The police arrived to mediate the stand-off in what has regrettably become an all too frequent scene at the headquarters of the Social Welfare Department, the department entrusted with the physical wellbeing of about 10,000 refugees in the city. After listening to complaints, a community relations officer called out, “How many people are homeless?”
What happened next was symptomatic of the sickness that pervades our society – unnoticed and unassisted the poor agonize among the affluent. In the overcrowded and guarded lobby of the SWD, 20 unintimidated men and women raised a hand. “Homeless people are a crime risk as they might commit offenses out of desperation,” a concerned police officer whispered.
Nevertheless, this warning appears to be largely ignored in the offices of the Security Bureau, the mastermind behind refugee policies in Hong Kong. This semi-autonomous global city follows a precept that is plainly depicted in its distrust towards the poor that frequently makes the news.
Two visitors recently arrived in Hong Kong. One was the business magnate Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the fabled e-commerce company Alibaba. The other was the less prominent Jagadeep, who claims to be a victim of the “corruption that is eating away at India like a termite and is coming from the top”, as Indian Premier Modi lamented. Two visitors with two experiences worlds apart.
It was reported in the press that Jack Ma purchased a fabulous home on Hong Kong’s Peak for an eye-watering HK$1.5 Billion – the second most expensive property purchase in the history of the city. Government rules and regulations facilitate the entry into Hong Kong for the wealthy, who are shamelessly feted and encouraged to spend, purchase and invest to their heart’s content.
Jagadeep’s experience was less wonderful and included several weeks of homelessness. He was granted a one week visa which he was obliged to overstay to seek asylum, thus committing his first offense. He was then detained for a month and pressured to depart by the Immigration that is struggling with 10,059 asylum seekers shamefully homogenized into a melting pot of distrust, vilification and rejection.
It is a tale of two cities. Jack Ma surely deserves to enjoy the fruits of his success from the balcony of his new mansion overlooking Victoria Harbour. Part of his purchasing price was HK$12,750,000 in stamp duty paid into government coffers to fund policies that include the Social Welfare Department’s “Provision of Assistance-in-kind for Asylum Seekers and Torture Claimants”.
Like an anxious billionaire terrified of becoming poor in 20 years, Hong Kong Government is obsessed with hoarding HK$734 Billion in fiscal reserves and abstaining from alleviating poverty among those who today don’t have food and shelter. Shoulder to shoulder with 1.3 million impoverished Hongkongers, stand Jagadeep and 10,000 refugees who “we will continue to ensure do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong,” claims misleadingly the Security Bureau.
One of a hundred refugees who protested on 17 August 2015 at the SWD head-office begs to disagree, “The government pretends not to see our suffering. But they know our needs and our pain. They created this system. They know $1500 is not enough for rent in this expensive city. They know $1200 is not enough to eat for a month. They use (policies) to oppress refugees.”
A Refugee Union leader, who claims his basic needs are not met, exclaimed, “The government says we are not allowed to work. They say they give us enough rent and enough food, but they are lying. They delay (decisions on) our claims for 10 years and keep us here. We are dying. Hungry people are angry people. You can go ahead and lock all of us in jail. What difference does it make?”
More angry voices would not be suppressed: “You see our children? We are in starvation. You make us suffer”, “Hong Kong pretends to be an international city, but this is a ghost city”, “They just pay for a system that abuses and rejects refugees”, “They know what is wrong, they know what is right, but they are not thinking about us”, “You can drink our blood, but drink it small and don’t kill us!”
“We will fight for our rights until there is change” promised an empowered Refugee Union member. But Vision First has serious reservations this is achievable in the near future. It is heartbreakingly obvious that Hong Kong Government turns a blind eye to the destitute, resident and otherwise, while crushing refugees behind bureaucratic lies supported by preposterous assurance that nobody will fall destitute while seeking asylum in the city that Jack Ma loves.
Security Bureau replied to the Legislative Council Secretariat concerning 500 complaints letters lodged by members of the Refugee Union on the inadequacy of welfare support.
“Foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong, and visitors who overstayed their limit of stay allowed by the Immigration Department (ImmD) or who were refused entry by the ImmD upon arrival at Hong Kong (collectively “illegal immigrants”) are subject to be removed from Hong Kong in accordance with the Immigration Ordinance (Cap. 115). To safeguard immigration control and for public interest, they should be removed as soon as practicable.”
