Helen Leung holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences (Sociology & International Relations) from the University of Hong Kong and Master of Science in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. She is currently working as a paralegal at Patricia Ho & Associates.
In an interview conducted by Natalie (Huen) Wong, Helen discusses her role as a paralegal, the world of refugee rights, her Oxford experience, and a whole lot more.
Kindly tell our readers something about yourself, your early years and your journey in the profession.
I think my life history in my early years is very much intertwined with my professional journey. I was born in Australia, and spent my childhood largely moving between Beijing and Hong Kong because of my dad’s work.
I grew up in a multicultural environment having attended both local and international schools, including four different primary schools (and thankfully only one secondary school).
In this sense, navigating the contours of migration has always been pretty central to my life experience. Service was another core part of my upbringing. I have fond memories of participating in community service projects around Beijing, as well as visiting rural schools and villages across northern China.
My professional interest in supporting vulnerable migrant populations was probably a merge of these two aspects of my upbringing!
What motivated you to become involved in human rights work?
During my undergraduate studies in Hong Kong, I spent a lot of time hanging out with the asylum seeker and refugee community in the city. Despite our differences, we bonded through our ‘rootlessness’ and common search for home, identity and belonging in an age of mobility and globalization.
Yet, it struck me that while I was a ‘global elite’ who chose to migrate, they were ‘victims’ of immobility at the opposite end of the spectrum. Ironically, the difference in our life chances meant that while I could gather the attention to advocate for their justice, their voices were largely silenced even though they lived and breathed these injustices.
This motivated me to reflect more on how the voices of marginalized populations can be better heard and their rights protected.
It is said that the world is like a human body. Each individual member of humanity is part of the body politic and if one member is in distress or affliction, all the other members must necessarily suffer.
Recognizing our interdependence and attending to the welfare of one another is a large part of what human rights advocacy means to me.
I feel like the job of a paralegal is rarely talked about in the legal industry. Can you tell me why you decided to become a paralegal and what are your responsibilities or job duties as a paralegal?
It was somewhat coincidental actually. At the time, I was hoping to move back to Hong Kong in order to spend more time with my family. I was turned down for a position that I had applied for in the non-profit sector; but they referred me to a university professor for academic research opportunities, who then referred me to a human rights lawyer for a paralegal role at a newly established law firm.
It had never occurred to me to work in the legal industry before then! But I am grateful to have stumbled upon this opportunity and I have been learning a lot on the job since.
In my role as a paralegal, my focus has been on handling refugee and human trafficking cases. My job includes seeing clients, taking statements, conducting legal research, drafting legal submissions, supervising interns, billing (and down to shredding paper and buying toilet paper as we are a small firm).
I also organize legal trainings for NGO practitioners; and am working on several research projects mapping the modus operandi of drug and sex trafficking in Hong Kong. The nature of this field of law and the set-up of the firm has enabled me to play a diverse role as a paralegal. I am very lucky to be part of a dynamic and innovative team.
What is/are the biggest challenge(s) that you have encountered in the field of human rights work?
Financial resources are scarce for human rights work. It is also easy to feel that our efforts are insignificant and little can be done to push for long-term change. When we become disillusioned about what certain efforts can achieve, the challenge is then to reflect and redirect ourselves to develop a better solution.
It has been a constant process of learning and relearning what it means to be engaged in this field of work.
I see that you have a lot of international work experience, including in Ghana, Tanzania and Syria. Can you tell me more about your experiences there and how these have inspired/impacted you?
As a young adult, I wanted to see the world for myself which led me on many adventures exploring South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Although challenging at times, I enjoyed the steep learning curve that comes with working in different humanitarian contexts.
For example, I had the opportunity to lead a research project on internally displaced persons and returnees in North-east Syria. The opportunity to visit Raqqa and Hassakeh, former IS-held territories, was surreal. It was heartbreaking to see the destruction of the conflict.
There is a lost generation of children who have only known war, and families are struggling despite their unimaginable resilience. While each country’s realities vary widely, I was inspired by the many individuals and organizations committed to building their communities.
The people, places and lessons will always hold a special place in my heart.
You have also done a Master of Science in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. Can you tell me more about your thesis, what prompted you to research on that topic, and your experience in Oxford in general?
