I was a neighbour of Srilankan refugee Lucky who died in the slum fire on 29 January 2015. I lived in the second hut behind his and barely escaped the burning inferno alive. My name is Dillo and I am a member of the Refugee Union. I fled from India to save my life in 2008. This is my experience of International Social Service (ISS) and the hazards of illegal structure and the evil slum business.
At about 10am on that tragic day, I was asleep in my hut when the fire broke out. People knocked frantically on my door and woke me up. I took a great fright as the back wall of my room was starting to burn. I grabbed my mobile phone and ran outside while my hut and everything I possess burst into flames. It all happened so fast!
A huge fire was already burning inside and over the first two huts and was raging overhead with unbelievable heat and noise. The acrid smoke raced up to the sky turning it black. It was horrible to see the fire burn and crackle the metal sheets like plywood. Moments later my room was engulfed in a fireball and I thanked God the smoke didn’t chocked me before I escaped.
I covered my mouth and ran towards safety by the main road. At that time there was no police or firemen. They arrived about 30 minutes later. By then the fire was so huge that the huts could not be seen any more. Mia from Bangladesh had already come out of the second hut before me. We didn’t know what happened to Lucky who lived in the first one. He wasn’t outside. Anyone inside the flaming inferno wouldn’t be alive!
We lost a wonderful and cheerful friend. We also lost everything we possess: clothes, fridge, TV, a gold ring and bags of clothes my girlfriend stored in my hut. That night I slept in a friend’s room. The next day ISS put me in a guesthouse in Kam Tin, but for over two years my caseworker had settled me in a deadly tin-sheet hut.
On 22 September 2012 I moved into my hut and ISS paid the landlord continuously until January 2015. At the start the rent was 1500$. ISS paid 1200$ and I was compelled to work illegally to pay the surplus and utilities. Sometime in 2014 the rent increased to 1600$ and ISS paid the landlord 1500$ while I paid 100$. My girlfriend kept the tenancy agreements as I was afraid my hut was not safe. That is evidence of a trusting relationship between ISS and this slum lord.
My ISS caseworker (name withheld) confirmed the hut as my home in September 2012. He never inspected it. He never came to visit me. From September 2012 until the morning of the deadly fire, none of my ISS caseworkers ever visited my hut. When I asked the landlord for a copy of his ID card and bankbook, as routinely required by ISS, he said it wasn’t necessary because ISS knew him well.
From the day I moved into this slum I have been wondering: How does ISS believe where I am living? How do they approve places that they don’t inspect? Why do they trust the landlord to give us safe rooms to live? Some rooms have 3-4 refugees living inside, how can ISS understand this overcrowding without inspecting, without asking questions?
I never complained about the awful living conditions because I understood it was pointless. ISS don’t care and because they have relationship with the landlord they only trust him. They speak Chinese so when we have meeting together we don’t know what they agree. ISS approves everything for us.
Before we didn’t realize how dangerous living in huts was. We knew they were not safe, but we were afraid of rain and typhoon, not fires, because flooding is bad and there is electricity. I didn’t fear that I could burn in my sleep. Nobody thought the fire would be so violent. We understand that all is illegal inside, metal and wood sheets taken from landfills. But what choice do we have?
I am very proud of the Refugee Union as we spread the news so fast that our members arrived before the police. There had been fires in slums before, but the news never got outside. Two refugees died in two separate fires, but everyone kept it quiet. The victims were ISS clients. Some refugees still have photos of those fires and knew the deceased.