“Some non-refoulement claimants may not be able to meet their basic needs when their claim is being assessed. Since 2006, on humanitarian grounds, the Government has been offering in-kind assistance to these claimants to prevent them from becoming destitute (the assistance programme). Coverage of such assistance includes temporary accommodation, basic utilities allowance, food, clothing, basic necessities, appropriate transport allowance and counseling activities … The Government has enhanced the service package … since February 2014:
- Accommodation: the rent allowance grid per adult claimants has been increased to $1,500;
- Food: the budget for food for each claimant has been increased to $1,200 a month;
- Utilities: the allowance per claimant has been increased to $300 per month;
- Transport allowance: the allowance per claimant has been increased from $200 t0 $420 per month.”
“We will carefully consider all the views received, including the concerns expressed in the 291 + 209 cases enclosed in your letter, with a view to ensuring that the non-refoulement claims are screened in a fair and expeditious manner and deterring illegal immigrants and abuses to our current system. Meanwhile, we will continue to ensure claimants do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong.” (emphasis added)
Refugees are not allowed to purchase certain products with the newly introduced food coupons. On 8 June 2015, the Legislative Council “Panel on Welfare Services” suggested that the Social Welfare Department, or its contractor ISS-HK, produce a detailed list of excluded products. The list would help avoid, or at least minimize, arguments between refugees and cashiers that inconvenience impatient customers at busy check-out counters.
There are plans to expand the coupon network to other supermarkets to increase product variety (including Halal and ethnic choices) and price competitiveness, as the 280 stores operated by Wellcome are not known for the cheapest prices. Meanwhile, cashiers require training and guidelines to reduce the subjective interpretations of the “Terms and Conditions” printed on the back of coupons.
Here is an example of the challenges faced by refugees: a mother shared on the Refugee Union chat, “One of my friend went to Wellcome and wanted to buy milk for her baby and the cashier say that she can’t buy the milk with the coupon. So what is the use of the coupons that we get from ISS if we can’t buy the milk for our babies?” A member updated the group, “After the fight at last she got the milk. I think it depends on the Wellcome staff.” Another offered a thoughtful solution, “We need to present our problems as mothers to the Social Welfare as quickly as possible.”
A Vision First member reported that she had successfully purchased baby formula at several Wellcome stores, until it ran out in her neighbourhood. Babies can be incredibly fussy about what they eat. The mother broadened her search and found the preferred brand at a 24-Hour Wellcome, only to be told that the coupons were not accepted for “baby needs”. After assuring the manager that other branches allowed the purchase, she left with a hungry, screaming infant.
A refugee family traveled to Causeway Bay to shop at a Wellcome store that offered a large variety of fresh vegetable and fruits which their three children could not enjoy under the previous in-kind food distribution. It was evening and the store was especially busy. The cashier was confused and called the manager who inspected each item in the shopping cart: Nutella was removed “because it is chocolate”; chicken fillets were removed “because they are not frozen”; potato chips were removed “because they are snacks”; vinegar was removed “because it contains alcohol” …
The mother and children were embarrassed by the protracted and fastidious inspection executed under the intrusive stare of a growing queue of annoyed customers. The husband was downright offended. He was insulted by the examination, yet had no recourse against such degrading treatment if he wanted to collect groceries for his family. He vowed never to return, which was probably of little consolation.
Are food coupons and the absurd policing of shopping cart meant to introduce a new form of humiliation that refugees must submissively endure to remain in our city? It has been reported that refugees must present all their receipts to caseworkers in order to receive coupons for the following month. What is the point of this practice if Wellcome staff already performs the inspection?
There are many reports of coupon-bearers being denied baby formula, fresh milk, non-frozen meats, as well as sweet and savory goods that could be classified as ‘snacks’. No wonder the trading of food coupons is already underway, selling for about half face value to the same astute middlemen who previously profited from emergency rations and now trade in valuable coupons.
Vision First urges authorities to scrap the products ban, or at the very least to promptly publish the list of excluded items, as the terms and conditions carried by the food coupons remain open to interpretation.