We read once again in the newspaper that the government intends to import foreign workers to address significant labour shortage in key areas of the economy. It is hard to understand why such a call is made when thousands of refugees in Hong Kong are stubbornly denied the right to work, and are thus institutionally prevented from providing such indispensable labour.
Here is a considerable supply of workers that currently powers the informal economy and barely earns enough to survive. Interestingly, they return most if not all their income to society in the form of rent and extortionary utility bills paid to greedy landlords. Were these capable individuals allowed to work temporarily where labour is urgently needed, the government could kill two birds with one stone.
On one hand, it would make use of flexible and readily available workers who desire nothing else but to be made productive during the time they await their asylum claims to be processed. On the other, the government would only need to provide welfare assistance to those unable to work, while allowing others to deploy underutilized skills. It makes good economic sense to explore this solution.
We ask: isn’t it in the best interest of all parties to allow refugees to work when they are skilled, young and physically able to endure arduous work, thus boosting the stretched labour supply? Doesn’t it make economic sense to save on labour import cost and employ people already in the city, who are currently denied any chance to contribute their skills to society?
We are told that it will be hard to complete future construction projects without resorting to foreign labour. Some refugees report that construction site managers approached them in the streets offering work because their boss faces tight schedules to deliver projects under conditions of labour shortage. Often, refugees turn such offers down, because they lack work rights and fear incarceration.
We question the use of rendering unproductive the entire community of refugees that is keen to engage in hard work to be considered “humans and not dogs”, because “even dogs are expected to do something, while we are just made to beg for food”. The government must bear in mind these are human beings with fundamental human rights, irrespective of the merits of each asylum case.
Refugees could be granted limited work rights in specific sectors of the economy, for a limited amount of hours per week. They could be offered alternative visa arrangements to step out of the asylum impasse. They could receive temporary worker visa to provide for themselves and their families back home. Refugees are not economic migrants. However – just like you and me – they too have pressing economic needs. What would happen to you and your family if you were unemployed for a decade?
The Security Bureau insists that granting work rights to refugees would engender a serious risk to the local labour force. What if the labour force is insufficient for the economic needs of the city? Wouldn’t that also be a serious threat to growth and prosperity? Vision First firmly reiterates that refugees would be an asset for Hong Kong, if only their skills and resourcefulness were wisely deployed.
It’s time for some lateral thinking outside the old ‘prejudice box’.
Refugees toil in the shadow economy to supplement a failed welfare system
RTHK followed photographer Billy H C Kwok’s work in the refugee ghetto
It has been reported that ISS-HK case worker Rachel Li said to an African mother:
“We want the government to deport all you people, so we can be free!
You people are disturbing.
You people are annoying.“
ISS-HK Miss Panares said to the press, “I marvel at how brave they (case workers) have been to be actually dealing with this. I can tell you it’s quite a tough job for them because they are trying to provide support at the same time they are saying, ‘We cannot give you everything you need.’”
While Miss Panares marvels at her teams’ courage, nobody marvels at their lack of sympathy!
A Somali refugee complained to his ISS-HK case worker that he wasn’t getting three square meals a day. He was told, “That is not my problem. You go and find some food!” He noted that in his war-torn country it wasn’t as hard to stave off hunger as it is here, where he will be jailed for working for food. There is no excuse for refugees to be hungry in an affluent city that dumps 3,000 tons of foodstuff every day, or the equivalent weight of 600 elephants. Shame, shame, shame!
A recognized refugee approached ISS-HK for fresh milk for his baby. He was told, “If you want more milk, we must reduce the baby formula. We cannot give you both even if your child is losing weight!” The father asked for 20$ to buy fresh vegetables for his baby. The officer said, “No. We don’t have budget for this.” The refugee had a medical certificate confirming the child was sick and had lost weight. It meant nothing as the case worker stuck rigidly to rules in the face of evident hunger and despair.
In these three cases a pressing human need was met with professional negligence and lack of the very sympathy that the High Court demands for people seeking asylum. ISS-HK should be on notice that Vision First is recording every incident as evidence to be submitted to court, with the name of the case worker responsible for the affront. There is a time to hurt people and there is a time for pay. The husband of African lady said, “There will come a day when Rachel Li will run home with no clothes on!”
