I'm Jewish and darker than your average white guy, but my friend stands out even more than I do—he has bright blue eyes and hair so blond you can see through to the pink part of his scalp. We're waiting in front of a locked door to a Nigerian restaurant at Chungking Mansions, the epicenter of life for Hong Kong's refugees. Asylum seekers here are mostly from South Asia, the Middle East, and across Africa—all of them trying to make a new life in one of Asia's greatest economic miracles.
When we ring the doorbell, a short man pokes his head through the door, which he opens just slightly. He asks what we want and we say that we're here for the African food—he seems surprised, and stressed. He disappears to ask the owner if we can come in. A few minutes later, it's a go.
John* introduces himself and says that he's a refugee from Nigeria, "the heartbeat of Africa." He's escaped persecution from Boko Haram and he's been in Hong Kong for two years. He's still waiting on Hong Kong's Immigration Department to approve his asylum claim.
This isn't unusual—and compared to many asylum seekers, John hasn't been waiting that long. For refugees here, Hong Kong is a limbo land. Because it's not a country but independent from China, refugees can't stay permanently in the city. But they can stay until they're eventually relocated to a second country by the United Nations. And this is a process that can take years and years—that is, if it ever happens.
There are now about 11,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, the government reports. Only about 200 of those refugees have been "substantiated" by Immigration. This means that Immigration acknowledges that they are actual refugees, with the right to stay in the city until it's deemed safe for them to return to their home countries, or the UN relocates them to a safe country.
"We get pages-long reports from Immigration when an asylum seeker's claim is rejected," says Justin Gaurav Murgai, the manager of Christian Action's humanitarian services department in Hong Kong. The office operates on the top floor of Chungking Mansions to support asylum seekers. "How much effort is going in to prove that a person's case should be rejected?"
Murgai adds that of the 200 substantiated refugees, many are children: It's actually only 50 to 60 family units that are recognized by Hong Kong's Immigration Department.
One of the very few refugees substantiated by Immigration, Daniel*, who I met this month at Christian Action, has been waiting for an appointment with the UN for 12 years to discuss his options for relocation to a new country. He still hasn't heard back from the UN.
While refugees are here in Hong Kong, they're not allowed to make a living because they're not residents. By law, they're not even allowed to volunteer. They get government assistance of about $375 a month for living, transportation, and food.
And in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, where gritty Chungking Mansions sit sandwiched by the ultra-lux Intercontinental Hotel and a Louis Vuitton, just one square foot last year cost a dramatic $3,100.
At the restaurant, John's anxious—he looks around and says that the others in the dark, tiny room are Nigerian refugees, too. Everyone is speaking in English and it's hard not to hear the words "Boko Haram" spoken over and over again, despite the party-like atmosphere there. When my friend and I say that we want to try the food, he gets even more squeamish.
He doesn't want us to stay long, and offers us one dish with no drinks—meanwhile, everyone else has empty cans of Heineken lined up on their tables.
It's no surprise that John is nervous. On August 1, Hong Kong's Immigration Department and the Hong Kong Police Force mounted two operations called "Silvershield" and "Powerbow" to arrest illegal immigrants. The police's public relations bureau tells me that, prior to this crackdown, "296 non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants" were arrested in January and February of this year for crimes they would not reveal to me.
A spokesperson for the bureau also couldn't give me any apparent reason as to why the crackdowns were launched so suddenly, other than that "the police have continued to focus on the interdiction and enhancement of security measures."
Perhaps even more problematic, Hong Kong's police force only makes the arrest rates of "illegal immigrants" available to the public. The police will not make transparent how many asylum seekers are actually convicted for crimes after they're arrested.
Responding to an access to information request filed back in June, Hong Kong's Secretary for Security, Freddy Chik, said, "The SB [Security Bureau], police and DoJ [Department of Justice] do not maintain figures in relation to prosecution and conviction."
Meanwhile, living amid this growing climate of fear, John doesn't even know how to fill his days in Hong Kong's limbo land. "I do nothing," John says. "It's boring—I do nothing, nothing all day." Like almost all other refugees in Hong Kong, John can't work or volunteer. (In 2013, however, five asylum seekers were granted permission to work following a rare court decision.) "In the daytime I'm always indoors, and answering calls from Immigration."
But it's nighttime now, and everyone seems just a little bit more relaxed; maybe it's the beer. John brings out two pieces of chicken on the bone, soaked in a spicy tomato curry, served with a plate of white rice. I'm mostly a stranger to African food, but I've done my fair share of eating—it's one of the most delicious dishes I've tried.
The curry is just oily enough to keep you going for another spoonful, and not so overwhelmingly spicy that you sweat. The chicken, falling apart over the spoon, has been marinating in sauce for hours. When we're done, John's eager to rush us out of the restaurant.
Downstairs on the ground floor of Chungking Mansions—where asylum seekers from across the world hawk back-of-the-truck electronics, homemade fast food in illuminated glass carts, and hash and other drugs—a more simple African restaurant called African Food is open for business. Joe, also from Nigeria, runs it with his Filipina wife, Winnie.
Joe and Winnie met at an Episcopal church in Hong Kong and it was love at first sight, Winnie says. (For his part, Joe insists they met in the Philippines.) Now, they cook up hearty, filling Nigerian food—like egusi—so that African asylum seekers at Chungking Mansions can survive off of one meal a day.
The Nigerian egusi soup—a bitter but tasty mix of tomato sauce, chicken and beef, bits of veggies, rice flour, and semolina—is served with a wet, sopping white starch called fufu. It's meant to be used to soak everything up, just like bread. All of this together costs only $5.
My friend and I are both unable to have more than a couple of bites of the fufu soaked in meat and broth; the starch sits right in the deepest pit of your stomach just after swallowing it. It doesn't help that I'm washing the fufu down with a can of Guinness, which Joe says his customers enjoy pairing with the egusi.
"The food here is cheap and filling, so we have a lot of asylum seekers eating here," Winnie tells me. She learned how to cook Nigerian food from Joe. "They can manage eating once a day here because it's heavy enough."
She tells me that she also has a special dish of semolina with chopped intestine that she'll cook up for even less than $5. But, Winnie does complain of one thing.
"With African food, you eat the same thing every day," she says. "It's not like Chinese food. There's more repetition—it's always bitter leaf, semolina, and beef or chicken."