World Refugee Day: How Justice Centre Hong Kong is marking the big event

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#SharedPasts, a storytelling exhibition featuring works by photographer Xyza Bacani, is being held on June 20 in Cheung Sha Wan by the Justice Centre team who are based at theDesk co-working space

Let’s, for a second, rewind the clock back to Hong Kong in the 1940s. This period marked the beginning of thousands of people drifting into the city from places like British India, mid-war Vietnam and communist China. These people stayed and became Hongkongers. In the 1950s, in fact, a third of Hong Kong’s population was made up of refugees. They helped build the city we love today.

Now return to the present. What’s the situation like today? Latest reports show that ‘there are at least 9,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong’ but the city has ‘an acceptance rate of less than one percent’. So we’re living in a city of refugees that’s basically not really open to more refugees. Many Hong Kong residents, it could be said, have forgotten that they are children of refugees. And we must remember that those who desperately want Hong Kong to be their safe haven as they flee persecution and human rights abuses, are people not just statistics. But all these points need to be brought to the attention of the public in our city. Who, exactly, is doing that? Justice Centre Hong Kong, that’s who.

SEE ALSO: Justice Centre: Dealing with trauma and Hong Kong’s refugees

Justice Centre Hong Kong, previously known as the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre, is an NGO based partly at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan. The centre works to protect the rights of refugees and survivors of torture, as well as victims of human trafficking and forced labour in Hong Kong. Not only does the centre provide legal information and support to its clients, it also offers psychosocial services to help them cope with the difficult situation they are in. Justice Centre is always trying to raise awareness of the need to better protect the rights of refugees in Hong Kong but, on June 20, to mark World Refugee Day, it’s putting on an event that should attract people from across the city to learn more: a storytelling exhibition of Hong Kong’s refugees, past and present.

Zamira Monteiro, ‘Engagement Officer’ at Justice Centre

Zamira Monteiro, ‘Engagement Officer’ at Justice Centre, says: “It’s often said that refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Many people don’t realise how true that is – that refugees are ordinary people just like you and me.” Monteiro reckons World Refugee Day is the best time to raise awareness. The day first came about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is a United Nations treaty that’s signed by 144 countries and lays out the definition and the rights of a refugee, as well as the role and responsibilities of the host nation. The People’s Republic of China is a signatory of the multilateral agreement. As is Macau. However, ‘Asia’s World City’ has not yet acceded to the treaty. “Hong Kong has sadly not sought extension of the treaty from China,” says Monteiro. She continues to express that ‘it is important is to get the people of Hong Kong on board,  and build public support and understanding.’

So, on June 20, Justice Centre will display #SharedPasts, a storytelling exhibition, in collaboration with photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani. The event is open to the public from 7pm to 9pm at The Good Lab in Cheung Sha Wan. Bacani, an exceptional photographer, initially came to Hong Kong to join her mother as a domestic worker. Her monochrome pictures of the city have been displayed and praised across the world. And if you haven’t already had the chance to appreciate her work, now is the time.

“Stories of refugees today aren’t so different from refugees throughout history. Essentially it’s about people seeking safety, for themselves and hopefully their families”

The #SharedPasts exhibition is a visual display of 16 refugees and descendants of refugees. The photos run alongside unaltered accounts of their life experiences, or the experiences of their family members who were formerly refugees. “You hear these stories and you start to understand that stories of refugees today aren’t so different from refugees throughout history. Essentially it’s about people seeking safety, for themselves and hopefully their families,” says Monteiro. From her three years with the Justice Centre, she’s realised that ‘although refugees may be safer in Hong Kong than in their home countries, it is still a prison for them. Sure, it’s a beautiful, glittering prison. But it’s a prison nonetheless.”

Monteiro recalls that many of Justice Centre’s clients ‘have been tortured or persecuted, or have seen their loved ones tortured or even killed in front of their eyes’. Many are victims of trauma as a result of their experiences. Yes, they managed to escape a deadly situation but what lies ahead of them is years of hurdles to overcome. “They’re treated like second class citizens,” she says before adding that refugees seeking asylum are stuck in limbo as ‘they can’t go home and they can’t go anywhere else’. “They’re treated as though they’re not meant to be here for a long time,” she says, “but, in reality, they wait for years for a decision on their asylum claims. Nonetheless, what comes out in the #SharedPasts stories is that they are resilient and hopeful for a brighter, safer future’.

The majority of us are privileged to live in ‘Home Kong’ with minimal turmoil. But refugees who have already endured persecution, torture and trauma, don’t share this privilege. Monteiro says: “Today, we’re seeing the largest migration crisis that has ever happened. Today, more than ever, it’s important for us to be able to show that we care and help, in our small way, to remove the negative stigma on refugees.” Monteiro and the Justice Centre hope that the #SharedPasts exhibition will give a different perspective on who a refugee can be. They also hope that the people of Hong Kong learn that these asylum seekers are no different than their parents and grandparents who fled from tragedies and found a home in Hong Kong.

By Sitara Samtani

Zamira Monteiro, in brief:
Name: Zamira Monteiro
Age: 28
From: India/Bahrain
Position: ‘Engagement Officer’ at Justice Centre Hong Kong since 2014
Location: theDesk co-working and events space, Sai Wan

‘#SharedPasts: stories of Hong Kong’s refugees, past and present’ is open to the public on June 20. The event takes place from 7pm-9pm at The Good Lab, 500 Tung Chau St, Cheung Sha Wan. For details visit

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