The Refugee Union published the Social Welfare Department reply to a petition requesting the urgent increase in welfare last enhanced in January 2014. Regrettably, the SWD informs that there are no plans to adjust welfare to interim inflation and skyrocketing rents after three years.
The SWD alleges that the assistance meets basic needs with 1500$ in monthly rent, 40$ a day for groceries and 200$ transportation, with zero provision for clothes, shoes, shaving cream, household detergents, reading glasses, haircuts, mattresses, blankets, cooking and kitchen ware, furniture, diapers, school supplies and transportation, credit for phones, dental service etc. The SWD also maintains that refugees require a single roll of toilet paper per month.
Magnet Effect and Mathematics
Vision First believe there is little substance in the justification that refugees should be denied anything more than a very basic assistance “so as to avoid a magnet effect.” As there is no evidence of any such “Magnet Effect”, it appears this claim is a wholly speculative allegation. Indeed, the Security Bureau and SWD in their own paper issued to the Legislative Council on 8 June 2015 admitted that they have a duty to meet the basic needs of refugees in full. Thus, the Magnet Effect would only apply to extra assistance, above and beyond meeting basic needs.
“The Social Welfare Department (SWD) is charged with the responsibility to provide the assistance programme through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) since April 2006. The objective of the assistance programme is to ensure that non-refoulement claimants will not, during their presence in Hong Kong, become destitute. The assistance programme is not intended to provide them with extra assistance than is necessary to meet their basic needs, so as to avoid any magnet effect which may have serious implications on the sustainability of the assistance programme and on our immigration control.”
In reality, the stringency of immigration controls has not correlation with the well-being of refugees who already sought the protection of Hong Kong Government. The Immigration Department may learn from the past, but the SWD should not raise border integrity as an excuse to oppress local refugees. Further, numbers have raised manifold since aid started in 2006, suggesting that welfare is not the reason why refugees travel here. Denying adequate levels of welfare is just a policy to oppress refugees in order to encourage constructive refoulement. After six months’ of deliberation the SWD confirms that:-
“The Government considers that the current provisions are sufficient to meet the basic needs of service users and has no plan to change the arrangement at this stage.”
However, the Refugee Union’s petition reports that welfare fail to meet the basic needs of virtually all refugees. Almost without exception the assistance by SWD and ISS-HK falls short of rental amounts, utilities, food and travel money, besides lacking the above necessities. In this regard, the suggestion that refugees in need of more assistance should provide justification to ISS-HK is frankly nonsense, as the assistance requested is to meet basic needs, and not to get something above and beyond the costs of such needs.
ISS-HK caseworkers treat requests for such basic assistance with typical rejection. Refugees are actually not asking for more assistance above and beyond meeting their basic needs. They are instead asking ISS-HK and the SWD for full assistance in order to meet basic needs – the difference is crucial. There is even greater fallacy in the advice to seek assistance from ISS-HK to locate suitable rooms because the price of subdivided, cubicle and coffin rooms is close to double the rental allowance. Thus 10,000 refugees evidently “have difficulty in so doing” and caseworkers stand powerless before landlords, despite non-binding promissory letters from rent guarantors, local or overseas. Obviously landlords deem such letters non-bankable. Finally, while it is correct that tenancy agreements reflect the terms and conditions agreed between tenants and landlords, it is wholly unreasonable to expect destitute refugees without the right to work to “ensure he fulfills the responsibilities thereunder”.
Vision First notes that under Hong Kong law and their own public statements, the Security Bureau and SWD have obligations to meet all basic needs of all refugees in Hong Kong. That is a legitimate expectation the refugee community relies upon. There are no exceptions under the law. It is disturbing that the conduct of these departments’ violates refugees’ rights by putting them at real and immediate risk. The Security Bureau and SWD have failed in their fiduciary duty towards destitute and highly vulnerable refugees.
SWD representations are false
The SWD’s reply to the Refugee Union’s reasonable demands is a false representation to refugees and the public that SWD meets the basic needs of protection claimants. In fact, the SWD arbitrarily violates the fundamental human rights of the vast majority of refugees in Hong Kong.
