On 26 May 2014, Vision First had a meeting with the Hong Kong Bar Association to discuss concerns relating to refugees that appear to have been overlooked in the deployment of the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). The Bar Association was informed that some failed torture claimants are detained in Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) without knowledge of, or opportunity to apply for USM protection in violation of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights (Art. 3) and Refugee Convention (Art. 33). Refugees are entitled to launch a USM claim even when detained pending removal or deportation after their torture claims were rejected.
An absence of information and application procedures inside CIC puts protection claimants at a considerable disadvantage when resisting pressure from Immigration officers to ‘voluntarily depart’ Hong Kong. In such a questionable legal black hole and in the absence of legal representation, it is suspected that unlawful administrative detention might adversely impact the rights and freedom of detained refugees, who should be released on recognizance pending determination of their USM claims.
Further, Vision First drew the Bar Association’s attention to other problems including, bail applications for refugees on remand, applications for judicial reviews of failed USM cases, jailing of refugees in prisons instead of CIC, unlawful administrative detention, magistracy bias against recognizance form holders, fair representation by duty lawyers, duty lawyers’ concerns to perform according to DLS expectations and the overall shortage of pro bono legal service.
Christy Choi writes for the South China Morning Post on 31 July 2014
Christian Action and Vision First agree to work together for asylum seekers after settlement
Christian Action and Vision First jointly announce that they have come to a settlement in relation to the legal proceedings.
Both Christian Action and Vision First look forward to focusing their efforts and time on serving the refugee and asylum seeker community.
After five months, summer heat and humidity combined with Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting) to test members’ attendance at the Refugee Union protest camp in Central. The protest has continued for 165 days during which refugees have demonstrated resolutely against unjust policies that make life unbearable for their community.
Summer days were so unpleasantly hot under the footbridge’s metal roof that only the most determined protesters carried on the struggle at a camp that might otherwise have appeared abandoned. And yet the community rallies enthusiastically in moments of need proving time and again that the common good comes before personal consideration.
At the last bimonthly meeting the Refugee Union stated its determination to support the camp until the authorities announce the contract renewal with ISS-HK, at which time a decision will be made on a future actions. If the authorities make no concessions and retain welfare services unchanged, it is unlikely that hard-pressed refugees will accept such an outcome as unavoidable.
These are not men and women of leisure with nothing to do. Rather they are individuals struggling to survive economically through diverse and unorthodox survival strategies without the right to work. They are forcefully unemployed husbands and wives who manage homes and care for children under the most intolerable conditions imposed on any minority social group.
The fact that each day more than 20 members support the camp is indicative of the union’s determination to generate solutions against all odds and despite the culture of rejection that attempts to crush their hope and spirit. In six months, a disenfranchised and resourceless Refugee Union successfully improved many members’ living conditions and brought greater awareness to their plight.
There are daily victories in which unionized refugees achieve goals that were unthinkable a few months ago. For years a refugee had been denied utility and transport assistance by an ISS-HK case worker who explained, “You don’t get it because you managed many years by yourself”, as if welfare assistance were determined by begging skills. Interestingly, by tapping the red Refugee Union card on the desk, he had the denial of assistance instantly revoked.
This week a homeless refugee family with a 3 year-old girl found shelter in the blue tents after their pleas for assistance fell on deaf ears at ISS-HK. As in previous cases, these desperate refugees approached the camp for advice and were warmly welcomed and provided with anything that was available. Following the Refugee Union’s intervention, ISS-HK confirmed a guesthouse room yesterday.
While still in its infancy, the Refugee Union is dedicated to protecting member’s interests and improving living conditions through better services provision by whichever contractor the SWD appoints. More refugees will gradually appreciate that it is legal for them to unionize and it is illegal for anyone to prevent their association. Collective bargaining might be the advantage refugees were missing.
Hong Kong Government remains tight lipped about the renewal the Social Welfare Department (SWD) contract for welfare services to refugees due to expire in the coming weeks. The authorities generally prioritize outsourcing over the direct provision of services and it is said that the SWD does not have the logistic and human resource capacity to deploy its own operation.
The reality is such that no organization seems interested in competing for the SWD’s “Project of provision of Assistance-in-kind for Asylum-Seekers and Torture Claimants” as it is currently implemented, without it being broken up into smaller areas for example, which ensures that ISS-HK effectively remains the sole bidder at the time of renewal.
The Refugee Union reports that ISS-HK case workers will soon renew their contracts and current food suppliers are renovating shops ahead of qualifying inspections. In light of the above it is likely that the SWD will renew its service contract with ISS-HK which inexplicably remains a confidential document not to be shared with the public.
