From the Refugee Union Facebook on 18 December 2014
On 15 December 2014 the Refugee Union members gathered for our weekly meeting at our office. From 2:00pm we started to share and exchange views and ideas. It’s an important forum where every member gets an opportunity to talk about issues affecting them. Members lament about their frustrations, inadequate rental assistance, unfair treatment from ISS and its food contractors who continue to cheat and ‘reduce’ our food allowance. Others have problems with accessing quality health care. It’s shocking to hear how doctors prescribe Panadol to sick refugee patients no matter the illness.
This Monday was a very special day for us members of the Refugee Union. This is the day that we unanimously endorsed and adopted the Refugee Union Constitution. We wrote history again. This means that in the history of Hong Kong we are the first refugee group to write and adopt a constitutional document. We do not have identity cards or any legal standing in this society. We have been issued with Recognizance papers that many people, even in government offices, don’t seems to know what’s they are. But we had the courage to come together and take a new path.
“This Constitution is the most progressive document I have ever seen”, said a refugee from West Africa. “It captures all our aspirations as group of people”, he continued. We do not have any legal status in this country, we are nobody. Hong Kong Immigration refuses to grant many of our members any protection and with that legal status. The majority of asylum cases are rejected on flimsy grounds and technicalities, therefore we are not able to secure employment for ourselves, open a bank account or even borrow a book from the library. We experience life at its most pitiless.
But in February 2014 refugees came together and opened an UMBRELLA in protest in the office of ISS before these humble instruments became a symbol of protest. And today we are united behind our first constitution. The struggle continues, brothers and sisters!
On 11 February 2014, refugees took action after years of mistreatment against the contractor appointed by the Social Welfare Department (“SWD”) for welfare services to their community. The newly formed Refugee Union called for a stop to the distribution of food supplies without prices.
On 2 March 2014, the SWD stated that “Regarding the allegations … that food assistance-in-kind provide by ISS-HK is undesirable in both quality and quantity … the SWD has conducted in-depth investigation … results showed that the complaints were not substantiated.” Vision First and refugees then collaborated with other government departments towards ascertaining the truth of the matter.
On 28 November 2014, however, the SWD surprised the refugee community by issuing an “Invitation to Tender for Provision of Assistance for Non-refoulement Claimants”. In stark contrast to previous arrangements, the monopoly was broken up into three service regions, whereby no contractor will be appointed more than two, and most significantly, food coupons will be introduced to redesign the much maligned and troubled food distribution channel. SWD foresees that “Food coupons will be the main form of food assistance in all three Regions.”
By the same token, Vision First relentlessly reported over the past years that refugees have been settled in isolated slums where they suffer abuse and exploitation along ethnic, racial and immigration lines. Refugees are provided with lists of slum lords and proactively encouraged to relocate to distant slums where their settlement benefits slum developers.
Vision First’s “Campaign against Refugee Slums” exposed 69 questionable compounds where hundreds of refugees are settled and no less than 15 million HKD are disbursed to purported landlords from the public purse on an annual basis. Again the SWD rallied behind its contractor on the housing of refugees by supporting claims that the great majority of refugees choose their own living arrangements – even when these are unauthorized building structures.
In June 2013, Ms. Adrielle Panares, ISS-HK program director, commented to the press, “[With] the Lands Department … we can validate if that building has permit to be in that property. We can also validate the fact that the building owner is actively able to rent it out to somebody. Beyond that nobody is wanting to give us any documents.”
Ms. Panares continued, “So our document proof is actually dependent on how much the landlords are willing to give us. Partly this is creating a bit of a problem to our service clients. Because if we tell them ‘give us a document poof that your landlord is doing this’, usually their landlords will be in China. They give [the slum] to somebody else to manage, and those who are managing would not be wanting to give us any document proof”
A few months after these events, ISS-HK tightened rental procedures by requiring that Landlords provide evidence of ownership in the form of “Rates paper/Solicitor letter/Land Register.” One year later and despite the above guidelines, Vision First acquired proof of the Lands Department ordering the demolition of unauthorized structures still gainfully and unlawfully rented to refugees with the approval of ISS-HK.
Although Vision First did not advocate for food coupons, it is noteworthy that the SWD is currently attempting to remedy a situation arguably spun out of control. Will the SWD do the same with the slums? Our preliminary investigation reveals that 11 of the 65 slums are no longer accepted by ISS-HK and refugees are advised that tenancy agreements will not be extended. But what about the other 54 slums? Why are they being maintained? Why are public funds channeled to those landlords?
We propose a simple, temporary solution till the time refugees are allowed to work: If rent assistance must be capped at 1500$, Vision First says that refugees’ tenancy agreements ought to be subjected to stamp duty before public funds are disbursed to landlords (apparently this is not happening). The Inland Revenue Department warns that all agreements for lease are chargeable with stamp duty, in accordance with to law, and omission to stamp is an offense.
An unstamped tenancy agreement shall not be received in evidence and cannot be acted upon by any public officer. Vision First emphasises that the Inland Revenue Ordinance is binding on all landlords renting out properties and it is thus incumbent upon SWD to ensure compliance by its contractor and beneficiaries.
It is highly unlikely that the Inland Revenue Department would approve the structures below as tenantable and subject to stamp duty. If they wouldn’t approve it, why does SWD?