Vision First is filing “Applications For Legal Aid (Civil)” at the Legal Aid Department. The LAD officers tried to block the attempt by asking for supporting documents from ISS-HK. This ridiculous request was dealt with promptly in a very vocal and energetic fashion. Nothing will stop a rightful and long overdue judicial review of the shameful welfare that oppressed refugees since 2006. The grounds for Judicial Review are:
- Unfairness and procedural impropriety
- Apparent bias
- Order mandamus SWD to confirm refugees’ needs are being met.
The court decision is required on: Social Welfare Department and ISS-HK’s refusal to provide sufficient funds to have all basic material and financial needs of asylum seekers and successful refugees and torture claimants met in full.
click above to see how a flat is subdivided with partitions
Sarah Cheng, blogs the story of refugee Ali on 30 October 2013
Ali Gare, 24, was in trouble. “Why you hang out with so many different girls?” his “girlfriend”, whose only friend was Ali on Facebook, commented under a photo of Ali and his hiking partners. “No, they’re only good friends of mine,” Ali replied urgently. This “girlfriend” is actually Ali’s father, however, one of the leaders of the Chadian rebels against Patriotic Salvation Movement, which now is reigning over Chad. Separated for 6 years, they talk occasionally on Facebook, sometimes on Skype.
Landed in Hong Kong a month and two weeks ago, Ali has no idea what he will be confronted with, joining the 103 refugees and 1,122 asylum-seekers here (UNHCR figures).Ali is getting used to relocation and he loves traveling as long as he is not accessible to the Chadian Embassy. Yet the experience in the last 40 days in Hong Kong has shrunk the robust man. His jaw recedes, his energy fades.
The refugees and asylum seekers are recognized as inhabitants by the government yet insufficiently supported. They’re not allowed to work, relying merely on the subsidies distributed by the International Social Service and NGOs in Hong Kong. For them, there is no way to join society and no way to return home. “I wake up in the afternoon at 3 p.m., go downstairs to pay the rent, have a cup of coffee in the street, and go for another coffee, and another, and another… until I go to bed at 4 a.m.,” Ali says, almost in a whisper.
He dodges into a hotel on Nathan Road, Kowloon when he arrives at Hong Kong. He pays 400 HKD daily on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and 300 HKD per day in the rest of the week. Ali has no friends in Hong Kong. He choked down chicken burger when he’s hungry. He loves shooting pictures and videos, but his Canon 5D Mark II is buried deep in his backpack ever since he arrives.
Ali’s plead has been accepted by the Immigration Department of Hong Kong. He hands in his passport to the officer, filing a few pieces of papers, and then registers in UNHCR and somewhere else which he cannot name. The Immigration Department asks him to wait for a month. One month later he received nothing. The days of no hope has driven Ali crazy. An Egyptian friend recommends Vision First, a Hong Kong-based NGO which provides free shelter for refugees. Ali came to the office in Sai Ying Pun 3 hours earlier on Monday, 28th Oct, waiting patiently for his enrollment.
“My father disputed with the King over the oil issues, and he required more money to resolve poverty and build schools. The King told my father either he accepted the bribe of millions of dollar, putting his head down or he would be kicked out of the country,” Ali says. “The King” is Idriss Déby, who was reelected as the President of Chad in 2006. Ali and his family fled their home in Boqza, a city in Southern Chad, in May, 2006 as his father built an army against the government for he refused to kneel down.
After finished his Bachelor Degree of Film Directing in 2010 in Cairo University, Ali worked as a TV director in Egypt and left for India. He stayed in India for 5 months, and Pokhara, a Nepalese town, for another 5 months. He tried to visit his European friends in German, Belarus, Poland, Ukrained. When he was tiring of travelling, he boarded a plane for Hong Kong for something serious.
This time is different. If Ali is lucky enough to acquire a refugee status in Hong Kong, he will not have to move from one country to another anymore. Hong Kong is one of the few countries and cities in Asia where Chad doesn’t establish its embassy. “When I saw the pictures of Hong Kong online, I thought it was a good place to stay, so I came here,” Ali says. “I miss rajima,” Ali says. Served with rice, bean and curry, rajima is one of his favourite foods in Pokhara, a small town near Katmandu, where Ali enjoys his day with his friends. Each dish of rajima costs Ali only 1 USD. Ali holds a film-directing class in Pokhara. He charges his European students 600 USD per lesson, Nepalese student 350 USD per lesson. When he doesn’t teach, he goes hiking and fishing with his friends on the Mount Budha rested behind his guesthouse.
