Let us praise ISS-HK for promptly remedying a tense situation.
This week a distressed refugee couple requested our assistance after the ceiling collapsed in their room and they became homeless. The welfare policy for refugees offers a subsidy ($1500 a month) for premises rented directly from landlords through estate agents familiar with the ISS-HK procedure. In this case the couple had renewed the contract in February 2015 and were paying $200 a month on top of $3000 paid by ISS-HK to the landlord.
However, a lack of proper maintenance of the old and dilapidated building in To Kwa Wan caused the partial collapse of the ceiling. Refugees are forced to live in the cheapest rooms, often in the oldest walk-up buildings, if not in slums, where sudden structural damage might puts their lives at risk.
In this case, fortunately the refugee couple was unhurt. The landlord visited briefly, but, unconcerned about the welfare of his tenants, disappeared soon after and disconnected his phone. The couple felt bound by the Tenancy Agreement and was unsure about their obligations towards the landlord. With no money, nowhere to stay and food coupons damaged by the rain, the couple called their ISS-HK case officer for assistance.
The wife reported to Vision First that, on several occasions, she called their case officer asking for assistance. She complained that she was dismissed with remarks to the following effect: “I don’t have time”, “This is your problem, I cannot help you”, “I don’t care about your problem. I have many clients (to assist)”, “I am busy. Don’t come (to ISS-HK office). I will not see you”, “I will not visit (the room) because the building is dangerous”, “If you don’t like it, go back to your country.” After which the ISS-HK case-worker would hang up the phone
With dignity and composure, the wife explained to Vision First that death threats had driven her into exile, as if she needed to justify her vulnerability after being insulted by a professional tasked with and paid for her welfare. She was evidently less distressed by the inability to offer emergency accommodation, than by the crude and unwarranted remark: “Go back to your country!”
Vision First raised a complaint with ISS-HK and the same afternoon her case officer called the wife to remedy the situation. The thankful lady reported to Vision First, “My case officer said that she understood my situation and was sorry. She promised to do her best and asked me to collect dried food (emergency rations) and go to the office on Monday. I was very surprised when she gave me her mobile number and asked me to call if I needed anything.”
Irrespective of the inevitable difficulties and frustrations faced in our work, we are reminded that refugees are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity. The principle that “every asylum claim ought to be approach as genuine until it is proven that it cannot be substantiated by the claimant,” makes any dismissive remark highly unattractive.
It is worth repeating that the High Court directed that, “a refugee claimant deserve sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status. However, his basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government.”