Prior to February 2015 a considerable number of homeless refugees were assigned single-occupancy rooms in guesthouses by ISS-HK when they failed to find rooms for the 1500$ rent assistance. Today the refugee community is reluctantly coming to terms with a hard to swallow shift in policy.
The practice was ironic and ill-conceived, as ISS-HK would spend 8000$ a month on hotels (in some cases for over a year), having frequently refused to increase the rent assistance by only a few hundred dollars. This resulted in an avoidable waste of public funds, as Vision First reported in several blogs, including “Homeless refugee forces ISS-HK to pay for guesthouse”, “A refugee clashes with the absurd at ISS-HK” and “Breaking the rent assistance barrier”.
Starting last week, refugees were unceremoniously locked out of guesthouses after ISS-HK payments were stopped. The decision is not unreasonable, as the guesthouse solution wasted millions of dollars that should have been more prudently allocated. Ibrahim from Togo requested a 400$ increase for his family of four, only to be turned down and lodged in a 13,500$ guesthouse room instead.
What next? The clampdown on guesthouses comes at a time when dozens of refugees are evicted from illegal refugee slums across the New Territories without adequate assistance. About a hundred refugees have found themselves in the streets. This amounts to a worrying housing crisis. Considering the prohibition from taking up employment and 15 months jail for working illegally, a perfect storm is heading towards increasingly homeless refugees. Does this reflect a hidden agenda?
Refugees say they are encouraged by caseworkers to share rooms and handed the mobile number of housing ‘fixers’. Last week five African refugees rented a two-room flat in To Kwa Wan for 7800$ which their combined rent assistance of 7500$ almost fully pays. Assuming they can share tight quarters for months, what will happen if one is deported or leaves Hong Kong? Policy dictates that security deposits are only paid once for as long as a refugee is in town.
The refugee community is divided. Many South Asians have for years bunked together and are already accustomed to living 4 to 6 in subdivided rooms where they sleep back to back, sometimes taking daytime and nighttime shifts. Housing ‘fixers’ enjoy a thriving business and an astute lady operating from Tsim Sha Tsui Mansion is said to lodge almost 200 refugees with payments from ISS-HK.
However the arrangement of packing 4 to 6 adults into rooms no larger than Ping-Pong tables should raise concerns. Aren’t these flats effectively unlicensed dormitories, where overcrowding presents more than a challenge to safety and fire regulations? How are hygiene and health standard managed when kitchens are turned into sleeping areas and toilets used for storage?
In a community where health risks pose daily concerns to the authorities, is it appropriate to pack refugees in such confined, inhumane spaces? What happens when one falls sick? Where do they store documents and personal belongings? Are refrigerators large enough for food rations? And why are potentially traumatized refugees forced to give up privacy as if in detention? Mental disorders and PTSD, often caused by persecution, are aggravated by ongoing stress and anxiety.
Further, the aggregate rent paid for such subdivided flats (one unit partitioned into five rooms) often exceeds 20,000$ which clearly is a huge incentive for fixers to expand market share while the slums close down and the number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong nears 10,000 for the first time in history.
Vision First urges the authorities to review the failed ‘humanitarian assistance’ for refugees as tightening the welfare screws to avoid ‘creating a magnet effect’ is evidently a failure. The number of refugees from the Global South seeking asylum in Hong Kong doubled in 2014. This is not a temporary ‘problem’ that can be fixed by ill-treatment that only tarnishes the reputation of our great city.