“Pokhara is in a great contrast to Hong Kong. It is a small town where people talk to each other on the street,” he says. “If you forget to bring the money, you can pay back next time. Usually the money will be paid in 2 or 3 days.” “Hong Kong people hold themselves in, yet I know they are very nice when I talk to them,” Ali says. “I would like to come back to Hong Kong as a tourist in the future.” He plans to shoot a movie about his experience in Hong Kong when he comes back.
Ali stores an awful lot of pictures and videos of his friends and him smiling from ear to ear, howling with laughter in his Samsung tablet. Ali argues Celine Dion is the best singer in the world, while his friends don’t. The moment he receives his passport, Ali will fly to Nepal where his friends and students awaits. But his wonderland is not necessarily abroad. Ali’s father tells him he is going to win the war and Ali can go back to Chad with his mother, who lives in Saudi Arabia with Ali’s younger sister and brother.
“He’s a good man, adored by his colleagues.” Ali says. “He could have turned a blind eye by accepting the bribe, but he stood for his belief.” Ali respected his father’s undertaking as his father did his dream to be a director. His father never forced Ali to join his army. “He asked me to kill a chicken for the dinner and laughed at me when I said no,” Ali says and giggles. “I was only 14 then.” As an asylum seeker, Ali is a lucky one. “The Immigration Department told me my passport is going to be ready in a week or two, hopefully,” he says and leaves briskly for his dinner at McDonald’s.
Ali (Source: Ali’s Facebook)
Sarah Cheng, blogs an interview with VF member Ali on 7 November 2013
Egypt, India, Nepal, Belarus, German, Poland, Ukraine, Russia. Ali Gare, 24, is now in Hong Kong, his ninth destination, one step closer to his dream of directing. Yet in the past 7 weeks, he seldom travels around the city, mostly locking himself in his room.Ali’s father is one of the Chadian rebel leaders against the ruling party, MPS. What greets Ali, who joins the 103 refugees, 1,122 asylum-seekers in Hong Kong, is in a great contrast to what he saw online. To his desperate, he’s not allowed to work here. Ali helps himself to watch TV when tired of wandering.
No work permit is granted to refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong. Applications take years to be verified, some stretching into a decade. Some refugees become parents, whose claims still pending when their Hong Kong-born kids are permitted to go to school if their case worker nods. “Hong Kong government accepted 10 people (as recognized refugees) in the last 21 years,” says Cosmo Beatson, the Director of Vision First, a Hong Kong-based NGO working on refugee issues. It’s not just the foreign culture and lack of sufficient aids that overwhelm the refugees. Most troubling is the inordinate and endless wait which causes serious chronic depression, according to Beatson.
Refugees feel they are trapped in an “open prison”, where although free to move around the city, there is no future, says Beatson. Refugees and asylum seekers do not enjoy free therapy when mental problem knocks at the door. They are also too poor to buy one because, with subsidies of 1200 HKD per month, paid directly to the landlords, and aids like food and clothes from NGOs and s, they could barely make ends meet.
Ali and his family fled Chad in 2006 as his father built an army against the government to overthrow the dictatorship of “the King”, Idriss Déby, the Chadian president, Ali says. With an ambition to become a genuine film director, he made up his mind in Moscow and flew to Hong Kong, a city with prosperity and safety. Ali’s regrets mounted, his ambition unchanged. A dream is a dream. If he abandons his dream due to the hardship in Hong Kong, he would not have called it a “dream”, says Ali.
Two pieces of good news embrace Ali last week. One is his father tells him on Skype that his army is going to enter the capital city within 3 weeks. The other is Ali could pick up his passport at Immigration Department as long as he is ready to fly abroad. His next destination is the United States, where government-sheltered refugees are free to work. Friends have been waiting for him since Ali turned down their offer before he took his dream seriously. He’s going to shoot his short movie, “We need to change”, as soon as he finds his employment in Washington or Las Vegas.
