Too hot to handle: Extreme heat exacerbates housing hardships for Hong Kong’s vulnerable refugees

Singh says he has difficulties sleeping in his subdivided flat due to the heat. Photo: Peace Chiu
Singh says he has difficulties sleeping in his subdivided flat due to the heat. Photo: Peace Chiu

A blistering 34 degrees Celsius.

A blistering 34 degrees Celsius was recorded during our interview with Singh on a Tuesday. Photo: Peace Chiu

Many in Hong Kong would gripe bitterly about having to endure such heat… before quickly turning on an air conditioner to find relief.

But that’s not an easy option for Singh, an asylum seeker who asked that we not use his real name. He lives in a tiny subdivided flat in To Kwa Wan and the reality is that he will simply have to bear with the sometimes unbearable heat for a few more months until the summer temperatures finally dissipate.

The 34-degree thermometer reading was taken in his unit on a Tuesday afternoon while Coconuts was interviewing the 48-year-old, who lives alone. Singh had an electric fan switched on and even momentarily turned on his donated air conditioner. But the mercury did not drop much and beads of sweat ran down our reporter and photographer’s backs in the short 20 minutes we spent there.

“When I cook, it’s like I’m showering,” Singh said.

“Sometimes I cannot breathe.”

Singh says it gets especially hot in the subdivided flat when he is cooking. Photo: Peace Chiu

Hong Kong had a very hot weather warning in force that day — a warning that is issued when temperatures are expected to reach at least 33 degrees.

Like many countries around the world, Hong Kong has been experiencing extended heat waves this summer.

Last month became the hottest ever on record in Hong Kong with July’s weather breaking or equaling 11 of the city’s records, including the highest monthly mean temperature at 30.3 degrees Celsius and the most days with the very hot weather warning issued at 21 days.

July 2022 was the hottest month on record, according to the Hong Kong Observatory. Photo: Peace Chiu

All Hongkongers had to suffer that heat to some degree, but most had the comforts of climate-controlled homes to hide from it. Not so for many of Hong Kong’s approximately 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Forced to rely entirely on meager subsidies from the government to pay for housing and utilities, many live in subdivided flats similar to Singh’s or other undesirable housing situations where they are vulnerable to the whims of the weather.

‘When I turn on the air conditioner, it emits hot air’

While extreme heat warnings are in effect, the Hong Kong Observatory, the city’s meteorological agency, advises people staying indoors without air conditioning to keep windows open as far as possible to ensure that there is adequate ventilation.

But for Singh, it is futile advice.

“There are no windows here, only this ventilation [fan],” he said of his room, which is one of six subdivided units in the apartment.

Even if he switches on the air conditioner — a donation from Hong Kong’s Refugee Union — it would take a very long time for the temperature to go down.

“When I turn on the air conditioner, it becomes very hot on the other side. The hot air then comes inside, and because of this, the room does not become cold,” said Singh, who actually used to be an air conditioner technician in his native India. 

“I’ll need to switch on the air conditioner continuously from night to morning [for it to get cooler], but I won’t be able to afford paying for the electricity bill.”

Singh says he has difficulties sleeping in his subdivided flat due to the heat. Photo: Peace Chiu

Refugees and asylum seekers receive HK$300 (US$38) from the government a month as a subsidy for utilities, but he said his bill for last month was close to HK$500, even before he installed the air conditioner.

Despite a new law introduced this year to prevent landlords from overcharging tenants of subdivided flats for utilities, many said the situation has not improved.

Singh said he cannot afford an airier unit either due to Hong Kong’s sky-high housing prices and the limited subsidy he has for rent.

The dilapidated, subdivided rental flat he lives in already costs HK$2,400 a month and he only gets HK$1,500 a month from the government for rental subsidy. 

“It’s very difficult to find a place with a low price,” he said, adding the difference is made up by the donations he receives from the church he attends.

Finding work to improve his financial situation is also not an option as asylum seekers and refugees are prohibited from working, except in cases where a refugee’s status has been substantiated and they are able to demonstrate exceptional circumstances. However, such cases are few and far between.

Difficult dilemma

While Singh’s living conditions are shocking, it is not uncommon in Hong Kong for refugees and asylum seekers to be residing in such undesirable environments.

Cecilia Yeung, a social ministry worker at the Kowloon Union Church who is in charge of coordinating the church’s support for refugees and asylum seekers, said stories like his are all too common.

“[The refugees and asylum seekers] often stay in subdivided flats or rooftop huts,” she said, adding it gets really stuffy for them in summer.

“Many say they cannot sleep at night because it’s so hot.”

Yeung also said it is very difficult to help them get air conditioning in their units, lamenting that the most the church can do for some is to welcome them into the church building to get some relief from the heat with its air-conditioned rooms.

She called for an upward adjustment in government subsidies for them as the amount given has remained the same for the last eight years despite inflation.

Responding to queries from Coconuts, a spokeswoman for the Social Welfare Department stressed that the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol have never applied to Hong Kong, and illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement protection in Hong Kong will not be treated as asylum seekers or refugees.

“The [government] maintains a firm policy of not granting asylum and not determining or recognizing the refugee status of anyone,” she said.

The spokeswoman also said that the objective of providing humanitarian assistance for non-refoulement claimants is to ensure that claimants will not, during their time in Hong Kong, become destitute.  

“The assistance program is not intended to provide them with extra assistance than is necessary to meet their basic needs, so as to avoid any magnet effect which may have serious implications on the sustainability of the assistance program and the immigration control of Hong Kong… Claimants with extra needs may provide justification and documentary proof for the service contractor’s consideration on a case-by-case basis,” she added.

In addition, the spokeswoman said 18 community halls or community centers managed by the Home Affairs Department have been opened as temporary heat shelters for people to take refuge from the heat when the very hot weather warning is in force. 

“The government will continue to closely monitor and carefully assess the level of humanitarian assistance to claimants so as to strike a proper balance between meeting the basic needs of claimants and the prudent use of public funds,” she said.

Waiting for a miracle

But for Singh, heading to such centers whenever the heat is too much to bear — which has become quite frequent this summer — is inconvenient to the point of impossibility. It requires him to lug his belongings up and down the six stories of his building, which does not have a lift — a task made even more difficult due to a leg that swells up easily and a back injury that has not improved despite treatment.

Walking up and down six stories in his apartment block is difficult for Singh as his right leg swells easily. Photo: Peace Chiu

For now, his only real respite is lingering in spaces that have proper air conditioning or fresh air when he goes out for language classes at the Kowloon Union Church or when he is running errands. But there is no such possibility for relief during the long, hot nights.

“Last night, I could not sleep as I was sweating so much. I was also thinking about my family in India because they need money after their rooftop fell but I have no income to help them. I only managed to sleep around 4am and woke up at 7:30am,” said Singh, who first came to Hong Kong alone in 2015 to seek protection. He still faces extremely long odds in ever having his refugee status substantiated and being granted asylum in a country where he could legally work. 

Singh said he hopes to somehow get permission to once again work as an air conditioner technician in Hong Kong so that he could help his family and also contribute to the city.

But for now, he can only appeal to a higher power to improve his situation.

“I hope God can do a miracle for me,” he said.

The following is a list of groups helping refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong:

Kowloon Union Church. Tel: +852 2367 2585. Email: Website.

Refugee Union. WhatsApp: +852 9828 7176. Email: Website.

UNHCR. Tel: +852 2388 3278. Email: Website.

Justice Centre: Tel: +852 3109 7359. Email: Website.

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