Murtaza Hassan Pirzada recalls with a mix of emotions his run for Hong Kong from his home in the Pakistani city of Lahore. A Christian, he claims he faced torture back there, so he set off on a wrenching journey to seek asylum.
Now 40, he's been in Hong Kong for five years, one of nearly 6,000 people claiming to face torture or death in their homelands. It seems most of them are still - we can't pin down the number of deportations - awaiting escape from the twilight world of asylum-seekers by gaining new status for a new start.
The waiting is not easy, even though Pirzada has been joined by his family from Pakistan. He's grateful for support he's given, but he says it's hard to maintain body and soul.
In fact, an honest waiting game is not for all those in the same position as Pirzada. Some cross the lines of the law.
In most cases it's working illegally, which may not alarm some people unduly so long as it's honest toil.
But there are a few asylum-seekers, it's said, who go much further across the line, in some cases hiring themselves out for dirty work such as some of the stuff triads want done.
That fear was reinforced last week when a man identified as a local gangster was ambushed and stabbed as he left a Cheung Sha Wan restaurant.
One of the four or five attackers was shot dead by a policeman. The dead man was Chinese, but the rest of the attackers - who got away - were described as being of "South Asian origins."
Investigators have been working on the theory that South Asians were contracted by a crime syndicate to attack the gangster, who remains in hospital with multiple stab wounds.
Backing that theory is a retired police superintendent. He tells The Standard that some crime bosses hire South Asian asylum-seekers for a range of crimes, often involving the trafficking of drugs in discos and other places of entertainment but also for violence.
But just how serious this situation really is remains an open question, for facts are hard to come by on how many foreigners are likely to be recruited by ritual-bound Chinese gangsters.
But incidents like the stabbing attack add weight to some of the gossip and claims of wrongdoing that circulate.
Not surprisingly, the talk can cause alarm. People see elements of racism in certain reports of bad behavior about South Asians, who are a solid and long- established minority here. They number in the tens of thousands, many from families that arrived generations ago.
Still, Pirzada knows about criminals. For he was in the hands of people smugglers for part of his journey from Lahore to Hong Kong.
He recalls an eight-day bus journey that took him from Lahore to Xinjiang and then to southern China. That wasn't so bad because he had a tourist visa.
Then it was Shenzhen and meeting Pakistanis who worked there. They pointed him in the direction of a mainland "snakehead" - a people smuggler - who agreed to bring him to Hong Kong for 5,000 yuan (then HK$4,980).
So one night he went aboard a scruffy speedboat and rode to Sai Kung. "It was really the most dangerous trip in my life," he remembers. "I could easily have fallen from the boat at high speed, and for sure the snakehead wouldn't hang around for a rescue. You can be shot dead by mainland marine police without warning if they spot smugglers going to Hong Kong."
Having got through, Pirzada was swiftly arrested in Sai Kung. Then came questions and his answers about danger from Muslim extremists in Lahore.
Pirzada was relieved to be allowed to stay, but he soon found life here tougher than what he expected, and he says it got worse when in November 2009 the Immigration Ordinance was amended to state clearly that illegal immigrants are barred from working.
[Such claimants are handled separately and by the Immigration Department, while people seeking refugee status go into a United Nations program.]
But Pirzada at least had Immigration Department approval to bring his wife and four children to Hong Kong.
Today, the family survive thanks to relief programs run by non- governmental organizations such as the local wing of International Social Service, which pays the rent for a dilapidated flat in an old tenement in To Kwa Wan.
"I get food donations from non- governmental organizations every 10 days," Pirzada says. "We get cooking oil, rice and some canned food. But as we're not allowed to work it's a misery."
But no complaints. He values being with his kids, going to playgrounds or watching TV, and he likes jogging.
Elsewhere, Immigration Department officers process some of the 5,900 torture-claim cases like his. Around 70 percent involve people from South or Southeast Asia, mostly Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Indonesians.
In 2011, the department booked 1,432 torture claims, down 20.8 percent on 2010 (1,809 cases) and 56.4 percent less than in 2009 (3,286). It started in 2006 with 528 claims.
The fact that by the end of last month only one case had been substantiated could have had a bearing on the fall-off in torture claimants, though the lack of a right to work likely counted more.
The high number of claims in 2009 was attributed to a Court of First Instance's ruling in March of that year. It stated that asylum-seekers did not break the law by working here.
The decision spurred South Asians to head this way, and in late 2009 the administration responded. Under amended legislation, illegal immigrants are prohibited from taking employment or going into business. Jail terms of up to three years and HK$50,000 fines can be handed out to lawbreakers.