Ali and his friends in Moscow (Photo: Ali’s Facebook)
by Raquel Carvalho
The cultural differences between Togo and Hong Kong can be greater than the miles between both places. Ibrahim and his wife Ally were forced to leave their home country. Now living in Hong Kong, they struggle to survive with little hope in the future.
Ibrahim Adjouma, 43 years old, recalls the sea and the lakes of his hometown, Aného. He talks loudly and excitedly about the big and tasty fishes that he used to eat back in Togo. He hasn’t tasted anything to equal this since he arrived in Hong Kong, on 8th February 2005.
“When you protest, your life is in danger,” he says, explaining why he had to leave Togo, in West Africa. After demonstrations against the 2005 presidential elections, Ibrahim never saw his younger brother again.
However, he didn’t give up until his own life was also in danger. “I’m sure they killed him and they didn’t want any questions. A best friend of mine, who was a high official, called me saying that they had decided together to arrest me, torture or kill me. He said I had to leave the country soon.”
When Ibrahim got his friend’s call, he was in a mosque praying for the days to come. From that time on, he would need more courage than he could ever imagine. He travelled in his friends’ car, crossed a lake by boat, and hid himself in a village lost on the map until he got a passport and a flight ticket in his hands. He would land in Kong Kong, not by option but by fate.
A guesthouse in Chungking Mansions was his roof for a few weeks, but soon he ran out of money. The Star Ferry Pier became his new home for six months until he was arrested. “After four months in detention, because the Hong Kong Government didn’t recognize the asylum seek card certificate, I had to file a torture claim at the Immigration Department,” describes Ibrahim.
While he is still waiting, he holds a document that doesn’t allow him to work in Hong Kong. His wife, Ally, left Togo in 2008, after being threatened by the police, and she is now in the same situation.
According to an article published in the South China Morning Post on December 2012, there were last year 5,200 torture claim cases pending assessment at the Immigration Department.
Although the couple’s two children, Adam and Marian, were born in Hong Kong, they were not granted resident cards. “Their situation is not established. And if they go to school we have to pay fees,” says Ibrahim, worried about the next few years.
Without sources of income, the family relies on support from the International Social Service, which is commissioned by the Hong Kong government, and from charity organizations. “The government gives us 3.600 HK dollars for the rent. But how can we find a flat for this price in Hong Kong? We are now in a temporary shelter and we have to find a house, but we don’t have any money for the deposit.”
To have food on the table is also a daily struggle. “We get about 4.000 dollars per month for the family. But that’s what they write in the paper….We don’t get the cash, we have to go to a store and collect the food. The prices are not fair,” Ibrahim complains.
His greatest wish is to get a piece of the life he once had in Togo, where he was a businessman with a house and a backyard. “I don’t see any future for me. I am already 43. All I want is to change my children’s future.”
Vision First offers short-term financial aid that is not intended to replace or even supplement government assistance. We shall continue to support destitute refugees when and where our resources allow it.
We emphatically state that refugees should not be reduced to begging for their daily survival. That is a cruel and immoral situation in light of the government’s financial reserves and purported respect for human rights.
As a reaction to the problem of refugees being made utterly destitute, today Vision First members will start to submit complaint letters to the Legal Aid Department requesting that the failed welfare provision be judicially reviewed by the High Court.
The aim is to encourage rapid procedural changes to a policy that, by design and by intent, causes greater hardship than most observers care to admit.
Hong Kong Government is under a legal obligation to meet refugees’ basic material and financial needs, since they are barred from working in one of Asia’s most expensive cities. Refugees are under the impression that they are forced to work to give authorities an excuse to deport them as undesirable criminals.
As a Srilankan refugee wisely said, “If you don’t allow me to swim than you must put me in your boat. If you throw somebody into the river with his hands tied behind his back - then you are murdering him!”
click above to download, print and fill in this complaint letter
Thomas Chan writes for South China Morning Post on 9 November 2013
Denying refugees and asylum seekers the right to work reduces them to “animal-like status” that risks creating serious social problems, human rights activists say. Fugitives who have fled their home countries wind up in Hong Kong largely by force of circumstance, not by design, and keeping them unemployed is bad for them and society. While the government fears that making it easier for such people to work would open the floodgates to more, rights lawyer Mark Daly said the system was turning otherwise intelligent and productive people into beggars.
