stay in a former pigsty,” Shum pointed out.

A few dozen volunteers at a July 10 gathering prepared a halal meal, which was distributed along with formula milk powder, biscuits, diapers and a bag of rice to some 100 people from 50 refugee families.

In addition to the meal and relief items, a flea market has been set up, which works on the principle that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. It offers donated books, toys, clothes and shoes for free.

“Let them pick what they want, so they can feel dignity. Hong Kong people are affluent and have a lot of things they do not use. But these things are often the most needed by the poor,” Shum said.

The parish priest, Father Gervais Baudry, said that since the launch of the Meal of Love last year, word of mouth has meant that more torture claimants 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,” Father Baudry explained.

“We have to dialogue with them to express the words of God and let them feel God’s grace,” the priest said.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society has invited other non-government organisations to join the gathering. PathFinders, which provides assistance to single mothers and migrant children, is one that has responded.

“We offer counselling to them and help them go through the application procedures to return home. We also sponsor their air tickets,” PathFinders manager, Lia Ngatini, said.

She explained that about 70 per cent of the people that her organisation assists are from Indonesia, with the next largest group from The Philippines.

Thirty-three-year-old Daljeet Singh has a long scar on his chin as a reminder of the day his family attempted to kill him for eloping with his girlfriend, who is now his wife.

Neither of their families approved of the marriage as they said it was contrary to the customs of India’s caste system. With help from friends, the couple managed to flee to Hong Kong and have become torture claimants.

All asylum-seekers in the city are regarded as torture claimants, since Hong Kong has never signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, only the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1992).

“We came here to save our lives,” Singh said, but the screening process can take over 10 years.

He explained that torture claimants are not allow to work and must live on a monthly allowance of $3,000, barely enough to survive.

As of 2015, out of 3,000 torture claims in Hong Kong, only 18 applicants had qualified, less than one per cent, and over 11,000 cases are still on the waiting list.

In March this year, Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong, a deputy of the National People’s Congress and former Hong Kong secretary of security, told the media that Hong     Kong had spent more than $300 million verifying claimants. The total expenditure could rise to $1.7 billion by 2017 due to the dramatic increase of claimants in recent years.

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, but Lee pointed out that in the past seven years, about 1,000 of them have been arrested for working illegally and just over 3,700 for theft, doing drugs and other mostly minor crimes.

On the other hand, many people in Hong Kong are mindful 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 to the Meal of Love at the school campus in Yuen Long have been in Hong Kong for three years and in all probability only 10 per cent are genuine torture claimants in the strict sense.

Some were forced to be soldiers and some are pro-democracy advocates who have been persecuted in their own countries. There are also people fleeing religious persecution, “like a former Muslim and his daughter who were endangered after becoming Catholics,” he said.

Non-eligible claimants also include migrant domestic workers 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 colour,” Shum explained.

He said that the hospitality offered at Yuen Long does not target any specific group, but is open to everyone.

“We hope our action may become a sign of Christ’s love, letting non-Catholics understand how the Catholic Church cares about the vulnerable,” he concluded.

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