For the first time since 2008 refugees took their voices to the Legislative Council. A wave of blue VF tshirts flowed steadily towards the Government head office from 130 when we mobilized at Admiralty MTR. Everyone realized this was a fight that could potentially change the livelihood of 6000 refugees. Respect must be given to the dedicated Muslims who protested in the heat despite fasting dawn to dusk for Ramadan.
Our allies in the Labour Party improvised a shack – symbolizing the dreadful conditions hundreds endure – printed signs and invited the press to report on the protest action and the LegCo meeting. The signs proudly carried the logos of both the Labour Party and Vision First, a clear indication that politically we came of age this year. The messages were: “Refugees need basic assistance”, “Refugees can contribute to HK”, “Against the Culture of Rejection”, and “Assistance not oppression”. For the core team of activists, the favorite was undoubtedly, “ISS crushes our lives!!!”
As we triggered this special LegCo meeting, while other deputations had one speaker, Vision First had six representative to convey the refugee population’s deep dissatisfaction with ISS assistance. Wearing “Safeguarding Rights” tshirts (protesters grabbed 100 in minutes) our delegation entered the corridors of power and resisted engaging Miss Panares in an appropriate manner. She must be realizing this is the beginning of the end of the old ways. Change will come. Change will come swift and who knows who will be heading the new ISS in a few months. Perhaps this is a good time to update some CVs inside ISS!
The 90 minute meeting exposed the tip of the iceberg of ISS negligence and indifference towards refugees. For those in the field who know first-hand the suffering of this community, there was a sense that only the tip of one tentacle of an evil octopus was cut off. Hardly enough … hardly satisfying … considering that thousands lead a life that is an affront to Hong Kong citizens.
This is Vision First’s submission:
ISS stated that all the shortfalls in assistance to claimants are not ISS fault. Ms. Panares said that ISS hands are tied. ISS position is that the Security Bureau is to blame for withholding necessary funding to claimants. SWD is accountable for working alongside international social service in an oversight capacity. SWD and ISS kept the amount of assistance unchanged. With inflation this amounts to failing to meet claimants’ most basic necessities. SWD and ISS conduct is egregious and an affront. Security Bureau repeatedly stated in high court that claimants’ needs are fully met and there is no need to review this policy. Security Bureau is in breach of Usman Butt case and its fiduciary duties towards claimants. Security Bureau has full knowledge of what is happening, sky-rocketing inflation and ISS maintaining fixed and unchanged rental payments since 2010. The Government has allowed departments to continue welfare assistance under the false assumption that claimants’ basic material and financial needs are met by the current policy.
ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE: Government is fully aware claimants are suffering in the streets.
WILFUL BLINDNESS: Government decided to turn a blind eye to the problem.
In conclusion, Hong Kong government has substantially failed to fulfil its international and constitutional obligations towards claimants.
Many delegations raised interesting points, ranging from demanding change, to requesting the ISS monopoly by broken, from allowing claimants to work to pushing for investigations. Lawmaker Fernando Cheung planned to pass a motion to review the SWD-ISS service but, citing need for more research and time, the chairlady didn’t allow it to happen. She was a mouthpiece of the administration and nobody had any doubt whose commands she followed. You may watch the entire proceeding here: Special Meeting of the Panel on Welfare.
The mastermind is the Security Bureau and Vision First presented factual findings that can no longer be ignored. In our presentation we submitted that ISS does not take responsibility for its cruel policies and has blamed the Security Bureau for withholding the funding it needs to deliver adequate support to refugees. We accused the SWD of also being accountable in its oversight capacity as it appointed ISS in the first place. However, the Security Bureau is ultimately responsible for it is fully aware of refugee suffering and has turned a blind eye to SWD and ISS conduct that is a shameful disgrace for Hong Kong. Lawmaker Emily Law effectively screamed out, “OUR REPUTATION IS RUINED!”
Billy Woo defended the Security Bureau fortress as best he could. Faced with hard facts, graphic complaints and insightful advice, he couldn’t conjure up some magic to make this mountain of problems disappear. Pressed to comment, he made a diplomatic concession saying, “After the recent series of discussions in this council and also within the community, we find the present scheme in respect of support level, in respect of operation, has some room for improvement. We will carefully consider the views given today. We will consider the views one by one and see what we can do in the short-term as well as in the longer term. In fact the Social Welfare Department has already started some work.”
No decisions were made yesterday. But rest assured that change is coming and Vision First will ensure it is meaningful and lasting.
Vision First members were invited upto a LegCo meeting room to follow the proceedings on TV