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Evolve or die, mate

Nov 7th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Vision First firmly reiterates and emphasizes that refugees have an absolute right to be here. They are not guest, illegal immigrants or charity recipients. We were evidently not consulted when the UN Torture Convention was ratified – we would have opposed it – nor do we issue Recognizance Forms. We value each refugee as a human being deserving of the same respect and dignity as every other citizens.

Nobody is in any doubt the current welfare assistance fails refugees at every level. Protection claimants face brutal and unjust hurdles attempting to survive in this opulent city. Forcing anyone to live 37% below the poverty line is as cruel as it is constitutionally illegal. It is a matter that most citizens are unaware of and would consider shameful and unacceptable were they forced to confront its madness.

Every individual with a Recognizance Form was allowed into Hong Kong by the Immigration Department. The government considers it desirable that human beings should receive insufficient assistance, while being banned from working and punished with 15-22 months imprisonmentwhen they break the law. This is unacceptable. This has to stop in the name of the kindness and compassion of the average citizen.

Vision First walks and suffers with refugees. Another year, or day, should not pass without challenging the government’s failure to protect and civil society’s duty to address such glaring injustice. The responsibility and blame must now fall squarely onto the shoulders of those responsible for planning, implementing and perpetuating a mechanism of oppression. It is time to increase the pressure.

To this end, Vision First will close its shelter on 1 January 2014. We will also suspend all financial aid (150,000$ a month) to our 700 members, effective 1 December 2013. There will be no more cash for members who do not take a personal, active part in opposing an unjust asylum policy. The aim is to ensure that we stops filling gaps and lifting a burden that is absolutely the SWD’s responsibility – not ours.

Vision First will share its tactics with those who have suffered enough and dare to fight back. We will organize groups to achieve strategic targets. We will support any (legal) action that will usher in urgent change. Two million dollars of financial aid will be shared among members who are committed, join protests and bring strength to the collective. The first requirement is to produce a “Red Card” from Legal Aid Department for applying to judicially review a failed, oppressive welfare system. We will not fail our objectives. We will never fail the refugee community.

As Charles Darwin eloquently wrote, “Evolve or die, mate!”

No. 47 – The slum with the red light

click above to see a refugee ghetto in a farm shed

After I was jailed …

Nov 6th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

After I was jailed, I realized the mistake I made. In Lai Chi Kok prison inmates told me to plead guilty for a shorter sentence. At court the duty lawyer told me to plead guilty. I didn’t know he just wanted to close my case. I took the advice despite being innocent. I was sitting outside a work site when police raided it and accused me of working inside. I was not! The judge looked down at me like was the Devil!

After I was jailed, I understood the system seeks quick convictions to give refugees a bad name. The more refugees are jailed for working the more skewed are Immigration statistics against us. In fact, I am forced to work for rent, utilities, food and clothes. But on the day I was arrested, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If there is justice in the courts of Shatin Magistracy, I didn’t encounter it!

After I was locked up, I realized how horrible jail is. The wooden bed was so hard my back is permanently damaged. In winter we received two blankets in freezing cold cells – I have never been that cold before. You wake up with fluff in your eyes and mouth from the cheap army blankets. Dinner is 4pm and you don’t have lunch till noon the next day. You think about eating all the time between meals.

After I was released, I understood how unfair seeking asylum in Hong Kong is. Refugees cannot find a room for 1200$ and many don’t get help for utilities. Refugees go hungry with the insulting food we receive from ISS-HK shops. We have to buy fresh vegetable and fruit for our children. The welfare system is designed to entrap. It forces us to work, so they can say, “You see, he came here to work!”

After I came out, I realize that pleading guilty was a terrible mistake. Now my Removal Order is a “Deportation Order”. I can never return and if I do I will be jailed for seven years. I came here for protection. Now the notice I have reads “This conviction has led the Director to conclude that your continued presence in Hong Kong is undesirable”. I was framed by the system. I was played like a fool.

After I was freed, I learnt that justice is dead in Hong Kong. Or there is no justice for certain groups of people. It is nice to be rich in this city that worships wealth, power and status. However, the message on the prison walls is, “Don’t be a fool! Don’t think that we protect refugees! Go back to your country!” For things to change, we need action that breaks the old ways and ushers in the fairness refugees deserve.

No. 46 – The slum with the fish tank

click here to see how refugees and residents are treated differently

Cruelty and fraud rot the system

Nov 4th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Civil society is preoccupied about the closing of UNHCR (a lack of fairness caused their demise) and the launch of the Unified Screening Mechanism (Immigration typically makes changes in December), but nobody speaks out against the cruel and unlawful treatment of refugees at the hands of the Social Welfare Department and their contractor International Social Service (ISS-HK). Why such silence?