In our view, this conduct is unconscionable and unlawful as the SWD stubbornly refuses to meet refugees’ basic needs and further states that it will not review the current unsatisfactory levels of assistance. The next step will be a legal challenge.
UPDATE: It is understood that reporters from Apple Daily have been talking with the Refugee Union these days and positively engaged the community. Yet we cannot but argue whether the published articles are an oversight that might result in stereotypes being perpetrated at the expense of refugees who are now facing an even greater dilemma with ISS-HK unreasonably demanding that refugees identify resident “rent guarantors” for new and/or renewed tenancy agreements.
On 21 November 2016 about two hundred refugees staged a remarkable group protest at the Social Welfare Department (SWD) head-office in Wanchai. This protest followed a petition to SWD last week (link), in which the Refugee Union complained about insufficient levels of assistance. Such levels are well-known and haven’t been adjusted since January 2014 when already they ensured that the refugee community subsisted below the poverty line. Since then, inflation has rendered such assistance increasingly unrealistic, and refugees are prohibited from working.
Further, the grim reality that refugees are forced to navigate was recently made harsher by a policy change deployed by ISS-HK, namely, that refugees provide a resident guarantor for the renewal of tenancy agreements. This is an alarmingly punitive policy with a questionable legal basis. It is also a policy that does not have any social basis, as refugees do not necessarily have resident family, or sponsors to share long-term financial burdens.
At the protest, a refugee mother explained, “My caseworker requested I find somebody with ID card to guarantee my new home contract, or they will not pay rent assistance for me and my daughter. Where do I find somebody with ID? I don’t know anyone in Hong Kong who will help me like this.”
Unfortunately, this policy is making life extremely hard for refugees, who are being cast into the very destitution the government assistance is supposed to prevent. Ibrahim, a leader of the Refugee Union, didn’t receive rental assistance for November because he couldn’t provide the ID card copy of a guarantor. His landlord has already threatened to cut off electricity to his flat.
Vision first wonders if ISS-HK will be responsible for refugees and their children being left without power and suffering from malnutrition (no fridge) and discrimination (no lights for homework) as a result of this policy. Ibrahim perceptively observed, “Already the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese media make us look very bad, as if all refugees are criminals who come here to abuse the system. How can we now find residents to guarantee our rent when they read this stuff in the paper?”
Vision First would like to know who devised this policy change? Is it a reaction to high rents for subdivided flats and “coffin rooms” (unaffordable with the 1500$ rent assistance), or has Hong Kong Government lost millions of dollars in security deposits on rooms vacated by refugees who could not afford to pay rent surpluses? Is it yet another trick to force refugees to give up seeking asylum and return home ‘voluntarily’? Or is it a device to force them to work unlawfully, thus filling the labour shortage in the informal economy? And will this poorly advised policy lead to unexpected protests?
Today, guarded by about 20 CID police officers, refugees protested peacefully. A representative of the SWD was persuaded to hear the grievances expressed by the Refugee Union on behalf of its members. The police capably mediated. The SWD officer was reminded that a response to the petition was urgently needed because the refugee community is under tremendous pressure, unable to subsist with the current levels of assistance and new demands for rent guarantors.
With professional composure, the SWD officer listened to the requests of the Refugee Union and revealingly replied, “We received your letter last week and we will handle it with the Security Bureau. We will give you a reply soon. The Refugee Union’s spokesperson, Peter Maina informed, “ISS is requesting a guarantor and if we don’t provide one, they will not pay our rent. So how are we supposed to pay rent?” The officer assured, “As I mentioned, we will reply to you as soon as possible”.
At that point Ibrahim politely interjected, “The issue of the guarantor is very serious. Even for my family ISS did not pay rent this month.” The SWD officer responded, “As I mentioned, we need to handle it with the Security Bureau.” Ibrahim expressed concern, “My situation is very serious because I don’t want to bring my kids to be homeless outside …” The officer assured, “Sure, I understand. Each case is also serious … thank you, thank you” and she retreated behind the police to her office.
