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Justice Centre: Dealing with trauma and Hong Kong’s refugees

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Trauma expert Chloe Martin helps refugees manage their emotions as they apply for asylum in our SAR

Do you know what it’s like to flee a war-torn country and apply for asylum away from all the guns and blood and violence and fear? No, you don’t. Well, neither does Chloe Martin but she has learned how to help those refugees who are suffering from trauma as they head to our city to apply for asylum. It may be a tough job and someone doesn’t have to do it but Ms Martin says it’s a vital service that’s helping some of the most vulnerable people in our city.

Ms Martin is the psychosocial programme manager at Justice Centre Hong Kong, which is based at theDesk co-working and events space in Sai Wan. The centre, formerly the HK Refugee Advice Centre, is a non-governmental organisation that works to protect the rights of refugees and survivors of torture, human trafficking and forced labour. Since officially launching three years ago, it’s helped hundreds of men, women and children ‘on the road to a new life’. It’s all about helping these people navigate the legal system in our city while also supporting them emotionally.

And that’s where Ms Martin steps in. At 41 years old, the skills she’s developed over her life are key to the success of the psychosocial programme. She was born in Australia but moved to Hong Kong when she was three. She was schooled here at the French International School before heading to Bristol in the UK and also spending a year in Israel. She earned two degrees and a master’s in that time before living in places like London, Vietnam, Bordeaux and Darwin in Australia ahead of her return to Hong Kong last year. Throughout these years, she’s always been helping the less fortunate. From working with rescued child prostitutes in Vietnam to helping crack addicts in London, she’s worked mainly in residential care with some of society’s most vulnerable people, whatever the country may be. “I learned how to inject heroin and how to build a crack-pipe in London,” she says, “so I could make sure the drug addicts I was working with in London were doing it safely. And, of course, working with child prostitutes is particularly difficult as many are oversexualised and violent. But to help these people any way I can gives me a sense of achievement.”

Working with adult refugees was new to Ms Martin, though, when she joined Justice Centre last year. “I’ve always had an interest in refugees,” she says. “I speak French as well as English so I find that really helps the Justice Centre team. Plus I know a lot about trauma and its effects from my previous roles and that’s so important here.” Ms Martin’s work covers both social and psychological work. The main work of the NGO may be in giving legal information but what Ms Martin and her team does alongside that process is crucial. “Our clients need help with the law,” she says, “but many are homeless, maybe have an injury and are often suffering from trauma. They may have just fled a war-torn country. It’s my job to help them navigate their way through the very difficult journey of giving testimony but that can be a terrifying process. Some clients break down, thus affecting their quality of testimony. I help them to deal with the trauma so they can tell their story as best they can.”

Put simply, it’s the responsibility of our SAR’s government to decide who is eligible for asylum. But if a person’s testimony is not believable or even coherent, that person runs the risk of not getting successful asylum and being sent back to, for instance, a war-torn land. Ms Martin says the Hong Kong government gives each refugee $1,500 a month for rent and $40 a day for food as they wait, sometimes years, for their case to be heard. “This is obviously just not enough,” she says, “so some of my work involves reaching out to mainly religious organisations for financial help.” And Ms Martin also says she gives lawyers trauma training as ‘some don’t know what it is’ and sometimes ‘refugee’s expressions may be misconstrued as telling a lie when they’re not’. “When the lawyers understand trauma and how to deal with it,” she says, “it makes the interview process much smoother and feel safer for the client. It lowers the levels of stress that may affect a testimony. That goes for children as well as adults. The law is all about facts but my side is about the emotions. I make sure the facts and the emotions go together. Frankly, this approach is fairly unique. I have no clue as to why. But it’s vital to us.”

Ms Martin says that some of her clients ‘have been shocked by Hong Kong’. She says: “I’ve heard them say they’ve never been to a place where there are no dead bodies in the streets or the sound of gunfire in the distance. But Hong Kong is no paradise. It doesn’t give them enough money to live on and the asylum process can be really slow. But, nevertheless, for most clients it’s a lot safer than what they’re used to…”

“I have some clients,” continues Ms Martin, “who have been here for many, many years. The numbers of refugees in our city keeps growing. It’s going to take a huge amount of work to clear the backlog.” Ms Martin’s clients, she says, are mostly African, from countries like Rwanda and Congo, although she also works with people from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. She says the highest percentage of refugees in Hong Kong are still the ‘unrecorded’ Vietnamese who fled here during the Vietnam War more than half a century ago. But she also notes there’s a ‘new uptake’ in Filipinos arriving on our shores looking for asylum. “My clients,” she says, “are generally not violent or rude or cruel or addicted to drugs. Most are kind and lovely. They just want to live.”

Why does Ms Martin do such an emotionally draining job? “There are the haves and the have nots in this world,” she says. “I had an idyllic childhood in Hong Kong. And I’m lucky I’m intelligent. I have five wonderful sisters and a great life. So, as far back as I remember I’ve looked at refugees and those much less fortunate and said ‘that’s not fair’. Growing up in Hong Kong, I saw people with so much money it was nauseating and they’d be next to people who had nothing. I wanted to help in some way with my life. I do it because it makes me happy to help others.”

Ms Martin also has a vision for the future when it comes to her job and Justice Centre. “I would like for people working with our clients,” she says, “to be more informed about the nature of trauma, including the police, so that when they’re interviewing our clients they’re not re-traumatising them. Education is key. If everyone understood the effects of the sorts of trauma that these refugees go through, they can act in the proper way around our clients so they get more adequate testimony and then we all benefit from a better, quicker system. That’s the dream. I’m just doing my bit.”

Chloe Martin, in brief:
NAME: Chloe Martin
BUSINESS: Justice Centre Hong Kong
POSITION: Psychosocial programme manager
AGE: 41
FROM: Hong Kong
BUSINESS LOCATION: Rents an office space as part of the Justice Centre at theDesk, Sai Ying Pun
FIND OUT MORE: Visit justicecentre.org.hk to learn more!

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