A stark difference in terminology was evident at the Legislative Council meeting of the Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. On the one hand, the Security Bureau blatantly branded asylum seekers and refugees “collectively as ‘illegal immigrants’”. On the other, the welfare panel titled the session as “Issues relating to welfare of refugees, torture claimants and asylum seekers” and lawmakers used the terms refugee or claimants during the hour-long discussion,
Vision First deplores the Security Bureau’s brief that repeatedly vilifies refugees as: “foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong”, “to safeguard immigration control and for public interest, they should be removed as soon as practicable”, “the illegal immigrant status of non-refoulement claimants will not change,” and “illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong are not to be treated as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees.’”
Such rhetoric ought to be tempered by an awareness of the inalienable nature of the fundamental right to seek asylum – including in Hong Kong. In his opening remarks, Dr. Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung lamented, “Although we have not signed the UN Refugee Convention, refugees do exist … More advanced societies feel the responsibility of taking care of these refugees on humanitarian grounds. So first of all, I have to say that we should not label these people who flee their country to Hong Kong as illegal immigrants. Many of them entered our Territory through legitimate means.”
Turning to welfare issues, Dr. Fernando remarked, “Food coupons are an improvement. In the past many media organizations conducted investigations and in fact one third of funds were lost through the distribution of food at the seven food distribution outlets (appointed by ISS-HK). So food coupons are an improvement … But some refugees are prevented from purchasing (certain items). Why are they prevented? Who set the rules? … Who made the list (of allowed items)?”
The SWD responded that an electronic coupon scheme would be rolled out for purchases from other supermarkets, as well as ethnic shops selling specialty items such as Hallal food. It was further agreed that a list of banned products would be supplied so that refugees and shop attendants are informed about what is permitted and what is banned. Vision First laments that refugees were not consulted beforehand and we will lead negotiations with the SWD to optimize the food list.
The Hon. Poon Siu-ping inquired about the USM claim process, average and maximum length of asylum and locations where refugees customarily work. In this respect he inquired, “(Regarding refugees working illegally) I would like to know if this is due to insufficient welfare assistance. Has the SWD been giving extra help with their living expenses?”
Mr. Billy Woo, Principle Assistant Secretary of the Security Bureau, provided general information about 10,000 pending USM claims; Immigration will process 2000 cases in 2015; many cases of employment take place in remote recycling and auto parts yards; claimants remain in HK on average 2 to 3 years, some as long as 8 to 10 years; many overstay over 12 months before lodging a claim. The question about insufficient welfare was skillfully evaded.
The Hon. Albert Ho Chun-yan robustly criticizes current policies, “I am shocked to know that some refugees have been stuck here for almost 10 years. Even 4 years is very long! (As some are effectively stateless) we have the duty to accept them because they have been here for more than 10 years. Do they have to wait for another 10 or 15 years? … And the humanitarian assistance program is not really humanitarian enough … What can they afford with $1500 a month for accommodation? The greatest problem is they are not allowed to work … It is just like putting them in jail. Can you relax the restriction on employment?”
The Security Bureau gave a historical retrospect on court judgments emphasis that claims must be assessed according to high standards of fairness. Attentive readers might wonder whether such requirements correlate with screening results, that is, 28 successful claims out of a total of 10,000 determination in 23 years since the UN Torture Convention was extended to Hong Kong in 1992.
Mr. Woo then remarked, “If their claim is substantiated they may apply to the Director of Immigration for employment …” He was abruptly interrupted by Hon. Ho, “Yes, when their claim is substantiated, but some have been waiting for 10 years! Why can’t you allow them to take up employment with some conditions? Mr. Woo reiterated that due to immigration control and public interests, the current policy would not be changed.
Dr. Hon. Helena Wong Pik-wan put forward several requests, “Can you make a performance pledge that claims will be settled within two years of arrival? The significant criterion is how much time does have claimant have to wait … If you don’t have enough personal, you should recruit more people … This is very inhuman because (refugees) are just kept from becoming destitute, but you do not allow them to work. What can they rent for accommodation with $1500 a month? Can you tell us where the claimants live with $1500 a month? They are not allowed to work, so do they come to Hong Kong with a lot of assets? If they have no idea how long they are going to wait, shouldn’t you designate places of employment so that they can supplement their means of subsistence?”
The Security Bureau responded obliquely about the court rulings it must follow, before inviting Mr. Lam Ka-tai, Deputy Director of Social Welfare, to respond. Mr. Lam remarked, “Most of the claimants live in Kowloon and the New Territories. I have visited some who live in old building in Mongkok. Maybe 2 share a room … We encourage them to share rooms because this is not a welfare provision, but humanitarian assistance.”