It is easier to hit broad targets and distant objectives, rather than combat a reality one became accustomed to. While it is true that refugees worry about future prospects, there is something everyone can do to alleviate their present suffering. Police inspected a crumbling shack outside Yuen Long. They heard complaints about high rent and no money to pay. Their response was, “This is not our problem!”

Typical response! As long as everyone repeats and believes, “This is not my problem”, refugees will continue to be segregated in ghettos without the ability to pay costs. For years civil society and NGOs heard complaints about slums, extortionary rents, rip-off electricity bills and the incarceration of those who dared to earn a day’s wage. What remedial actions were taken to combat this blatant injustice?

“This is not our problem” leads to hundreds of children at the St. Joseph’s Primary School in Kam Tin witnessing a refugee ghetto below their classroom windows. From above, the students see explicit, institutionalized destitution imposed as punishment on those who dared seek asylum in our affluent city. What does observing this social injustice teach the future generation of our global citizens?

Sandwiched between a primary school and Mercedes-Benz, refugees doubt the promise we made on the international stage – Hong Kong welcomes and protects victims of torture. What went wrong? Who betrayed this sacrosanct promise? Who is responsible for these inhuman and illegal structures? Who is genuinely motivated to fight the cruelty and fraud that rots the refugee system? The time is now.

The complete list of ghettos exposed by Vision First

No. 45 – The slum by the school

No information for NGOs on new system for asylum seekers

Nov 3rd, 2013 | Media | Comment

Jennifer Ngo writes for the South China Morning Post on 3 November 2013

A unified screening system for asylum seekers that is due to be up and running by the end of this year remains a mystery, with NGOs saying that the government’s continued silence was “extremely disconcerting”. Proposed by the government and approved by a Legislative Council panel in July, the new unified screening mechanism (USM) would monitor torture claimants as well as those seeking asylum on the grounds of persecution or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – “in one go”.

A government spokesman confirmed in a statement that it had set a deadline for the USM of the end of this year. “But since [July], we haven’t heard anything,” said Victoria Wisniewski Otero from the Refugee Advice Centre, at a seminar on the topic yesterday. “It’s worrying for the asylum seeker community here in Hong Kong and it’s creating a lot of anxiety.”

As Hong Kong is not subject to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government currently screens torture claims only, meaning the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) has had to take on the task of screening those seeking asylum who are not necessarily doing so on the grounds of having been tortured.

However, the city has been a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture since 1992, and it cannot expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being tortured. Two Court of Final Appeal decisions that said the government could not rely on the UNHCR to screen asylum seekers prompted the government to push out the unified process.

Otero said the government had made an open invitation for suggestions from stakeholders in July, but none had heard back since submitting their opinions. “There is a lot of uncertainty on how the USM will run. There are no details about how the system will be set up,” she said. Ambrose Chiu Chun-ki, the assistant resettlement officer at the UNHCR, said the agency had been having negotiations with the government since July.

Crashing through the poverty line

Nov 2nd, 2013 | Food, Housing, VF Report, Welfare | Comment

A new study reveals that 1.5 million Hongkongers live a poor and deprived life. This bleak picture takes into account not only income but deprivation, but how some in the city are forced to forgo items and social activities that most people consider customary. Poverty is not more than financial. It is defined as having insufficient resources over time, as a deprivation that excludes from participation in society.

The government is brainstorming poverty alleviation for 1.5 million citizens, who do have access to the labor market, welfare system and social network. Falling through the cracks is the comparatively smaller group of 6000 refugees who were not included in the above study due to irregular status. And yet this minority lives at the outer fringe of poverty and is more marginalized, deprived and excluded from society.

Revealing the official poverty statistics, the government acknowledged that “being poor in Hong Kong” means earning less than 3600$ for a single person, less than 7700$ for a couple and less than 11,500$ for a family of three. How do refugees fare in comparison? A single person’s allowance is 2,260$ (1200 for rent plus 1060 in food), which condemns refugees to struggling 37% below the poverty line.

The High Court found that a refugee “deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status … The provision of assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim”. Vision First tirelessly reiterates and emphasizes that this is not happening. The government is in breach of this judgment.

There are many issues plaguing refugee welfare besides segregation in government-run ghettos. Vision First is also gravely concerned about the distribution of 53,424,000 HK$ in food assistance. This annual figure is calculated by multiplying 4200 service users (recent ISS-HK quote), by the stated 1060$ in groceries, by twelve months. But what is the total value of food that reaches the plates of refugees?

We will reveal the results of a month-long research next week. There are serious doubts whether fraud and collusion are absent from the distribution of 53 million dollars through 7 shops owned by 5 companies. Is it possible that five different businessmen provide equivalent poor quality and low quantity in different districts without price fixing? Who is responsible for monitoring food value, food quality and adherence to the rule of law? Is somebody turning a blind eye? Is it not a level playing field?