“The worst case scenario is that they start to get mental problems because of the desperate situation and become a worse danger to society,” he said. The comments come ahead of a landmark case in the Court of Final Appeal in January in which three designated refugees – including a qualified lawyer – and a successful torture claimant are seeking the right to work. Asylum seekers awaiting the outcome of their claim with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recognised refugees awaiting resettlement to another country and torture claimants are banned from doing paid or unpaid work.
Julee Allen, manager of Christian Action’s humanitarian services department, said being unable to occupy their time meaningfully and productively damaged refugees’ mental health and added to feelings of social isolation, depression and hopelessness. “People feel they have been reduced to animal-like status,” she said. “All they can do here is sleep and eat and nothing more.” Mr A, a lawyer who fled political persecution in Africa and is one of the litigants in the Court of Final Appeal hearing, said he felt worthless. “My feeling is that I am a useless person without any dignity at all. I am just somebody who comes by the name only.”
The Immigration Department says 3,800 torture claims have been determined since the commencement of a new screening mechanism in December 2009, and only 10 have been substantiated. The UNHCR said 3,022 asylum seekers had lodged claims from 2009 to August 2013. As of August, there were 100 recognised refugees in Hong Kong, and 73 were of working age. Extraordinary temporary permission to work may be issued at the discretion of the Director of Immigration on a discretionary basis, but it is rarely granted. So far, only Mr A and a substantiated torture claimant have received such permission.
The department said giving asylum seekers temporary permission to work might create “a magnet effect”, attracting many illegal immigrants to Hong Kong. “This could have serious implications on the local labour market and on our immigration control regime,” it said. It has not been alone in arguing that permission to work would open the floodgates to more fugitives, creating unforeseeable social problems. But another rights lawyer, Patricia Ho, said the government had created a huge social problem of its own making. “In a workable and efficient system, the people who get to work are the people who are accepted,” Ho said. “They can’t be considered scum and extra people that society can have or not have.”
Legally, Daly said the ban infringed various human rights provisions, including the right to privacy, the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to work. He said protection claimants were also entitled to rights under the Basic Law, in particular the right to freedom of choice of occupation. He rejected suggestions that refugees were like economic migrants who came to Hong Kong in search of a better quality of life. “It is unrealistic to say that somebody is going to intentionally come here, put himself through a torture-screening process, and live in limbo for even a few years simply for the chance to eventually find a job,” he said.
Allen said: “If you talk to any recognised refugee, or person who has a protection need … they never thought of Hong Kong before that moment … that pushed them out of their home country.” Questions have been raised over the impact of the court ruling, given the small number of recognised refugees and substantiated torture claimants. “If we win, I believe the effect on respect for human rights and respect for human dignity will be huge, and transformation that it can bring to certain individuals will be huge,” Ho said.
In Britain, asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if they have waited for more than 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim, while the Malaysian government said refugees would be trained to seek employment during the time they are awaiting resettlement.
Jack Li’s photo Impressions of Subdivided Flat. He says it shows a distorted future where people have lost their basic rights to securing affordable housing.
Vision First is like a Private Members’ Club. We operate largely within a circle of trust where people come together to assist each other and advocate for change. It is important to note how Vision First acts in the capacity of a logistics provider. We offer the assistance refugees require to implement their own ideas. A case in point is the March for Protection: refugees demanded it, VF applied for police permit and organized media coverage. They did all the rallying and protesting.
The same drive is behind exposing the slums and food problem. These ideas germinated in the minds of members who had enough. We helped to make it happen. Our advocacy is essentially based on what refugees tell us that they need. Perhaps the VF advantage is that we listen. The recent Judicial Review action came from a Togolese member who said “I want to take ISS to the Human Rights Court”. We replied, “Sorry there is no such court in Hong Kong. But how about the High Court?”
Vision First is like a bus company that sees the demand for a route and provides the service to lead passengers to a new destination. They don’t have the resources and connections, so we become the resource provider and logistics coordinator. We are a truly grassroots organization relying on its members for new ideas, energy and approaches to advocacy. This unity leads to a powerful expression.
