Stuck in limbo: the tragic story of transgender refugee, Eliana Rubashkyn


James Lo speaks with transgender refugee Eliana Rubashkyn about being stuck in limbo here in Hong Kong

In one day, everything in my life changed.” That day was September 16, 2013, when Eliana Rubashkyn, born Luis Alexander Rubashkyn, came to Hong Kong to change her passport. That day, she went from being a Masters student in health care administration at Taipei Medical University to being a stateless refugee in Hong Kong.

How it happened largely comes down to one complex, but fundamental, issue – gender identity. Eliana Rubashkyn was born biologically male and, in Taipei, underwent Hormone Replacement Therapy to become female. When she went to renew her student visa in Taiwan, HRT had so completely altered her appearance that the authorities required her to change the photograph in her Colombian passport to reflect her post-HRT appearance. Without a Colombian embassy or consulate in Taiwan, she decided to come to Hong Kong to sort it out in person. Says Rubashkyn: “That’s when my nightmare started.”

On her arrival here, immigration detained her, allegedly subjected her to invasive bodily inspection, and was also given a deportation order to return her to Colombia.
Somehow, while Rubashkyn was being detained, she managed to send out a message on Facebook using her phone which reached Rainbow Action, an LGBT support group.

According to Rainbow Action, Hong Kong Immigration never gave an explanation for her detention or for her deportation order. “Immigration alone knows the reason,” according to Rainbow Action in a statement. We believe that it was to do with her physical appearance and her passport photo not matching, as well as because her passport was Colombian, which they perhaps were suspicious of.”

Rainbow Action, in turn, contacted Amnesty International and ultimately, Rubashkyn was allowed into the country on a three-month tourist visa. According to Rubashkyn, she was detained ‘because she couldn’t prove why she was coming to Hong Kong’, despite showing them her papers and her Taiwan Masters documentation. At this point, her greatest fear was being sent back to Colombia.

Going back to Colombia was not an option, since the country has one of the highest reported murder rates for transgender people. Understandably, it’s the reason why Rubashkyn refuses to return there – where she has already experienced one terrifying incident. “He stabbed me in the shoulder and said he was going to cut my face. But just as he was about to do more, a police car happened to drive in our direction. He got scared and I managed to run off, but I had a six centimetre stab wound,” she says.
Given the circumstances, Rainbow Action came to her aid and helped her successfully apply for UN asylum seeker status. Suddenly, the graduate student, who had expected to be in Hong Kong for only three days to sort out her passport photo, found herself stateless and alone.

Rubashkyn finds herself in a double-bind. While waiting for a permanent solution to her statelessness, her visa ran out and Hong Kong Immigration took away her passport. She now has UN refugee status, but if she reapplies for her Colombian passport, that status disappears. The deportation order will kick in, and she fears she will be sent back to Colombia to a very uncertain fate. As told by the UN, even if she previously tried to return to Taiwan, she would find herself in the same situation again on graduation, and together they are looking for a long-term solution. So until that day comes, she’s stuck in Hong Kong.

In the meantime, as Hong Kong is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, she has no right to work (and is punishable by up to three years in prison if she does). She is dependent on minuscule handouts from the government: a monthly allowance of $1,500 for housing and $1,200 worth of food. For her first six months, she slept on the floor of a HIV Testing Centre. Now her friends have helped her to rent a room of her own – but it’s 1sq m by 2sq m, and her neighbours are all sex workers. It’s a far cry from the scholarship student in Taipei with the rest of her life ahead of her.

Her only hope now is that she will be granted asylum in some other country where she will have a right to resume her studies and get her life back. “You know,” she says through tears, “I saw that my class has just graduated. It was so hard for me to take in.”

For more updates on Eliana, check out her blog at


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