In fact, the Court of First Instance ruled in January last year that the government has no obligation to allow refugees to work, even if they suffered mental torment because of no opportunity.
That ruling dismissed the claims of several people with refugee status who had been in Hong Kong for up to nine years.
So such people remain in limbo - dependent on social services, no chance of residency rights, and nowhere to go. But some will still continue to come.
Wong Wai-fun, executive director of non-government organization Unison, points out that people can still sneak in and claim to be refugees or in need of protection as they are arrested. "Some can stay for at least several years while applying for protection." As for the idea they will turn to crime, she adds, that would likely be a last resort. And most lawbreaking would be at construction sites and recycling plants.
On that, immigration officers say that from November 2009 to April this year around 400 torture-fear claimants were prosecuted for illegal employment.
On hillsides near San Sang Tsuen in Yuen Long, for instance, there are no-question-asked jobs in waste- recycling.
A 32-year-old Pakistani asylum- seeker who identifies himself as Hasbaba admits he's worked at such a plant, earning around HK$300 for a nine-hour stint.
He arrived two years ago to seek a better life, and an unfounded claim of torture at home gave him a break. Friends from South Asia also worked in Yuen Long district, he says.
"If we had to rely only on food donations from non-governmental organizations we could not get by. We have to work illegally."
Hasbaba points out that few locals will work at tough jobs for low pay so "local employers are willing to hire us."
He adds: "I love this place. The pay is quite attractive as I can't even find a decent job in my home country."
Several years ago, torture-fear claimants gravitated to Tsim Sha Tsui's Chungking Mansions and Sham Shui Po. Now, higher rents have seen many moving to Yuen Long.
There, in San Sang Tsuen and Ha Tsuen, abandoned pig farms have been transformed - illegally, as you'd expect - into cubicled units and rented mostly to South Asians. Some even have surveillance cameras installed on gates.
But how bad is the situation when it comes to real crime?
According to the former police superintendent, some of the 10 or so triad groups involved in most of the more than 2,000 gang-related crimes in Hong Kong each year "have been more willing to recruit South Asians.
"They can pay them smaller sums for assaults than local or mainland gangsters would demand for taking on such jobs."
The Standard has not be able to extract from the police any figures that could back up their old boy's suggestion about South Asians asylum-seekers turning to serious crime.
But besides the attack in Cheung Sha Wan there have been a few cases that have caught the eye recently.
Last month, police arrested several South Asians for alleged involvement in the killing of a watchman and injury to a cousin by raiders who struck at a Tin Shui Wai godown. A 31-year-old South Asian was charged with murder.
And on April 20 police arrested a South Asian man who tried to rob a prostitute in Tsim Sha Tsui unit after sex.
Whatever the crime, it's what Yuen Long district councillor Chow Wing- kan pounces on. "It's a time bomb for the government to continue to allow those false torture claimants to stay," he declares.
"It poses a serious threat to security in Hong Kong, particularly in remote villages in Yuen Long and Kam Tin.
"Most of the South Asian asylum- seekers have been living in cubicled units at a monthly rent of about HK$1,000. Definitely, some South Asians have associated with local gangsters who are willing to pay them for crimes."
He also claims torture claimants stole local residents' phones.
"The influx of fake torture claimants poses a burden on Hong Kong's welfare, education and health-care system," he adds, and he worries about "a social crisis" if nothing's done.
For the record, the government estimates that annual expenditure on humanitarian assistance to torture claimants was HK$159 million in 2011-2012 compared with HK$151 million in 2010-2011 and HK$124 million previously.
Care can be a slow business as well as costly.
An Immigration Department spokesman spoke of "abuses" by claimants, who "deploy delaying tactics by spanning out submissions of evidence over a long period of time, repeated absences from interviews, reopening of claims after withdrawals, making subsequent new claims before [deportation] and making false representations."
So the department must improve screening, says Civic Party lawmaker and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who notes that legislation will be introduced to curb abuses. But this will take a while.
Tong also said there needs to be more effort against snakeheads.
According to the Immigration Department, "63 non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants" were intercepted in the first three months of this year. A source indicated they were from South Asia.
Any clamor on the issue would worry James Lung Wai-man, head of the South Asian-focused concern group Hong Kong Community Development Network. He points to a lack of evidence of a crime trend and sees risks to social harmony from a different angle than Chow Wing-kan.
Unison's Wong backs Lung's calm- down call, saying there's another sort of criminal in the picture. "Unscrupulous employers recruit those people as they don't need to pay the minimum wage."
She also says it's wrong to discriminate against South Asians and that the government needs to act against it.