After the bus route is established, more members see the opportunity for change. They know they can reach the destination and come to join other people. They didn’t have hope before and now they see that something is possible. This is how our membership doubled in 2013 from 400 to 800, without counting 1000 refugees who live in the slums and don’t have 50$ to come to register.
We don’t expect beneficiaries to become activists. Vision First members already are. We simply assist and reward those who don’t have the resources to fight the system. Members rather expect that Vision First will make it happen. They put pressure on us to take action, find lawyers, fight harder. There is no exchange. ISS-HK is mandated and subvented to meet the needs of refugees. VF has no gap filling duties. While we are glad to help where possible, we neither have the resources nor manpower to assist 5000 claimants.
There is no exchange for aid. Currently if refugees need help they must go to ISS-HK. If they want more/better services, they must go to ISS-HK. VF does not intend to fill gaps in SWD service specification for ISS-HK. On a voluntary basis we do what we can, though our efforts perpetuates ISS-HK’ failures. We will never turn people away where we can – that would be contrary to our spirit of community.
We don’t have many members who are uncomfortable with protesting. There were some at the MFP who wore face masks, sunglasses and hoodies, but they are hard to find in the photos. That was in relation to 800 refugees energized by the occasion to voice legitimate demands. Rather we have to hold refugees back when they demand hunger strikes, jumping into the harbour, blocking ISS-HK shops and offices, even self-immolation!
We don’t share the view with other civil society groups and NGOs that feel the need to talk for victims who are voiceless, powerless and shapeless. Refugees can speak for themselves with more credibility and eloquence than any activist. That’s why we bring them to LegCo. That’s why they accompany us to every meeting, unlike other groups. Refugees have a clear understanding of their plight and rights. Vision First only needs to provide the bus and megaphone, both literally and figuratively speaking.
Vision First empowers refugees’ agency by providing a platform, strategies and tools that they use as they wish. We only have one paid staff and operate entirely with volunteer power. Vision First is a tiny organization, capable of reaching big goals with the support of its members and volunteers. It’s a unique structure that others are looking at replicating in other advocacy fields for its efficiency and impact. Vision First broke the old NGO mold and showed a different way to uplift the downtrodden.
We believe we don’t need to act as a link between refugees and society. Refugees can represent themselves directly and by doing so demystify the construction that they are helpless victims in need of charitable assistance. Consequently, were the government to meet their material and financial needs, refugees would find it pointless to visit NGO offices. Refugees need NGOs in a failed system, as much as NGOs need a failed system to prosper and grow. The status quo thrives on submission and fears the evolution that brings forth its own demise.
In a fair and just society, the NGO link between refugees and society is made redundant.
In final analysis, this might be the change some feel threatened by.
click above to see how a failed refugee system needs NGO assistance
Hello, I am Park, a Politics major student at HKU
The least likely place I expected to visit in the metropolitan ‘World City’ with fantastic night view and sky rocketing buildings, was a slum. As an international student being new to the city, the sharp contrast between the slum and the well-off houses neighboring each other seemed cruel and inhumane.
The sense of hopelessness was portrayed by our guide who took us around to three slum in Nai Wai, introducing us to his friends. They all seemed to be either far worse or similarly lost.
It would be useless to describe the surroundings, let alone the enclosed spaces or so called rooms, because a description will be inadequate to explain the horrible conditions. I would highly recommend a visit to the compounds because it may change ones perception towards the whole issue or refugees and the way Hong Kong treats them.
The refugees fled their home country and parted with their families to save their lives, but the current situation raises questions whether their run for their life was really worth it. During the tour the refugee showed us his food supply for the next five days; ice tea packets and a piece of chicken.
Another refugee said that rather than living in Hong Kong in such conditions, he’d prefer to return to his home country despite the high threat and risk of death that awaits him. However, for the refugees getting only 1200 HKD from the ISS-HK for rent and a sentence for 2 years if caught working illegally, their lives show no signs of improvement in the future.
If the government can be more attentive to the situation, or at least allow them the courtesy to live a decent life by granting work permits, there’s nothing that will stain Hong Kong and its reputation of being a ‘World City.’