Nobody was prepared to witness the devastation wrought by last night blaze on “The slum with the rusty gate” which Vision First brought to the attention of the authorities in October 2013 for reasons including a considerable fire hazard. In 2015 acts of God seem arranged to shut down refugee slums which (un)concerned government departments have been reluctant to dismantle.
Walking over the soaked remains of incinerated shacks which offered no sprinklers, fire extinguishers or fire hydrants (fire services laid hoses for trucks several hundred meters away), refugees observed it was a miracle nobody had died. “If the fire happened two hours later when everyone was asleep and the doors were locked, something worse would have happened for sure” noted Mumtaz, whose wife dashed out with their 2.5 month-old daughter, without a chance to grab her purse.
Burned remains, perforated tin sheets and bent metal beams reveal a conflagration that a crew of 165 firefighters with 35 fire engines could not contained till every shacks had been consumed by the raging fire. Eight fire trucks were dispatched to the nearest access road several hundred meters from Lot 2153 in Demarcation District 124, where ISS-HK currently sheltered 7 refugees, including children and a pregnant woman.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that the fire might have started in Francesca’s hut, constructed in a pigsty with metal sheets, plywood and no brick walls for sturdiness and protection. The hut was cluttered with a jumble salvaged from dumps, typical of refugee who scavenge to obtain everything they need. Francesca was known to cook on an electric stove, rumoured to have started the fire, which she brought home from a rubbish dump with no functionality assurance.
Ms. Mumtaz describes her escape, “I was cleaning the house and the door was open. I heard two loud bang noises. I looked and saw [Francesca’s] hut was burning very bad. We use cooking gas [large 27Kg. cylinders] and I was very scared of explosions. I was so afraid …. I grabbed the baby and ran away in my nightgown. I didn’t have time to take my other documents, just the her birth certificate.”
Yusna lives in a nearby refugee slum, “This is the third time I see fire like this. Every night I sleep with my daughter and I am afraid. Two years ago it happened in Hung Shui Kiu and ISS moved me to another slum. Then there was another fire and I moved here. But we are not safe like this. These houses burn very very fast. There is no way but run away.”
Arif of the Refugee Union commented, “It is the second fire in ISS slums in one month. They are lucky nobody died last night. God is telling them that the slums are dangerous and next time there will be dead people. These refugees lost everything: clothes, furniture, appliances, nothing left. It takes a family more than a year to collect everything they need from garbage. What can they do now?”
Mr. Mumtaz lived in this slum for 3.5 years with rent paid by ISS-HK from the government purse to a purported landlord. The address displayed on his ISS-HK Agreement on Provision of Assistance signed on 12 February 2015 is: Rm B3, No. 12 Tin Sum Sun Tsuen, Yuen Long.
There is a minor variation from the address shown in hisISS-HK Agreement signed on 13 September 2013. It is significant that the Lands Department officially identifies this location as Lot 2153 in Demarcation District 124 in Tin Sam San Tsuen. What justifies the considerable discrepancy?
On 25 February 2015 at 10:30pm alarming SMS circulated, “Good evening, I want to give information. There is fire in the Chung Uk Tsuen [slums] near the home of Yusna. Precisely in the house of Refugee Union Francesca … two houses burnt to a crisp … She was rushed to the hospital because she was limp and panic.”
A month after a fire took the life of Sri Lankan refugee Lucky, another blaze raged through a compound near Tuen Mun, in an area with the highest concentration of refugee slums supported by ISS-HK with government funds. An intricate maze of narrow paths intersect agricultural lots where rusty, ramshackle ruins of pigsties and chicken sheds are turned into illegal dwellings.
It is reported that a gas cylinder blew up in the shack of a resident Pakistani, starting a blaze that engulfed the compound familiar to Vision First as “The slum with the rusty gate”, reported on 4 October 2013. At the time we noted that residents lived in and maintained better abodes than penniless refugees who cannot afford repairs and whose ISS-HK contracts displayed fake addresses.
Police cordoned off the area to facilitate the work of dozens of firemen and medics who worked frantically till 2pm. Preliminary information indicates that the blaze broke out shortly after 9pm and took almost four hours to extinguish presumably due to a lack of fire hydrants and vehicular access, combined with challenging nighttime conditions.
Assuming that all slum dwellers escaped unscathed, the complex erection of several shacks on two storeys and the unregulated storage of gas cylinders probably increased the danger faced by rescuers. This blaze didn’t only threaten the life and property of refugees, but also of residents who apparently don’t enjoy the building standards and fire safety regulations which ought to protect everyone by law.
Vision First is concerned about Francesca and her two year-old son Ismaeel who lived in one of the huts reported to have burned to ashes. In 2010 Francesca fled to Hong Kong with a well-founded fear for her life. She was not a domestic worker. The awful living conditions she endured in the slum bore witness to the severity of the domestic violence that compelled her to leave five children behind.
Last night Francesca was taken by ambulance to hospital in a state of shock. She often complained about her dangerous hut, but had no money to relocate. Her home flooded in the rain, backed in the sun and seemed poised to collapse under its own weight. Hers was one of the worst shacks documented and a crying shame for caseworkers who permitted a mother and baby to live there.
An act of God draws attention again to the slums where indigent people – in this case residents and refugees – live in hazard conditions that the authorities chose to ignore despite their very existing challenging rules and regulations. An activist observed, “The rule of law is bent. But since no one complaints, it is fine. Let business go unimpeded, since business is all that matters in Hong Kong.”