Crashing through the poverty line

Crashing through the poverty line

Nov 2nd, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

A new study reveals that 1.5 million Hongkongers live a poor and deprived life. This bleak picture takes into account not only income but deprivation, but how some in the city are forced to forgo items and social activities that most people consider customary. Poverty is not more than financial. It is defined as having insufficient resources over time, as a deprivation that excludes from participation in society.

The government is brainstorming poverty alleviation for 1.5 million citizens, who do have access to the labor market, welfare system and social network. Falling through the cracks is the comparatively smaller group of 6000 refugees who were not included in the above study due to irregular status. And yet this minority lives at the outer fringe of poverty and is more marginalized, deprived and excluded from society.

Revealing the official poverty statistics, the government acknowledged that “being poor in Hong Kong” means earning less than 3600$ for a single person, less than 7700$ for a couple and less than 11,500$ for a family of three. How do refugees fare in comparison? A single person’s allowance is 2,260$ (1200 for rent plus 1060 in food), which condemns refugees to struggling 37% below the poverty line.

The High Court found that a refugee “deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status … The provision of assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim”. Vision First tirelessly reiterates and emphasizes that this is not happening. The government is in breach of this judgment.

There are many issues plaguing refugee welfare besides segregation in government-run ghettos. Vision First is also gravely concerned about the distribution of 53,424,000 HK$ in food assistance. This annual figure is calculated by multiplying 4200 service users (recent ISS-HK quote), by the stated 1060$ in groceries, by twelve months. But what is the total value of food that reaches the plates of refugees?

We will reveal the results of a month-long research next week. There are serious doubts whether fraud and collusion are absent from the distribution of 53 million dollars through 7 shops owned by 5 companies. Is it possible that five different businessmen provide equivalent poor quality and low quantity in different districts without price fixing? Who is responsible for monitoring food value, food quality and adherence to the rule of law? Is somebody turning a blind eye? Is it not a level playing field?

Link to blog:  http://visionfirstnow.org/2013/11/02/crashing-through-the-poverty-line/

 

Digging beneath the issue of food value

The broken window trap

Nov 1st, 2013 | Crime, Legal, VF Opinion, Welfare | Comment

Recent news of South Asians, supposedly torture claimants, robbing a mother and daughter understandably sparked distrust of and reprobation towards refugees in general, whose poverty and lack of integration mark exclusion from society.

While the violent crime must be condemned and punished, one should be reminded that poverty is inflicted on asylum seekers by unjust policies aimed at preventing social inclusion. The consequences are alienation and detachment from a community that rejected from the start.

Further, it is well known that when people are institutionally prevented from achieving a normal life, depending on their will to escape their circumstances and available opportunities, they may resort to crimes to survive. This direct, causal connection is always worthy of attention.

There is a hint of deception when access to asylum is offered without access to adequate support. Weaker individuals will be tempted by crime, when alternative and realistic means of survival are denied by a failed support system that is less than humanitarian.

It is now recognized that rent allowance and food provisions by SWD-ISS are insufficient. It is outrageous that refugees are plunged into destitution by the very program that aimed to prevent it. From rent to groceries, from electricity bills to cooking gas, from travel cost to phone bills … nothing has changed. Are the covert objectives sinister?

Refugees face dire circumstances that endanger their survival. It is shameful that they are left in destitution only to be condemned when falling to crime – and it should be noted that engaging in unlawful work is a crime. Whether refugees work, steal or sell drugs, they become criminals. Paradoxically, they received lighter sentences selling drugs and stealing, than taking up jobs!

Could this be asylum rejection by entrapment? The situation is not unlike parking expensive cars in ghettos to lure opportunistic thieves. In the “Broken Window Trap”, police place a mobile phone inside a smashed window to make an easy arrest. It’s an effective, but highly questionable sting.

When policies drive persons to commit offenses that they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit – entrapment becomes a possible defense against criminal liability. There is no mitigation for robbing a mother and daughter, yet Hong Kong’s asylum policy is wrought with ethical concerns.

A refugee slum in Lam Tei, Tuen Mun,  home to several dozen vulnerable and destitute claimants

For a Twelve Day Work Pass

Oct 31st, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Shatin Magistracy court yesterday sentenced Pakistani Waqir to eighteen months imprisonment for breach of condition of stay. He was arrested while trying to earn some badly needed cash. The Immigration Ordinance (Section 38AA) condemns torture claimants to a life of failed welfare and unreliable begging. In reality, these two strategies come up disappointingly short.