Back on Queen’s Road East, the police and the Refugee Union agreed these were pressing issues and future protests will be better organized. Then a liaison officer inquired, “When will the next protest be?” A Refugee Union leader frankly replied, “Next week … two or three times. Great pressure must be put on the SWD because only they can control ISS about this rubbish demand for rent guarantors. It is also SWD’s job to discuss our welfare with the Security Bureau. So they will hear from us again next week and every week until our problems are resolved.”
The right to protest unfair treatment is all that remains for refugees oppressed by a failed welfare system. The Refugee Union put it clearly in their petition, “We maintain that the current levels of assistance have been designed to ensure we refugees are destitute at all material times. Such conditions have been designed to compromise our physical and psychological well-being. This system of control thus compromises us to the extent that some refugees embark onto self-remedies such as illegal work, theft, etc. in order to pay for food and rent putting their liberty rights at risk.”
This is a situation that any level-minded person, whether resident or not, will find unacceptable.
Frankly it was the most humiliating experience in my life. The alarm rang when I left a Wellcome store after buying some groceries. Two members of staff stopped me and asked to look inside my backpack. They busted me for not paying for black pepper, yogurt and an air-freshener – total valued $196.
They called the police and I was taken to the back office for a preliminary investigation, before being escorted to the police station where an interpreter was called to make a statement. I was detained overnight and released on bail the following evening with instruction to attend Kwun Tong Magistracy later this month.
My offense happened in the afternoon of 3 October 2015, exactly a month after I collected from ISS-HK $1200 in Wellcome coupons for September and two days before my October appointment. That morning I neither had breakfast, nor lunch. Actually the week before the incident I only ate dinner, as food and coupons were running low.
My fridge was empty. I might as well have removed the power plug, as inside there was only bottles of tap water. My roommate and I had some oil and salt in the kitchen – nothing else. Even our knife was broken and the frying pan had seen better days. In September I paid 6 food coupons (each one worth $100) to my landlord to settle the outstanding electricity bill he pressured us to pay.
Waking up hungry on the morning of 3 October, I opened the empty fridge and asked my roommate, “Do you have any coupons left? I only have one.” He replied he had none and had recently borrowed two from a refugee. At that moment a friend called and asked to meet me in Jordan. I told him I could not, I was hungry, had nothing to eat and needed food for the weekend for myself and my roommate.
I visited a refugee nearby who lent me two coupons I promised to replace on Monday, after I collected mine for October. Then I walked to a nearby Wellcome store, where I put in the shopping basket the cheapest options for: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, fruit juice, eggs, condensed milk, teabags, sugar, bread and some other vegetables. The total bill was about $300.
When I placed some items in my backpack, I knew it was wrong. I was compelled to steal. I have never done it before in my life. It was foolish and I deeply regret it. In another lifetime … if my country were not ravaged by war … I would never steal to eat. I am a man of God who loves peace and believes in honesty. I know that stealing is wrong.
It is very hard to survive on $40 a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything is too expensive in Hong Kong. The small tub of yogurt was $85 and a necessity in our cuisine. We also needed the $32 of black pepper to cook. The air-freshener was $79. I intended to neutralize the stench in our small and damp room. I will never forget those prices I could not afford as I am not allowed to work.
As a refugee I feel that life is often beyond my control. I have to make tough choices to ration $40 for food each day. But I also used the food coupons to settle the electricity in our room. Further, my ISS-HK caseworker refused to refund $245 for cooking gas because the invoice showed my name. She requested that the gas company reissue it. However, seven times before I submitted similar receipts with my name and they were accepted. She said she would only refund $100 and I had to wait a month. That was my food money I used to pay for the gas. I felt I was cheated.
The truth is that I have never been this depressed and humiliated. My life is as damaged as my fridge is empty. My living conditions are grim and the situation is deteriorating since I sought asylum.
I am hanging by a thread that I fear will snap any moment and cast me into chaos. Hong Kong has put a timer on my life … blurring my existence … waiting for me to die slowly, slowly. I fend off thoughts of taking my life.