My thesis was a Foucauldian discourse analysis on the genealogy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) approach to ‘humanitarian innovation’. In other words, I explored how power has shaped the way in which the concept of ‘innovation’ has emerged within the humanitarian field and how/why this concept has evolved over time.
A highlight of my research was travelling to UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva to interview the staff that spearheaded the Innovation Unit within the UN system.
Studying at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre was truly inspiring as it was the place where forced migration studies, a niche but expanding field, was founded. My professors and classmates led some of the most cross-cutting research in the world.
Needless to say, the program was academically vigorous, and I have never worked so hard in my life! I also enjoyed all the perks of the ‘Oxford experience’ such as punting, college formals, and attending graduation ceremonies conducted in Latin.
What is your advice for aspiring human rights lawyers/practitioners, especially those who are wishing to practice in Hong Kong?
I would encourage aspiring human rights practitioners to gain exposure to different disciplines beyond law, such as experience in social work, education, technology, etc. Beyond direct representation and litigation before the Court, it is also about how we collaborate with other stakeholders such as NGOs, universities, and government actors to raise awareness and develop institutional capacities to build meaningful change.
Taking an interdisciplinary approach enables us to be more effective in how we approach and use the law as tools for change in Hong Kong.
It is also important to seek to understand the communities that we strive to support. There are many facets to understanding the access to justice. For example, what ‘justice’ means to a survivor of human trafficking may be very different to what legal redress looks like on paper. Survivors may not report their case to the authorities due to the fear of self-incrimination or reprisal from their perpetrators.
They may also be suffering from mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their past experience of exploitation, or be at risk of facing system-induced trauma from undergoing lengthy legal proceedings. It is important to approach clients through their lens and recognize their varied needs, such as financial or psychological, beyond offering legal solutions. In this sense, aspiring human rights practitioners would benefit from gaining a more holistic perspective in their learning and practice.
People always say that human rights has no market in Hong Kong. Can you expand on what you think are pressing human rights issues in Hong Kong?
In my area of practice on immigration, there is a lot of work that can be done. Modern slavery is a serious but underreported issue in Hong Kong. The limited legal and policy framework means that victims of forced labour, sex trafficking and/or criminal exploitation often fall through the cracks.
In addition, foreign domestic workers are vulnerable to employment rights violations especially when they are tied to debt bondages or face the pressure to remit earnings to support their families back home.
Refugee protection is also a concern. Recently, the Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2020 proposes new reforms to Hong Kong’s unified screening mechanism of non-refoulement protection claimants. This includes limiting procedural safeguards such as shortening the period for claimants to appeal their decisions, granting permission for authorities to conduct proceedings in a language other than the one the claimant requested, and strengthening the basis of immigration detention.
It is concerning that the general attitude behind these proposed amendments, including the labelling of non-refoulement claimants as “illegal migrants” and “overstayers”, runs contrary to the principles of non-refoulement protection enshrined in human rights treaties and conventions.
I know that you are very experienced in NGO work. Can you comment on the role played by NGOs in Hong Kong in advocating for human rights?
There are many community-based NGOs in Hong Kong that work with vulnerable and often hidden populations on a day-to-day basis, such as victims of sexual exploitation. NGOs have a wealth of knowledge and insights on the challenges faced by these populations which can be useful to policymakers.
Therefore, I believe NGO efforts can be maximized when they are able to effectively collaborate with other stakeholders. For example, through evidence-based research, NGOs can help identify gaps and provide practical recommendations to support government decision-making.
Lastly, how do you think the Hong Kong government can improve its human rights protection?
Other than enacting new legislation, I think it is also important to strengthen the way we implement our current protection mechanisms in Hong Kong. Through my work, I have come to observe how the “human” element behind our governance systems can be overlooked. Behind the bureaucracies, government officials and adjudicators are the ones that make the day-to-day decisions to translate laws and policies into practice.
Oftentimes, barriers to victim protection can come down to a lack of awareness/understanding, cultural insensitivities or the absence of dialogue. Yet, from a young age, we learn that we should treat others the way we want to be treated.
When the victims’ stories become relatable, and when we see them as part of “our own” through our common humanity; it becomes easier to overcome these barriers and allow different stakeholders to work more collaboratively in protecting vulnerable populations.
(Natalie is a final-year law student (LLB) from Durham University and a part of the UPeksha Mentorship Programme)