Yesterday we visited the Compound under the Tree with a leading journalist and a human rights barrister in preparation for an upcoming high level inspection. We were surprise to encounter a delegation from International Social Services (ISS) who finally deemed an inspection appropriate. These fine social workers asked constructive questions, but we wonder if they asked themselves, “Would I live here? Are these structures legal? What housing regulations do they breach?” Later we took our VIPs to see another compound which we expect ISS will want to visit next week. Our Bangladeshi friends were clearly angry with ISS: they stomped the grounds expressing pent-up frustration and disappointment for being ignored for years. The tide is turning and ISS is now treating them with respect, knowing full well their salaries depend on how they treat clients who are effectively effects guest of Hong Kong government.
Later in the evening shocking news circulated: Dadu was arrested in the afternoon working in a nearby warehouse. A Bangladeshi father of two, Dadu sought asylum in 2007 with solid grounds for a torture/CIDTP claim. In fact, he would certainly win protection with the right lawyer. Occasionally he is forced to breach his conditions of stay to earn money he needs to live. Critics might argue that there is never a justification for breaking the law, but we can reasonably contend the opposite. Forced to live in a squalid shack – where snakes slither uninvited – Dadu is a victim of unreasonable, and therefore unlawful, policies that strangle his existence. It is our opinion that ISS is equally culpable for his troubles, as they are mandated to execute the government’s asylum strategy. Let’s examine the financial reality Dadu shares with some 200 refugees living in Ping Che rural area:
- to keep a shantytown roof over their head they are charged 1400$, but ISS only pays 1000-1200$. These are the cheapest rooms anywhere, but without income, how does ISS expect them to pay the balance? Would ISS staff please show refugees where and how to collect the difference?
- to keep utilities running landlords extort 800$ a month, but ISS pays them nothing. Note that all refugees in Kowloon receive 130$ for electricity and 60$ for water every month. Why does ISS discriminate against rural refugees living in shacks? What does ISS do to counter these extortionary, undocumented utility bills?
- to collect government food in Yuen Long they spend 28$, but ISS refunds 10$ expecting them to walk through fields for thirty minutes to catch a cheaper bus in another village, rain or shine. Why does ISS impose unnecessary hardship by demanding unreasonable routes? Would ISS staff like to hike to a distant bus terminal with these refugees?
- to attend Immigration at Mataukok they spend 45$, but ISS refunds only 35$ (one guy only gets 33$). No explanation is given. No alternative route suggested. Months of pleads fall on deaf ears. Why does ISS deliberately throw roadblocks in their way? Would ISS staff like to cut 10$ from their commute to work?
- to cook their food they need a gas cylinder ever two months, but ISS allows the purchase every four months (one guy gets it every five months). Note that all refugees in Kowloon are paid every two months. How does ISS expect them to cook and eat? Would ISS staff like to demonstrate how to cook for five months with one cylinder?
- all ISS clients lament that refunds are made the subsequent month, if not later, so refugees must pre-pay essential needs while barred from working. While receipts are understandably required, why doesn’t ISS prepay once so that clients have cash on hand?
These examples demonstrate that Ping Che refugees are discriminated against by ISS. They should receive adequate social provisions that prevent destitution. They are not economic migrants who work to send money home. They are refugees seeking international protection who are forced to raise the money needed to survive. Dadu barely eked out an existence. He took the risk of 15 months jail (22 months for pleading non-guilty and 15 for guilty) to keep a roof over his head because he simply HAD NO ALTERNATIVE. The government will enter his details in statistics misconstrued to prove refugees are economic migrant, but truly what choice did he have? Dadu is older than average, smart and thoughtful. He is not a reckless individual. By going to work yesterday, he lost his freedom for 15 months in an attempt to pay his bills. Nobody who understands his living conditions could ever say that his motivation was profit, or greed.
If ISS provided adequate support – instead of depriving Ping Che refugees – it is likely that Dadu would be sleeping in the government sanctioned shantytown - not in jail. The asylum support system is rigged against refugees who are forced to work by the financial pressure imposed on them. One could argue that current social provisions are intentionally designed to force illegality, to criminalize and trigger deportation orders before genuine claims are determined. In other democracies one is fined for working in breach of conditions of stay, not jailed for over one year for a day’s labour. It is our opinion that ISS is complicit. Their policies impose a hardship that can only be countered by earning wages. ISS is therefore accessory to Dadu’s crime, having generated the conditions that contributed to his decision. They might not have been present at the commission of the offence, but are guilty as participants, as their negligent, harmful policies push refugees over the edge. Refugees united, look forward to the day when ISS is summoned to a Legco panel and to the high court to explain the rationale behind their inhuman policies.
We expect ISS to scramble their staff to inspect this compound next week