A refugee blogger distressingly underscored the reality that crushes hope in his community. He wrote, “Hong Kong immigration delays hundreds of old cases because the answer would be positive”. Vision First has been informed by several refugees that Immigration officers had acknowledged, off-the-record, that their claims were strong, but no decision was ever made to accept or reject. Why?
Last week a refugee who sought asylum in August 2005 reported that he was summoned for yet another seemingly pointless interview. He lamented, “Three of us escaped to Hong Kong together. One went back, one left for Europe and I still do interviews. I forget how many times.… Are they waiting for me to forget or make a mistake on my case?”
His friend, who arrived in Hong Kong in 2003, had this to say, “They keep telling me I have a good case. They said it twelve years ago when I was 25 and now I am getting old. My lawyer said that they don’t know what to do with my case. It’s unbelievable.”
A few considerations should be made:
First, the legal framework governing asylum isn’t to blame. It could certainly be improved, but it is acceptable. The problem is implementation and, in particularly, ultra-long assessment times that raise the aphorism “justice delayed is justice denied”. Frequently no further evidence is provided, as in the case of a recognized torture claimant accepted after 10 years without adding anything to his first statement. The above blogger commented, “They know that certain people will find a way that is convenient for the government” and four recent cases may illustrate his point.
Case One: arrived in HK in 2007 and opted for ‘voluntary departure’ in 2014; sought asylum in Holland and was recognized as a refugee three months later; received 1500 Euro to meet living expenses until he found a job.
Case Two: arrived in HK in 2013 and opted for ‘voluntary departure’ in 2014; sought asylum in France and was recognized as a refugee in six weeks; was given a 5 years permit to stay with working rights and a monthly stipend until he found a job.
Case Three: a screened-in torture claimant of 2013, closed his protection case to ‘voluntarily depart’ in December 2014 for a European country where he lodged an asylum claim. His Hong Kong lawyer supported the decision because recognized refugees do not enjoy work rights and exceptions are hard to obtain and limited in scope.
Case Four: arrived in HK in 2013 and is utterly disillusioned about protection and future prospects. For the sake of wife and children, whom he is unable to assist back home, he plans to close his case and return to a neighbouring country. He will sell property and seek asylum in Europe.
Second, Europe is often mentioned as an idyllic place to seek asylum. However it is increasingly harder for people intending to seek asylum to reach the Old Continent amid securitization of border controls that make the journey ever riskier. In Hong Kong a similar process occurs. But rather than the journey being made difficult, it is the asylum procedure that is made relentlessly harsh, so punitive that claimants decide to give up.
Third, when refugees don’t give up despite Immigration bosses wanting nothing more than for them “to take their troubles elsewhere”, they are forced to repeatedly live a past that they would rather forget. A past of trauma and persecution that is revived every time they are called in for interviews.
Such an asylum mechanism affects justice in our city as we are reminded that the failure to treat anyone fairly, is ultimately a failure to treat everyone fairly.
I escaped political persecution in Africa in 2004 to save my life in Hong Kong where I have been stranded for 10 years without an end in sight. Like most refugees bounced around by Immigration, I am very upset with the asylum system and the total lack of respect for our problems, worries and fears.
What Immigration is doing is not just inhuman treatment, they ignore our human rights. It goes beyond that – the way they treat us is insulting. You cannot ignore somebody for ten years. For a while you can do it and it can be qualified as inhuman treatment, but when they ignore basic rights too long, it goes beyond this level. It becomes personal because they insult people’s dignity!
Hong Kong Immigration delays hundreds of old cases because the answer would be positive. They are not stupid. They would not keep unwanted people on the streets for 10 years, because then immigration control would be a joke. If they tolerate our presence it means that we have a right to stay. They don’t want to make a determination, because it would be a positive one!
Why don’t they want to take responsibility? Because if they reject us then we have a document that we can take to the courts showing rejection and that would be subject to judicial reviews that Immigration would likely lose. So the strategy is “Say Nothing” and leave people begging in the street. Avoid making a negative decision that could land Immigration in trouble.
There is considerable mental suffering that forces people to find other ways. Like the guys who buys a fake passport and leaves Hong Kong. It is rumoured that many have done it. Theoretically there must be a secret reason to put people under such mental pressure. There must be an unofficial expectation that refugees will find another solution and take their troubles elsewhere.
But Immigration does not explain what the expected outcomes might be. They never explain the Non-Protection Solutions and if these solutions are logically unavoidable. They know that certain people will find a way that is convenient for the government – though unfair for refugees – like marriage, moving to another country, smuggling out and closing asylum claims through so-called ‘voluntary departures’.