If the contract remains secret, it is impossible to know if amendments will be made to improve service delivery within the scope of the “Provision of Assistance for asylum seekers and torture claimants”, namely 1500$ for rent (half for children), 1200$ for food, 300$ for utilities and about 200$ for travelling costs. Although the key figures will not change, directions might be given to broaden the price grid (who can receive more) and the flexibility with which concessions are made (how much pressure is resisted).
To illustrate this point, it appears that members of the Refugee Union enjoy higher rent assistance than non-unionized refugees, which might be evidence of more effective pressure tactics. This has revealed that, for example, the 1500$ rent assistance is a guideline that can be persuasively overcome by repeated demands, which regrettably puts less assertive individuals at a disadvantage.
Rather than begging from charities, or risking jail by working illegally, refugees are advised to strive for longterm solution. In other words, instead of putting a hand out to collect money from churches, refugees should bring their ISS-HK case workers to task and demand that their basic needs be met in full, as constitutionally required by Hong Kong Government.
As long as refugees take the path of least resistance, that is finding money elsewhere to avoid confrontation with ISS-HK, the depth of their destitution and despair will not be grasp by the authorities. It is reported that the Refugee Union has developed effective strategies to secure levels of rent assistance that are unheard of in the broader refugee community. Since all refugees are banned from working, there is no reason why all refugees should not be enjoying better assistance.
The struggle to pay rent is undoubtedly the greatest source of anxiety for refugees living from hand to mouth. To have ISS-HK pay rent in full should be every individual’s objective. It is noteworthy that over the past months, possibly since the protest movement started in February, dozens of refugees have been settled in guesthouse rooms valued about 7500$ a month, or 6000$ more than the rent allowance.
Families are doing much better than before. The Refugee Union reports of families with two children renting apartments worth more than 6000$ and families with three children renting apartments worth 8000$ to 9000$. These are facts that the entire refugee community should consider carefully before working illegally to pay rent and thus risk being arrested and jailed for 15 months.
Evidence suggests that ISS-HK case workers have more discretion in granting assistance than generally perceived. Refugees who put forward a persuasive argument and show a determination to stand their ground on principle could celebrate with the single father and child who secured 3600$ in rent assistance instead of the 2250$ guidelines. Breaking the barriers takes effort, but is certainly worth it.
We live in a time of rapid change and social unrest that make most citizens worry anxiously about their future. In such uncertain and distressing social conditions, aggravated by global economic woes and austerity, more people turn their back on social issues considered exclusively a government challenge. Rather than thinking deeply about the broader community, most people condone, ignore or accept as inevitable injustices that don’t affect them directly.
Consequently, few citizens care to be bothered by the problems of marginalized social groups, even when suffering is caused by government policies that are neither unavoidable, or the only reasonable solution, and should thus be reviewed. A case in point are asylum policies that force 6000 refugees to earn a living in the underground economy. It is undeniable that while a few thrives with entrepreneurial flair, most are gravely exploited. Everyone must dodge arrest and incarceration.
Some talented individuals overcome policy and social hurdles with shrewd economic sense and reach financial security through capitalistic survival of the fittest, in this finely integrating into the way of life of Hong Kong. Others scrape a hand-to-mouth living that fails to meet theirs and their families’ most basic needs.
While this reality may offer Hong Kong with the flexibility in the labour market it needs, concerns cannot but be raised over the severe exploitation that at times fails to pay fair wages for fair work while exposing refugees to long working hours, hazards and injury.
For example, the following cases occurred last week:
Case one: A refugee occasionally help with deliveries for 300$ a day. He sent this text message, “Today another time my luck save me. Today I had to go pick up some furniture…. I sent my another friend … instead of me. But police catch him….”
Case two: Unable to prepay 4000$ of kindergarten fees before government funding is paid, a refugee father worked in an underground factory. This establishment provides services presumably at a fraction of the cost of licensed companies. The pay is 300$ for a 13 hour non-stop shift in dangerous conditions. The refugee stopped going after some others were arrested.
Case three: A refugee is exploited by an avaricious slum lord who demands 2000$ above the government allowance for rent and utilities. Compelled to find cash, he occasionally find work in remote compounds where industrial batteries are hand cut. Caustic splashes burned holes in his legs and arms. He works dawn-till-dusk for 400$, while residents are paid considerably more.
Case four: A fragile woman could no longer work when she became six-month pregnant. As a consequence, she was unable to pay her rent and lost her room deposit to a cheating flatmate. Her vulnerability necessarily increased. While she was sleeping in a park, she was accosted by a man posing as a Good Samaritan who offered accommodation, but instead stabbed her. She screamed and got away only after a fright.