The refugee community was recently buzzing on social media over a Facebook page that draws the spotlight of public scrutiny on the darker side of the trade in emergency food rations for cash. It is indeed widely known that refugees sell all or part of their rations for cash to buy culturally appropriate groceries and meet pressing financial needs disregarded by government assistance. It is also known that some may steal for the same reason.
However, it is unlikely that the individual in the Facebook page is aware of his alleged exploits going viral on social media. It is further unlikely that he boasted about it in the first place. The posts expose a reality that exists, although its contours are not always well defined. Interestingly, it reveals very convincingly the capacity of refugees to seize out of necessity the few opportunities that arise from a questionable welfare system. It might be illegal, yes. But no one seems to care.
Indeed this Facebook page might be the work of a person whose business was in decline and attributes his or her failure to an individual who might or might not be involved. A message dated 9 October 2014 claims, “I am proudly announce that i am one the Top Refugee who supply to all Major Provision store in hong kong, my customers are [list deleted] And Many more and also Thousand of customers who buy from Meat, Rice, Oil, Grocery, if anyone looking to buy cheap Refugee food, please contact with me”.
Legally speaking, refugees may eat, dump or trade food rations and do not break the law by reselling them, although the practice is understandably discouraged. In reality, we observe that, while such activities have been going on for years, nothing is done to address the underlying causes that sustain them. The trade appears to be condoned, or at least accepted, as a way for refugees to raise desperately needed cash. It was an open secret even before these images circulated.
Vision First calls this operation the “Revolving Door Scam” (first reported here on 3 April 2014) in reference to the re-circulation of food rations that are traded at half of market value until somebody takes them home to eat. The scam is encouraged by substandard quality, because the least attractive or edible groceries are, the more likely it is that refugees will sell them. The government sponsors of this operation should calculate the waste generated by a scam predicated on fundamentally flawed assumptions about what refugees need and what they eat.
Readers may draw their own conclusion on the masterminds behind the Revolving Door Scam that Vision First estimates to channel about 16 million HKD yearly into the pockets of cash-strapped refugees. In a convoluted fashion it has effectively become the ‘Cash-for-Food Program’ resisted by the government ostensibly to prevent refugees from indulging in vices. A refugee astutely suggested that since money is prioritized to activate mobile phones (an Immigration requirement to be released from detention), the scam ensures 24-hour traceability by authorities without the expense of an ankle-monitor program.
Finally, the broader impact of the scam on neighbourhood economics should not be overlooked as discounted rations cause the prices of foodstuffs such as rice, flour, sugar, ghee and oil to plummet to one-third of retail value. Not only are grocery shops, restaurants and canteens purchasing these cheap supplies, but it is reported that low-income families have become avid consumers for the savings achieved. Alarmingly, such end-user demand is growing and encouraging the trade.
Considering that thousands of these commodities are traded daily at heavily reduced prices, it is unsurprising that troubling ripples are causing unexpected consequences. It would be interesting to investigate not only who benefits from the Revolving Door Scam, but also why so many people appear willing to turn a blind eye despite it having been an open secret for many years.
Whose wheels are greased by this scam and why is it tolerated?