This is unfair. Immigration should not be treating people like this. They should be screening and determining, accepting or rejecting. Or else the rule of law is dead. Officers should not play games with our lives expecting possible lateral solutions to keep the refugee acceptance rate at zero-percent. They are ignoring the law. The law seems quite straightforward to me. It is logical, but it is not fairly applied.
Last week my officer called me for a meeting. Then he said that he didn’t bring my file. He called me for an interview, but didn’t have my file? Is this ignorance or arrogance? If it is not his arrogance then it is his boss’ arrogance to treat me like I am a stupid nobody that doesn’t count.
His behaviour told me that I don’t matter. He said, “I don’t know. I am not sure what is in the file”. I was irritated. I was mad with him, so I shouted, “Why did you call me to CIC Clearance section? To waste my time? If this is a picnic then where is my sandwich?” When I asked for clarification, he said “I am not sure”. Hold on, if he is not sure then how can I be sure I will be protected after 10 years?
Under the heading “WE BELIEVE”, our website defines a key principle held for its fundamental and universal value. It is worth repeating, “Vision First is a proponent of the view that every asylum claim must be approached on the premise that it is genuine … No adverse inferences must be drawn … asylum seekers should benefit from the rights and privileges enjoyed by all citizens – as economic expectations are hardly incompatible with seeking asylum.”
In 2012 and 2013 Vision First was informed that hundreds of Bangladeshi refugees in remote slums were forced to choose between “rent assistance” and “food assistance”. Refugees were informed that they could not have both and should therefore share huts and emergency rations with conational.
Before learning about human rights and state duties, uninformed refugees didn’t know any better and such a shameful arrangement was regrettably widespread. In our experience other nationalities were not subjected to this biased treatment that apparently did not occur in urban areas.
Today Vision First reports that refugees are sometimes being forced to cohabitate in Kowloon where the lousiest, cheapest subdivided rooms cost more than 3000$. In principle there is nothing wrong with refugees living together, a practical solution to mitigate welfare constraints when friendly cooperation exists.
The process however degenerates into cruel and inhuman treatment when cohabitation is coerced. “Find a friend to share a room or ISS will not pay rent” is hardly a solution. Several refugees reported requesting assistance to avoid being homeless in winter nights only to be told to find somebody to share a room with. They emphatically informed caseworkers that they knew nobody suitable and were sleeping on the street around the Cultural Centre.
How does a government contractor ignore the plight of certain refugees when rooms in guesthouses are available to other nationalities? Besides, homelessness is terrible for anyone, irrespective of country of origin.
A referral from SWD for a non-refoulement claimant should only be considered by the state of destitution, connections and resources of the person concerned. Other factors would shift public welfare into a highly undesirable form of migration control.
A refugee homeless since 22 December said, “I told my officer that I am sleeping next to pillar number 2 at Star Ferry. Several times I told him that I am homeless. I and freezing because I don’t have a blanket. I begged for a guesthouse but was told that I should find somebody to rent a room together. But I don’t know anyone and even if I start looking for a room it will take several days … and nights!”
There are good reasons why we shudder at caseworkers uttering the words “on a case by case basis” that generally signal an abdication of duty and shunning of responsibility on the one hand, and on the other a failure to have regard of the best interest of refugees with reasonable consideration of their means.
Vision First will report several incidents of forced cohabitation to the Social Welfare Department in hope that recommendations will be made to stop such shameful practices. For those we encounter in outreach the problem will be solved, but how about those we don’t?
Later we can only shake our heads when egregious treatment is excused with the other highly abused expression, “It was a misunderstanding!” Refugees are annoyed by this excuse and underline that honest misunderstandings work both ways – sometimes you should get too much!
Over the past few days Vision First inspected rooms available at several real estate agencies in Yuen Long, presumably a cheaper district than Kowloon. At one such agency a veteran estate agent lady asked “Why so many refugees come here?” That’s a legitimate question.
Suddenly evicted from slums where they lived for years, refugees are hopelessly touring agencies recommended by caseworkers to find alternative accommodation. Vision First accompanied them on visits to the cheapest units (locally called “tou fong” – suite-room), subdivided bedrooms with a minuscule toilet and a shelf for sink and kitchen top. For the purpose, older 500 s/f apartments are remodeled into four 100 s/f units accessed through a shared corridor. Such small units are generally clean and at 3500$ are acceptable bachelor flats for those who can afford them.
However, the arrangement becomes unpleasant when refugees on a 1500$ rent budget are compelled to cohabitate. Couples can cope with tight conditions, though a boyfriend observed, “I can share with my girlfriend, but she is not my wife. If we breakup who pays the rent? How one person can pay more than 3000$ by himself?”
Coping with stringent conditions, a group of five Pakistani share a 400 s/f apartment for 6000$ – two bunk in two tiny rooms, one sleeps in the lounge. But the agent complained, “Too many people! If one man has trouble [arrested by police or immigration] the others cannot pay. If one leaves [removed or deported], it is hard for them to find another [replacement], so always have trouble.”
