By , June 2, 2015, published in WagingNonviolence

As nightfall descended on April 19, word spread quickly in the refugee community of Hong Kong that a fire had erupted on a footbridge in Sham Shui Po, a derelict low-income district on the Kowloon peninsula. The countless impoverished families who call it home, live in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers, which carry the neon lights that serve as beacons of affluence and promise of good fortune.

On the night of the fire, affected refugees were forced to carry their bags and bedding to a nearby park. This was an unnoticed relocation that underscored the transience of an unwelcome minority, which the government holds in deprivation, as a stark warning to anyone considering following in their footsteps.

The fire brought a flash of attention to alarming social problems that refugees now seek to address through an association established in February 2014. As the only registered refugee-led organization in Hong Kong, the Refugee Union aims to safeguard the rights of refugees, while mediating disputes between its members, the authorities and service providers. It also educates new members about their rights and privileges in a society that has generally preferred to keep them in the dark.

The union has successfully used collective action to assist individual members whose grievances have been ignored when they are presented to the government individually. Last summer, for instance, the Refugee Union was submerged by media requests for interviews after it occupied a pedestrian area in the city’s financial center. This action aimed to draw attention to the only government-contracted service provider disbursing welfare assistance. New guidelines have since been issued by the government to increase the number of service providers and provide food coupons as an alternative to a food distribution chain that refugees alleged subtracted value from their rations.

Despite being under-resourced, the Refugee Union is growing steadily in numbers and influence. Out of a refugee population of about 9,000, the Refugee Union now has over 2,000 members. It effectively liaises with government departments on behalf of its members and has been called to legal proceedings to assist stranded refugee plaintiffs.

Read the full article here.