The law is clear. Section 38AA states that “a person in respect of whom a removal order is in force, must not take any employment, whether paid or unpaid.” In other jurisdictions working without a visa would be an administrative offence, punished by a fine. In Hong Kong it is a serious crime punishable by three years in jail and a 50,000$ fine. Are such sentences just in a failed welfare environment?

How often must refugees work part-time for 300$ a day to meet their most basic needs?
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes to calculate a subsistence budget:

  1. My rent costs 600$ over 1200$ paid by ISS = 2 days’ work
  2. My electricity cost 300$ over 190$ paid by ISS = 1 day’s work
  3. My food is worth 500$ of 1060$ ISS valuation = 2 day’s work
  4. My groceries cost an extra 600$ a month = 2 days’ work
  5. ISS toiletries lack essentials like shaving creams, etc. = 1 day’s work
  6. ISS does not pay for my cooking gas, cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
  7. ISS doesn’t pay for phone and other costs of 300$ = 1 day’s work
  8. ISS does not pay for my travelling costs of 300$ = 1 days’ work
  9. ISS does not provide cloths that cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
  10. If I had children this would be a much longer list!

We submit that refugees in Hong Kong should be allowed to work 12 days a month just to make up for what a failed welfare system effectively denies them. Until basic financial and material needs are objectively and fairly met, it is a miscarriage of justice to jail refugees who have no viable survival option. Anyone who disagrees is warmly invited to spend a week in a refugee ghetto without cash.

Hong Kong government should consider issuing “Twelve day Working Passes” to single refugees (families would need more) until the assistance package offered by ISS is enhanced to genuinely reflect realistic cost and actual needs. Offering half of a subsistence budget is shameful to all involved!

No. 43 – The slum with white blocks

No. 41 – The slum in the fish farm

Oct 28th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

A half-hour minibus ride from Yuen Long are the Mai Po marshlands. With proper foundations great estates have been developed, such as Fairview Park and Pam Springs. It’s quite a different story when landlord fail to drain the land and build on waterlogged soil. The environment might be good for fish farms, but not for humans.

In fragrant violation of land use, an exploitative landlord found a new source of income when raising gold fish became unprofitable. With the conniving assistance of ISS-HK, the Slum Lord turned this property around. It is no longer an abandoned structure, but a ghetto earning 35,000 HK$ in illicit profit from government rental assistance to refugees.

At first glance on a beautiful sunny day, one could easily be mistaken. A grand metal gate ushers visitors into a spacious, tidy courtyard where children love to play. If you venture any further, however, the underbelly of the beast reveals its dark secrets. The stench is unbearable. Insects sting viciously. Toilets don’t flush and every sink is as blocked as the drains they connect to.

It is heart-wrenching to witness the conditions that 31 refugees – including a dozen young children – endure due to ISS-HK’s connivance with an unscrupulous slum lord. Rooms cost the full allowance, but since deposits are not required, this compound is full. It is an absolute certainty that this refugee ghetto would fail the inspection of any agency – except the Social Welfare Department, it appears.

No. 41 – The slum in the fish farm

Peter’s trial will expose the rot

Oct 26th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Peter was released on 500$ bail at Kowloon City Court. Since legal proceedings have commenced, Vision First is no longer at liberty to comment on the case. Suffice it to say that Peter pleaded “Not Guilty” and a trial day was set for 4 December 2013. On that day the long relationship between Peter and ISS-HK – going back to June 2006 – will be exposed in meticulous detail.

Before trial, it might dawn on ISS-HK that having protesters arrested is one matter, while sending them before a judge is quite another. Why? From a close working relationship with UNHCR, ISS-HK might have learnt that they always dropped charges to avoid refugees testifying in court about failed services for the press to report exhaustively. The wise UNHCR fox knew better than becoming a prosecution witness. That foresight appears to be missing.

There is much to say about what happened to Peter’s family. Alas, owing to the upcoming trial we are advised to give no hints to the prosecution. Yesterday, Vision First released Peter from detention and secured a seasoned legal team for the defense. Today, we assure his family that the darkest hour is over. The trial will deal a blow to the arrogance that alienated ISS-HK from the refugee community at large. This promises to be interesting stuff!

The trial will dramatically expose the policies and attitude of a so-called-charity that consistently fails refugees in a colossal way. ISS-HK deliberately fails to take action to ease the plight of thousands, despite a HK$ 396,877,881 budget. It is troubling that last year ISS-HK returned HK$ 60,000,000 to SWD, while denying Peter HK$ 2000 a month to keep a roof over his young children. There is no wonder refugees are pounding doors in desperation! Where else can they turn?

ISS-HK’s priority clearly is not to assist refugees and prevent them from becoming destitute. Instead it is to limit and reduce assistance to the most vulnerable and under-privileged human beings in Hong Kong.

Vision First will ensure that Peter’s trial exposes the rot and brings justice to the real victims.

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