On 3 December Vision First sought SWD clarification on the following points after we were invited to the tender. Vision First finds these replies largely unsatisfactory.
Comment to A.1
We question whether SWD is mistaken by operating on the assumption that refugees seek their own accommodation. SWD echoes the views previously heard from ISS-HK that the majority of refugees living in slums choose to live there and don’t want to move out. While it is true that nobody is coerced to make a home in the slums, huts were and continue to be the only locations rentable at the price point offered to refugees (currently 1500$ a month). Further, Vision First reported that the February 2014 rental increase from 1200$ to 1500$ caused ‘slum inflation’ evidenced by slum lords demanding rental increases to this day.
It is painfully obvious that the ‘persuasion process’ has limited to no effect if the rental parameters remain unchanged. In the urban areas, ISS-HK case workers frequently visit rooms, often before payments are confirmed or released. However, in agricultural-use compounds it appears, from evidence collected from refugee tenants, that slum lords and caretaker can swiftly complete transactions and have contracts approved in one visit to the ISS-HK Tsuen Wan branch.
Unlike in the urban area, security deposits and property agent fees are not required, which is a considerable financial advantage. Urban dwelling refugees report endless negotiations between reluctant landlords (refugee tenants are undesirable), property agents and case workers before any deal is completed. Why are basic legal rooms harder to rent than dodgy ones in illegal structures?
As a result large clusters of co-national refugees end up over the years in the same area. Do these men, women and children volunteer to live in dumps, or were they deprived of better alternatives?
Slum refugees are decent human beings who are not so foolish as to PREFER slums for themselves and family, if better and affordable alternatives are available.
Anyone accusing refugees of CHOOSING TO LIVE IN THE SLUMS is politically motivated and could not justify such a preposterous position in a public forum of hundreds of deprived refugees forced to live in slums, many for over 5 years. If SWD truly believes what they are saying, Vision First challenges the SWD to a public debate to support such argument before the media.
It is manifestly obvious that if refugees were provided alternative housing arrangements in legal structures in the area where they live, or in other areas close to friends and co-nationals, they would certainly move out of the slums. We have witnessed this happen on many occasions.
Comment to A.2
Thankfully the in-kind food program that exposed thousands of refugees yearly to exploitation by the operators of the food distribution chain is coming to an end. While doubting the coupon system will mark any significant improvement, Vision First cannot but interpreter SWD decision to suddenly close down the in-kind food mechanism as to be a significant statement, tantamount of an admission that not all was well in previous arrangements. It remains to be seen if law enforcement agents will take action against perpetrators of illegal activities as exposed and reported by Vision First over the last two years. Sun Tsu said: “The wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine”.
Comments to A.3
Outsourcing by its own nature creates numerous monitoring problems. Contractors worldwide cannot generally be trusted to deliver top services without strong and independent supervision. In this respect SWD’s reply is unsatisfactory. Vision First respectfully advises SWD to appoint a full-time inspection team that operates in the field all day taking leads and invitations from the refugee community quite independently from its contractors.
Many doubts come to mind. How is SWD going to implement “service inspection and performance evaluation”? How often and who will be doing this? Does this include visiting refugees at their homes, to make sure they effectively live in safe and hygienic conditions, contrary to what SWD might be told by its contractor?
Vision First will increase its watchdog role to protect the interests of refugees and report service failures. We will monitor service delivery in the three regions to ensure that demonstrable errors of the past are not repeated and do not again become systemic problems.
My name is Lillian from East Africa. I am a teacher by profession, but I had never thought about teaching or working with babies between the age of 6 months and 3 years before I was approached by Vision First to assist with their playgroup.
I said I would give it a go, though I was unsure how to entertain such a young crowd. You see I am a mother of three children (they are adults now) and I know how demanding those little ones are. The first time I attended I saw how refugee and resident children were having fun together.
On my second group I was asked to sing to the children, but my voice disappeared with the excitement and I had some kind of weird stage fright in front of those curious little eyes. I was told not to worry and practice before an imaginary class at home, singing, telling stories and entertaining them. Believe me, that work!
A few weeks later the playgroup needed assistants and fortunately I had gained enough confidence to give it a try. Six months later I had mastered the “Songs and Rhymes”, become more creative and found exciting activities for the young stars to enjoy. By then the regular children had become familiar with me and the time we shared was relaxing and fun.
By this time I had even changed the music I listened to at home. I was playing kiddy songs. I was smitten by children rhymes. I was checked out Smurf Books online and only visited websites dedicated to entertaining and instructing children. My old passion as a teacher had been revived.
I found some truly amazing website that offered fun and education activities to help children learn through play, while stimulating their senses and making sure that FUN was always the operating word. Today I believe I have become a proficient host for this age group and I respect them because these babies are totally sincere. They won’t hide their feelings or pretend to be polite!
If they are not interested in what you are doing they will let you now in less than three seconds. They don’t pretend, but are truthful, which gives opportunities to make adjustments in what you are doing with them. You have to be passionate and patient with babies and most importantly enjoy what you are doing. They can tell instantly if you are not having fun that day.
Once a week I participate in the playgroup at Vision First and for one morning I forget I fled to Hong Kong to save my life and haven’t seen my loved ones for four years already. I have discovered that playing with children is the best medicine to cure the asylum illness that has taken root in my heart.