My name is Bibek Bhandari and I’m a Nepali national – and for that very reason Hong Kong rejected my work visa application.
I have been reporting for the South China Morning Post for almost three years as a freelancer. So when I saw an opening for a suitable position, I applied and secured a full-time job at the newspaper’s headquarters in Hong Kong after two interviews. I was ecstatic and looked forward to a new milestone in my journalism career.
But that abruptly ended when Hong Kong immigration denied my employment visa.
Hong Kong categorically bars certain nationalities — Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, Nepal and Vietnam — from entering China’s Special Administrative Region for training and employment purposes. Regardless of my years of professional experience, credibility as a journalist and an employment offer from the city’s leading newspaper, my application was overlooked based on my passport cover.
In a bold letter highlighting Nepal, the immigration department asserted that Hong Kong’s General Employment Policy was “not applicable to the applicant.”
And I’m not the only one.
In 2014, I met Shanta Nepali, a young woman who paid thousands of rupees to a middleman to go work as a housemaid in the Middle East, just as Hong Kong implemented the visa ban.
She ended up in Lebanon. Hong Kong, with its stringent regulations and supervised labour laws, she believed, would have been a better place to work.
Hong Kong introduced the ban on Nepali students and workers in 2005 — though the ban on students has been relaxed — without an official explanation. However, it is believed that the policy was aimed to discourage Nepalis fleeing the Maoist conflict at home to seek asylum in Hong Kong.
Annie Lin of the Society for Community Organization then told the Post that singling out Nepalis and targeting them is “racial discrimination.”
A 2009 UN Women report also slams Hong Kong’s policy “as not only discriminatory but also imposed excessively beyond reason.”
It has been 11 years since the ban and a lot has changed meanwhile: the war has ended in Nepal; Hong Kong is no longer a leading destination for Nepali migrant workers; and a new generation of Nepalis are now exploring opportunities across the globe.
“It’s high time for Hong Kong government to review and reconsider their policy towards Nepalis,” said Indra Wanem, a legal counsellor from Nepal who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. “Hong Kong’s view on Nepal as a weak and underdeveloped country in political turmoil must change now.”
He said if Hong Kong were to implement proper screening methods while stamping work visas for white-collar and blue-collar workers, it could benefit both parties, as thousands of Nepalis leave abroad for work and study every day.
I also left Nepal in 2005 and since then have lived and worked in many countries. Having a green-colored passport from Nepal— it’s one of the least powerful passports in the world— has prepped me for visa hiccups, and though the probability of “rejection” is always imminent, the applications have never snubbed due to my nationality, until now.
For the first time, even before landing in a city, I felt unwelcomed. Hong Kong made me question my nationality momentarily — I even despised having a Nepali passport for a second — because my future was at stake, barricading the career move that I deserved. Like Nepali, and many others, I was losing an opportunity to a policy that openly perpetuates prejudice towards certain nationalities.
This is unfair. This is wrong.
By arbitrarily banning citizens from a list of handpicked countries regardless of their skills, talents and potentials, Hong Kong is harbouring an archaic policy that undermines its so-called cosmopolitan values.
I am writing this today because I do not want to be just another silent applicant. I cannot ignore this and let go as a policy issue. For the immigration department to dump my application only because I am from Nepal doesn’t suit a city that brands itself as progressive.
So when I look at Hong Kong today, I no longer consider it as “Asia’s world city.” Instead, I see it as a selectively unaccommodating city that has crushed the prospects of many people, exclusively based on where they come from, even before arrival.
A day after the decision, one of my editors wrote to me and said he “hope[d] that out of all this, you get the job you truly deserve in a city that is prepared to welcome you.”
And Hong Kong is not that city.