Another agent went on a rant, “The cheapest room is 3200$ but landlord said no sharing. If too many people stay it is dirty. Many landlords have difficulty to get rent and utilities paid. Landlords are afraid. They don’t want to say why, they just refuse to consider.”
Further, destitute refugees are unable to make repairs and crowded cubicles are subjected to more than the ordinary wear and tear. A landlord complained of a broken sink, door and flooring, though it is hard to imagine high quality fittings are used in super-budget subdivisions. These are not concrete dormitories designed for heavy occupation, but inexpensively cubicles for single occupancy.
“Are you Pakistani? We don’t rent to Pakistani” snarled an agent to some Bangladeshi. Racism apart, when thousands of destitute young men squeeze into the crammed low-end housing market, attrition is unavoidable not only with landlords and agents, but also with local residents.
This leave us to ponder:
First, speaking with several estate agents, it became clear that landlord aversion towards refugees (never identified as such, but rather as ‘foreigners with ISS assistance’) was the principle obstacle. There was no issue renting to Vision First staff, but agents warned, “You cannot cheat. We can rent the room to you, but not to them. If the landlord discover they live there that is not honest for us.”
Second, stigmatization was widespread, agents would phone landlords to inquire about vacant rooms only to be blatantly told that “those black people are not accepted”. It was surprising to hear this repeated again and again. Also in the slums a resident grumbled, “Too many people in one room. It’s too noisy and I cannot sleep next to them. They shouldn’t be crammed together like that. It’s dirty.”
Third, agents showed our group tou fong ranging between 3200$ and 4500$. They were all in acceptable condition, some even nicely decorated. Rooms for 2000$ no longer exist in Yuen Long and even 3000$ rooms are hard to find and none were vacant. The limited supply of 3000-4000$ rooms is insufficient to accommodate the scores of refugees being evacuated from the slums.
Finally, the refugee housing problem cannot be solved without changing parameters. If refugees are to be banned from working, then they are destitute and deserve full support. It is illogical to impose a 1500$ rental ceiling that compels strangers to bunk in cramped spaces, eventually quarrelling and splitting up. This wastes government-funded deposits and exasperates landlords and agents, other than reinforcing the stereotype of refugees as dirty, noisy and foreign to Hong Kong society
It should be accepted that refugees must work to pay rent surplus, utilities and supplement inadequate ‘humanitarian assistance’. There is no point sticking heads in the sand! Raising the rent ceiling to 2000$ would just push the problem a few months forward, without resolution. Vision First reiterates that refugees ought to be allowed to work to make ends meet.
Vision First was informed that on 15 January 2014 a delegation of refugees protested at the Social Welfare Department head-office against unrealistic rent assistance levels that pushed their backs against the ropes.
As many refugees are now forced to relocate from slums in which they lived for years, these same refugees face a compelling dilemma. With rental market prices on the rise and government rent assistance generally no more than $1500, where to find affordable rooms?
“ISS gave me a list of estate agents who showed me small rooms as big as a single mattress with prices between 3000$ and 4000$ a month. Also many wanted cash payment because they don’t want to work with ISS”, lamented an irate refugee who has lived in Hong Kong for 8 years.
Vision First expects that, since reliance on refugee slums has come under fire, the housing crisis will rapidly deteriorate as hundreds of claimants are forced into homelessness by failed welfare policies.
Besieged SWD officers listened carefully to the refugees, though clearly out of their depth as far as solutions were concerned. An SWD officer confirmed that, “in the past few months ISS was trying to resolve the slum problem”. A senior officer repeated a canned defense line, “We will raise your concerns with ISS and ask them to mobilize all their resources to find a solution.” But what resources are available to constrained caseworkers?
Fresh solutions are required to resolve a matter that brings great shame to Hong Kong. It is time for Hong Kong Government to pragmatically acknowledge the absurdity of so-called humanitarian assistance that fails to adequately house refugees in our expensive city. This utterly disappointing and unpleasant situation created by unrealistic rent levels ought to be urgently reviewed.
Vision First strongly recommends that refugees be allowed to work for the years it takes Immigration Department to determine asylum claims. It is sadly pathetic that every two years refugees must protest to raise welfare levels that fall hopelessly and predictably behind inflation. Further, temporary work permits would certainly benefit Hong Kong, as research demonstrates that refugees do not steal jobs from residents, but rather contribute extensively to raising their income.
Let’s be honest. If it is policy to hold thousands of refugees in limbo while claims flounder in bureaucracy, then it is only fair that claimants be allowed to earn a living to supplement unacceptably low assistance levels. This wouldn’t be inconsistent with the token welfare safety-net that forces destitute, old and needy citizens to eke out a subsistence living on their knees.