Living Without an Identity
B wanted to return to her home in Java, Indonesia’s main island. But after having a child with her Pakistani boyfriend of five years — who she says abandoned her after he found out about the pregnancy — her family refused to accept her back. B feels that she and her son would be in danger if she returned. Her family has since cut off communication with her. B found out through friends on Facebook that her mother died during Ramadan in 2015.
B and her son surrendered to the Immigration Department in April 2012 and are now both on recognizance papers — temporary permission slips to remain in Hong Kong while the government evaluates the validity of her claim. But in the meantime, B is barred from working, meaning she has no way to pay the monthly $270 for kindergarten if the Education Bureau decides she is not eligible for the waiver. She could work illegally, as some do to make ends meet, but she refuses to take that risk. “If I’m arrested,” she says, “who will take care of my son?”
The only reason B has access to any sort of school or welfare is because of PathFinders, an NGO in Hong Kong that helps migrant children, pregnant women and mothers navigate Hong Kong’s complicated immigration system. Because B says returning home could jeopardize her son, the NGO helped her file a claim for asylum-seeker status. She now receives a paltry $150 in monthly food coupons, rent assistance and transportation allowance from the government. “It’s not enough,” she says. “But I have to make it enough.”
Approval of B’s asylum claim is slim. Of the 9,214 asylum cases the government has received since 2009, the Immigration Department has accepted just 72. But despite the scant aid available, B still wants to stay. “In Hong Kong, you can have no friends and no family, but still can manage,” she says. “In Indonesia, you have nothing.”
Even if the child’s father is a permanent resident, foreign domestic workers still struggle to obtain the right to abode for their children. A is a 34-year-old former domestic worker from Indonesian Borneo who came to Hong Kong in 2003. She lost her job in February 2010, and soon after, became pregnant. A couldn’t find new employment during the allotted two-week period so she lived with various friends until surrendering to immigration in August 2010.
A says the father provided funds to abort the child, but the procedure failed. “It almost ended my life,” she tells TIME. “But he said try again.”
The father gave her money for a second time, but she says it was stolen. Once her son, known as R, was born in November 2010, his father denied any relation to him. PathFinders helped her to file a paternity claim, and after three years R received his permanent residence in February 2013. During those three years, R lived on welfare with his mother, who has been barred from working for more than six years now. Lacking proper access to health care, R suffered from severe eczema.
Though her son is now a permanent resident, A is not guaranteed residency in Hong Kong. “There’s no derivative right of a parent to gain residency,” says Peter Barnes, a human-rights lawyer who has overseen several landmark cases related to the right of abode in Hong Kong.
Incense wafts through the damp stairwell of a six-storey residential building on Hong Kong’s Kowloon peninsula. The first floor houses a Chinese medicinal shop. A hotel that rents rooms by the hour sits on the second. On the fifth floor, a 40-year-old Indonesian mother sprinkles the shoulders of her 5-year-old autistic son with baby powder. Plastic crinkles as she unpacks a red and white uniform, and dresses him for his first day of kindergarten.
First days of school are usually filled with excitement, eagerness and a little apprehension. But for the boy’s mother, who agreed to be interviewed by TIME on condition that she be referred to only by the initial B, the feeling is one of dread. That’s because her son’s future is uncertain: he is undocumented.
“I couldn’t sleep thinking about how I could get money for school fees,” she tells TIME, speaking in Bahasa Indonesia through a translator. Anticipation over her eligibility for a school-fee waiver from the Education Bureau often keeps her awake in the bed she shares with her son, known as S.
B, like 340,000 other migrants, came to Hong Kong seeking better economic opportunities as a foreign domestic worker. The majority of these live-in helpers hail from the Philippines and Indonesia, and they provide vital care services to thousands of working Hong Kong and expat families.
The Hong Kong government bars domestic workers from the right to abode after seven years of residence in the territory, unlike any other foreign national. And even though the overwhelming majority are women and predominantly of reproductive age, there is no child-care-protection system in place that anticipates or provides for the existence of any children they may bear. This absence has deprived hundreds of children like S who are born to illegal migrants, of basic medical care, education and identification papers.
Before school, S lays on a sticky white mat curled beside his mom, absorbed by YouTube clips of Disney’s Frozen that play on a taped-together tablet. Looking over his shoulder are B’s three other roommates, who also work as domestic helpers, with whom she shares the two-bedroom apartment. They all chipped in to buy the $12 tablet from an electronic refuse stall for his birthday in November 2015.
Five years ago, B’s former employers abruptly terminated her contract. She lost her job, and by default her home. Domestic helpers in Hong Kong must live with their employers and the city’s immigration law allows them just two weeks to find a new contract if they are fired or quit. For B, two weeks was simply not enough time to find another job, especially as she needed to file a claim for illegal termination. She was automatically rendered a criminal overstayer.
Boarding the bus to school, B grips her son’s hand tightly, her nails painted with henna. S has run away several times before, on Hong Kong’s subway system known as the MTR, and at the park. B says his autism has shown signs of improvement since PathFinders found a pro-bono doctor to treat him for speech therapy once a month. “He couldn’t even call me mama,” she says. Before the NGO intervened, B had no access to health care. She didn’t receive her first prenatal check up until she was eight months pregnant. After S was born, she says he couldn’t see a doctor until he was 2 months old because it took a long time to obtain a birth certificate. “That was a very difficult time because no one could support me,” she says. Since his birth, the hospital bills her monthly for $13,350 because she is considered a “non-eligible” person.