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HK support group gives abuse, trafficking victims fighting chance

07 April 2021

By Vir B. Lumicao 

Ho founded the Dignity Institute to ensure holistic help to abuse victims

A Hong Kong human rights lawyer has founded her own research, investigation and counseling unit to provide integrated legal and psychosocial assistance to victims of exploitation and human trafficking, as well as refugees in the city.

Patricia Ho, founder and managing partner of Patricia Ho & Associates, said she set up Hong Kong Dignity Institute in July 2019 after she started the law firm, to close all the gaps in the system that have hampered lawyers.

Since its founding, HKDI has helped 70 clients from 23 countries, provided 114 integrated legal and mental health consultations, and trained 440 lawyers, NGO practitioners, policymakers, government actors and foreign domestic workers.


“I supposed if we’re talking about all the domestic helper cases that I have taken in the last few years, I thought that a lawyer’s job was very hampered by the lack of understanding of their mental state and the social aspects of the client,” the lawyer said.

She found many of her clients were very scared of talking to lawyers and when they talked, they did not tell the whole story about what had happened to them.

“My frustration was it’s very difficult to help them find the most appropriate solution without knowing the whole of their problem,” Ho said.

Many victims of human trafficking and abuse are hesitant to open up to lawyers, says Ho

A harassment victim who approached Ho recently was referred to HKDI for counseling by a volunteer psychologist to assess the woman’s mental health.


Counseling is part of a holistic approach that the lawyer is taking in regard to every case she handles to find out the impact of a client’s ordeal on her mental state and how to help her emerge stronger and more focused from her experience, Ho said.

“It occurred to me early on that I needed to work closely with a psychiatrist or counselor social worker because I needed different aspects and perspectives on a case. And I thought that if we were to help more people properly, that was really needed,” Ho said.

Pindutin para sa detalye

“And as far as I am aware, there was really nothing like that in Hong Kong where the different professions worked jointly together,” she added. She said these professionals traditionally would both work on a case separately, a relationship she finds unhelpful.

The drawback is that a lot of psychiatrists and social workers give advice that is unrealistic or adverse to the legal cases of their clients. For example, if a client goes home on the advice of a social worker, it becomes hard to keep her case going even though it has a fighting chance.

Ho said all the different elements are needed to give a good advice, and it made her very upset to see a client abandoning a good case.

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She said there had been a few cases where she would get instructions from clients who  were not telling her the whole story and were not comfortable with her. But after enlisting the help of social workers and counselors at HKDI, the clients turned into very different people giving her very good instructions.

Ho was named one of anti-trafficking heroes last year by the US State Dept 

Ho, who was named last year by the United States Department of State as one of 10 global Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report Heroes, said her law firm had helped about 30 Filipina, Sri Lankan, Indonesian and African workers.


“It’s not a large number, in fact, the focus has been very much on human trafficking and forced labor, and I don’t expect the number to be very high because a lot of the victims usually are not in a position to come forward for help,” Ho said.

She said these victims usually are with a group that was recently connected with the outside world, alluding to people who practice slavery.

Usually the victims’ phones or electronic items are taken away from them and they have no rest days. She said others in that crowd don’t get to seek help because of their situation or they have already been shipped back to their home countries.

Tunghayan ang isa na namang kwentong 

Ho said a client she advised recently to leave an employer who was abusing her badly decided to disregard the advice due to pressure from her own family to keep her job so that she could continue sending them money.

“What’s ironic is some of these advices have a tinge of truth, but mostly it is misguiding as well and wrong. And the problem is when you have a mixture of both, it’s so difficult for the person who is in a very vulnerable situation to make an independent assessment and it’s really hard to blame somebody for just listening to her family,” she said.

HKDI has a team of lawyers, private investigators and researchers who do large-scale research to map the modus operandi of sex and drug trafficking in Hong Kong. It also collects intelligence and testimonies from drug mules and former drug lords to identify trafficking patterns and the pandemic’s impact on Hong Kong’s sex industry.

Other activities of HKDI involve training students of law, criminology, psychology, social work, public administration and journalism students through experiential learning activities.  

HKDI says it has a mission of “restoring dignity to the most vulnerable in Hong Kong and going deep to dismantle the systems of exploitation that perpetuate these abuses.”

Ho said HKDI has its sights on modern slavery in Hong Kong, where she said there are still 65,000 modern-day slaves despite slavery being abolished officially in 1833.

Trafficking of young girls known as “mui tsai” to work in local households is still happening today, so does trafficking for forced labor, sexual exploitation, drugs and other reasons, Ho said. 

For people trapped in slave-like conditions, the law firm and HKDI provide integrated legal and psychosocial help as well as connect them with shelters and friends for support and work with partners in their home countries for recovery and repatriation assistance.

This is the kind of holistic approach to the assistance that Patricia Ho and HKDI provide the vulnerable members of Kong society.


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