Neither the Security Bureau, nor the SWD addressed the issues of insufficient rent assistance and designated work places for refugees to work legally. The Hon. Leung Che-cheung observed, “… $1200 for food does not seem to be adequate. Perhaps this is why they resort to working illegally.” Mr. Lam of the SWD responded, “… During their stay in Hong Kong, if they are unable to meet their living expenses, then on humanitarian grounds we will provide humanitarian assistance, but I emphasis this is on humanitarian grounds, it is not welfare benefits …”
The Hon. Leung Kwok-hung ‘Longhair’ enumerated current levels of assistance and remarked, “Although you say that by discretion you can approve a higher amount, basically it is not sufficient so there are only two ways to address the problem. One is to withdraw from the mechanism altogether (i.e. the UN Torture Convention) and stop claimants from coming … (the other) is to allow them to work under your supervision is better than allowing them to work anywhere. In fact (to imprison refugees for working) is more expensive than the welfare costs.” The Security Bureau reiterated it was bound by court rulings and planned to fast-track screening, but sidestepped the issue.
Dr. Hon. Kwok Ka-ki supported a performance pledge for screening before asked, “How is the $1200 amount for food set? Because $1200 a month for food really isn’t sufficient. According to media reports, ISS-HK has been receiving very bad reviews from service users, and yet the three regions of the contracts were awarded to ISS. What is the reason? Is it because you didn’t receive bids from other tenderers? Why is it that despite their poor review and feedback, you still allow the ISS to pick up the contracts?”
The SWD listed numerous food items available and remarked, “On production of a medical certificate, the SWD will decide on the case merit … if the budget of 1200$ is not sufficient. As for ISS-HK … we invited NGOs to submit bids for the service contract and ISS-HK was the only eligible bidders.” He was interrupted by Dr. Kwok, “My question is, where there other bidders?” prompting a significant clarification from Mr. Lam, “Apart from ISS-HK, we did not receive other bids”.
Vision First observes that this statement raises a thorny question: ISS-HK being a Swiss multinational, why wasn’t a single local NGO interested in providing so-called humanitarian assistance to refugees? Could it be that the levels of assistance were considered unreasonable and thus impracticable and perhaps morally reprehensible?
The Hon. Elizabeth Quat returned a leading issue of the meeting, “In relation to the accommodation, I see there is a rental allowance of $1500 per month. We are short of housing in Hong Kong. With $1500, have you considered where (refugees) are living? Are there any street-sleepers?”
The SWD responded, “They mostly live in Kowloon and the New Territories. We encourage them to share a flat, because for four persons if they share a flat they can afford a $6000 flat with two bedrooms …” The Hon. Quat interrupted, “I would like to know if the administration has the addresses of the 9000 odd claimants in Hong Kong? … Is it mandatory for the claimant to report an address to ISS?” After beating around the bush, the Security Bureau confirmed, “ISS does have the addresses.”
The Hon. Elizabeth Quat pushed on, “Perhaps a paper can be produced after the meeting. I would like to know about their state of accommodation. Do you know if any of them are street-sleepers? Do you know?” The response by Mr. Lam of the SWD came as a surprise to Vision First, “As far as I know there aren’t any! … The ISS must make an individual assessment. The ISS has to visit the accommodation and look at the conditions. They have to a thorough assessment before giving the rent allowance.” Vision First has frequently blogged about homeless refugees and brought such matters to the attention of Mr. Lam’s staff.
In the second round of questions, Dr. Fernando remarked, “When the service contract was to be awarded, one of the terms in the tender was that no single organization can get all three (service regions). Yet the SWD has failed to follow this. This is regrettable, because we have seen many problems with ISS-HK in carrying out the contract.”
Dr. Fernando took the authorities to task, “With $1500 a month it is very difficult for anyone to rent decent accommodation. If they are willing to share a flat that is better, otherwise many refugees are paying well beyond the rent allowance. I want to ask why ISS cannot sign the tenancy agreements on behalf of the refugees. In fact many refugees have to pay more than $1500 rent. I don’t think this is possible because these people are not allowed to work, they don’t have any income.”
The lawmaker was relentless, “Where can (refugees) find the money to rent bed spaces that cost over $1500? Isn’t this policy forcing refugees to do something illegal? They cannot rent a unit costing more than $1500 without an income. I would like to known the number of cases where there is over-payment of rent and why ISS can’t sign the leases. And what is the mechanism for adjusting the rent and food allowances, is it done annually?”
The SWD sidestepped the issue by remarking that many claimants had sign contracts already before they registered with ISS-HK. This is another statement Vision First will disprove with data, particularly relating to new arrivals who seek immediately assistance and to refugees who have lived in Hong Kong for over a year, the typical duration of leases for subdivided rooms.
The Deputy Director of SWD, Mr. Lam concluded with an indirect reference to the 69 refugee slums exposed by Vision First between May 2013 and November 2014, many of which have not been closed down for lack of viable alternatives within the $1500 rent allowance. Mr. Lam remarked, “The important is for the SWD or ISS to assess whether the accommodation (refugees) have sought is appropriate or not.” Vision First will continue to monitor the legality of refugee housing.