On 17 February 2015, a group of 60 refugees protested at the Social Welfare Department head-office with yet another chorus of complaints to demand greater scrutiny of the current housing crisis that followed the clampdown on refugee slums.
For the third time in a month refugees evicted from illegal huts and shacks made it clear to SWD officials that they are boxed in on four sides:
- They are not allowed to work and are jailed 15 to 22 months upon conviction;
- The 1500$ rent assistance is wholly insufficient in the current housing market;
- Land authorities demand the purging of slums triggering mass evictions;
- Guesthouse rooms are no longer offered as an alternative to homeless refugees.
Pressured by slum lords to leave and unable to secure cheap rooms, 21 refugees represented a hundred colleagues in the slums of Yuen Long and Kam Tin and demanded an urgent and lasting solution to housing needs. They were joined by several homeless refugees from Kowloon and supported by refugee activists and Vision First to lodge formal complaints with SWD social workers.
However, when told that grievances would be referred back to ISS-HK caseworkers, the protesters became agitated. Refugees accused SWD and its contractor of shifting them around, telling refugees in Yuen Long there were rooms in Kam Tin and vice-versa, when inhabitants from both areas sat side-by-side and were familiar with housing prices and shortage.
It was reported that ISS-HK had raised justifications with SWD by accusing the affected refugees of being ‘uncooperative and refusing to accept offers’. But refugees demanded that caseworkers bring such offers to SWD HQ and explain location, occupancy and rental, on top of the legality of certain arrangements. SWD replied that it wasn’t necessary for ISS-HK to bring over the ‘master list’.
It is worth noting that the one refugee who could have died in the blaze that killed Lucky, was lodged by ISS-HK in a guesthouse the next day and not asked to leave. However his colleagues from the same slum, whose huts did not go up in flames, had their rent stopped and faced eviction. Does this point to a government policy to offer guesthouse rooms only to refugees who had a near death experience?
To great consternation and frantic activity in the SWD head-office, the stand-off continued till evening. The press arrived followed by the police. After failing to mediate and suggesting that ISS-HK join the negotiations, the police noted that the protest was peaceful and there was nothing more they could do, so they left. The protesters were preparing to start an occupation and considered options.
Then a senior SWD officer unofficially agreed that the guesthouse solution would not be scrapped, but kept as one option in the protocol in the winding down of slums. An adjustment period is necessary for refugees accustomed to spacious yet dangerous and illegal slum rooms, to transition to multiple-occupancy in apartments. A degree of flexibility and respect is owed to slum-dwellers who were neglected for years in dangerous slums and suddenly evicted.
Further it was accepted that traumatized refugees, and those with medical conditions, should not be threatened with eviction when they fail to secure 1500$ rooms, or refuse to share with strangers, until lasting solutions are identified.
It is hoped that this wave of protest brought home to officials that genuine ‘case by case assessment’ does not equate with stopping rent to force vulnerable refugees overnight into shabby dormitories. This might be unavoidable when rescuing 2000 migrants in one day, but it is unpalatable for veteran refugees such as these protesters who have called Hong Kong home for 5 to 10 years. The guesthouse solution should remain available until suitable flats are secured, least homeless refugees take to the streets again in greater number.