A Sri Lankan transgender woman seeking asylum in Hong Kong says she was forced to become a prostitute in Wan Chai to survive because the city’s laws denied her the right to find a job.
“I never thought I would do sex work but my life became very difficult so I decided to do it,” said the woman, 28.
“Tina”, not her real name, first came to Hong Kong in 2007 when she was 22 to escape persecution in her home country. She had left her family home at 18 to live with her aunt because her immediate family did not accept her desire to live as a woman.
“Ever since I was young, when I was six or seven, I wanted to be a girl,” Tina said. “When I saw my sisters, I wanted to be like them, but my family did not accept this. Only my mother did.”
After leaving Sri Lanka, she and her aunt lived in Malaysia for a year before the aunt told her to go to Hong Kong to seek asylum.
When Tina’s application for a Hong Kong visa was rejected, her aunt paid for a boat to smuggle her into the city.
“It was dangerous and scary in the boat because the wind was very strong and, being about 3am, it was very dark,” Tina said.
She was arrested by police, and detained for 65 days at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre.
“In my country, they really don’t like people like me; they will attack me if I go out like a woman,” Tina said. “Even though I was born a man, I feel like a woman. This is how I feel.
“But it is difficult because in my culture, transgender people will be stoned and their families will be cut off from society.”
Tina’s case is the fourth known asylum application by a transgender person in the city in the past three years. Two others have been successful, with one Mongolian transgender woman resettled in the Netherlands.
“I’m happy to hear that someone else like me has been able to protect herself,” Tina said.
Tina eventually submitted a refugee claim on the grounds of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Last month, this claim was rejected and Tina is now preparing to apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in a last-ditch effort to find safe refuge in a third country.
“I feel like a woman now and I’d prefer to die than go back to being a man,” she said.
While Tina waits for a decision, the monthly allowance of HK$1,400 from the government barely makes ends meet. She depends on food banks and handouts from friends but, in 2010, she started sex work and was arrested for soliciting on her second day.
Tina spent a year in Stanley Prison, where she was forced to stay in the men’s section.
In August last year, she was arrested again for soliciting and sent to the maximum-security Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre.
“I went to work in Wan Chai because I needed the money to pay for rent,” she said. “I’m scared because I don’t want to go to prison again, but if I don’t have any money, I will have to do something. If I get one customer to pay HK$1,000, I will go home because I will have enough money for my rent and food.”