Sara* was exhilarated to learn the Hong Kong government was expanding its Covid-19 vaccination programme to her and fellow torture claimants, the city’s version of asylum seeker status.
For the first time since the start of Hong Kong’s pandemic battle, the UN-recognised refugee said she felt a sense of belonging in the city.
“Even though it’s a little late, we are included,” said the mother in her late 20s, who fled sexual violence in East Africa and is in Hong Kong awaiting relocation to a third country.
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“It’s a really good thing to be vaccinated for society and our family. We can protect ourselves and we can protect others.”
But the time it took for the government to offer them jabs also served as a vivid reminder of how one of society’s most vulnerable groups had been treated differently over the past year or so, she said.
Sara recalled how she scurried from one supermarket to another looking for food and sanitiser for her young children amid bouts of panic buying when the coronavirus crisis struck last year.
Facing empty shelves, the mother was desperate for supplies of rice and toilet paper.
Worse still, refugees and torture claimants are not allowed to work in the city and have to rely on government-funded food coupons that come with strict conditions.
When all the supermarkets accepting those coupons ran out of supplies, Sara was left clinging to what was left of her monthly HK$1,200 credits and wondering how she would make ends meet.
In the months that followed, she said her family longed for masks, food and pandemic information from the government, only to be overcome by a sense of exclusion.
Despite the Chinese-made vaccine Sinovac being available in Hong Kong in late February – followed later by the German-produced BioNTech jabs – talks of vaccinating torture claimants did not emerge until months later, when NGOs began pressuring the government.
On Tuesday, authorities announced they would offer vaccination to the city’s 13,000 torture claimants and refugees, alongside 40,000 mainland China residents holding two-way permits allowing them to visit Hong Kong for up to three months.
A government spokesman said vaccination would not only protect those groups from infection but would also “prevent the spread of the virus in the community and thus enhance Hong Kong’s overall anti-epidemic capability”.
But for Sara the announcement came too late and was part of a pattern of delayed government responses to every aspect of refugees’ Covid-19 welfare.
For example, she recalled not being able to get masks from the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISS), the Social Welfare Department’s officially appointed NGO, until months after the pandemic began, even though the government made wearing them mandatory in public places in July last year.
On approaching the ISS, she recounted them saying they could not help them.
An ISS spokesman said the service had started distributing masks in July last year as soon as they were made available to the NGO, adding it had also arranged for case workers to help those facing urgent food crises.
Another torture claimant John*, who fled East Africa in 2009 claiming political persecution, described his past 10 years in Hong Kong as “stressful, difficult and lonely”.
But the pandemic made it even worse, he said.
There were times when John did not step out of the subdivided flat he shared with others for days on end. Getting hold of masks at the outset of the health crisis was almost impossible, he recalled.
Keeping abreast of the pandemic was also difficult because of what they described as a lack of information from the government. “I can’t speak the Chinese language so it was difficult for me to ask others,” he said.
At their lowest points, both said they relied on NGOs to plug the gaps.
Virginie Goethals, co-founder of Run HK, a charity which helps refugees, said her organisation provided masks and canned food during the toughest of times.
When the pandemic eased a little, it arranged sporting and other activities for refugees, she said.
But some NGOs were not able to keep their doors open throughout the past year as Run HK did.
Preston Cheung Ho-ming, a member of the Refugee Concern Network, said the pandemic had taken its toll on its operations, which affected the service it was able to offer their clients.
A spokesman from the Justice Centre said the coronavirus did not discriminate between race, class or legal status.
“For Hong Kong’s public health response to be effective, it is crucial that everyone in the community – including refugees and asylum seekers – are included in the public health response, including equal access to Covid-19 vaccines,” he added.
While Sara has accepted it was better late than never for the government’s new vaccination plan, she urged the government to do more to build inclusiveness.
“We worry about being left out of society,” she said.
*Name changed at interviewee’s request
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