After five months, summer heat and humidity combined with Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting) to test members’ attendance at the Refugee Union protest camp in Central. The protest has continued for 165 days during which refugees have demonstrated resolutely against unjust policies that make life unbearable for their community.
Summer days were so unpleasantly hot under the footbridge’s metal roof that only the most determined protesters carried on the struggle at a camp that might otherwise have appeared abandoned. And yet the community rallies enthusiastically in moments of need proving time and again that the common good comes before personal consideration.
At the last bimonthly meeting the Refugee Union stated its determination to support the camp until the authorities announce the contract renewal with ISS-HK, at which time a decision will be made on a future actions. If the authorities make no concessions and retain welfare services unchanged, it is unlikely that hard-pressed refugees will accept such an outcome as unavoidable.
These are not men and women of leisure with nothing to do. Rather they are individuals struggling to survive economically through diverse and unorthodox survival strategies without the right to work. They are forcefully unemployed husbands and wives who manage homes and care for children under the most intolerable conditions imposed on any minority social group.
The fact that each day more than 20 members support the camp is indicative of the union’s determination to generate solutions against all odds and despite the culture of rejection that attempts to crush their hope and spirit. In six months, a disenfranchised and resourceless Refugee Union successfully improved many members’ living conditions and brought greater awareness to their plight.
There are daily victories in which unionized refugees achieve goals that were unthinkable a few months ago. For years a refugee had been denied utility and transport assistance by an ISS-HK case worker who explained, “You don’t get it because you managed many years by yourself”, as if welfare assistance were determined by begging skills. Interestingly, by tapping the red Refugee Union card on the desk, he had the denial of assistance instantly revoked.
This week a homeless refugee family with a 3 year-old girl found shelter in the blue tents after their pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears at ISS-HK. As in previous cases, these desperate refugees approached the camp for advice and were warmly welcomed and provided with anything that was available. Following the Refugee Union’s intervention, ISS-HK confirmed a guesthouse room yesterday.
While still in its infancy, the Refugee Union is dedicated to protecting member’s interests and improving living conditions through better services provision by whichever contractor the SWD appoints. More refugees will gradually appreciate that it is legal for them to unionize and it is illegal for anyone to prevent their association. Collective bargaining might be the advantage refugees were missing.