Shortly before 9pm on 4 May 2014, a furious caretaker roared into the Slum That Rose Like A Phoenix to carry out orders from slum land Mr. Kwan. The henchman had to kick a refugee family into the street as a stark warning to 20 ISS-HK clients crammed into that derelict, abandoned chicken farm.
Two weeks earlier Bangladeshi Mohammad had begged the caretaker’s wife, and landlord’s sister, “Please give me more time. I don’t have money to pay!” when presented a 1700$ handwritten demand note for electricity use in March.
Winter and summer, the “utilities racket” – calculated by head-count including infants – torments the residents of the 65 slums exposed by Vision First, without concern or control by indifferent ISS-HK case workers who sponsored and support what The Guardian calls “Hong Kong’s Dirty Secret”.
Mohammad, his Indonesian wife Hana and one year-old boy were away when the caretaker raided the room without warning. The front door was broken open with criminal fury. Then the bed and cabinets were smashed and kitchenware, clothes and toys scattered outside without mercy.
Recalling the destruction, Hana later lamented, “The crazy man broke our mobile phones and threw the baby trolley into the jungle! He dumped our food outside the door and broke everything inside. We try to pay 1700$ for electricity every month to them, but where we find money if we cannot work?”
She continued, “We called the police and the landlord arrived with two gangsters talking bad to [swearing at] my husband. They try to fight with my husband. The CID told them not to do like this. I was very afraid for my husband, myself and my baby. The police took us to Kamtin station, not them.”
Despite the police being present, Hana recalls, “The sister [caretaker’s wife] closed mobile, so the landlord said, ‘If you cannot pay electricity bill, you don’t stay here. You go! You take all your things and go out from here. I will cut electricity and close water. You go away!”
Hana explained, “For two years I paid the [extortionary] electricity and water bill. But when I ask for the original bills he never show me. He just writes on the paper electricity coming how much, and that is what we must pay. Every month come the bill like that, around 1700$. He just counting the money … counting … counting …”
“I cannot go back,” shaken Hana said, “I am very scared. Those people are not good people. If there is problem they bring many people, like gangsters. This owner coming and threaten people. This owner is crazy people. When asking money, [there is] too much shouting. He just want more, more money. Everyone is scared of him. When he comes everyone just keep quiet.”
Hana recounts how her helpless family became homeless, “Sunday night at 1am we left everything and only took one bag. We will never sleep there again. We are even afraid to go back to pick up our things. We stayed in the Kamtin garden near the market. It was raining too much. We didn’t know where to go. We stayed there all night. We didn’t sleep.”
Hana explained the fear, “Why are we scared too much? When CID bring us in the car, the landlord called me and said, ‘If you go to police station, you don’t talk too much! You just keep quiet! Don’t talk anything about me, because I will give you problem! You understand, right?”
She continued “I made loudspeaker and said to CID, ‘Ah Sir, you hear what he telling me?’ and CID said, ‘I know your owner is local person. So better you move from there because your life is in danger.’”
“When we were with CID” Hana elaborated “the landlord said nothing, but when we left he said, ‘I will give you problem’, so my life and my husband’s life and my baby’s life is in danger. He is resident, right? I am only refugee. So if he give me problem, then me how …?
On 5 May 2014, the family reported the incident to ISS-HK and sought assistance. Their case worker Tanya Tse called the landlord and reported the obvious while overlooking the criminal behaviour, “Your owner call you, he said you have balance 2000$ and you cannot keep, so he do like this.”
Hana asked, “What can you do for me? You are my officer.” Then Tanya Tse replied, “Because I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, you or your owner, so I cannot do anything!” Charming!
To make matters worse, when the family arrived at 16:45 at the ISS-HK Tsuen Wan office, after their monthly report to Immigration, the security guards stopped them from entering and meeting Tanya Tse.
Vision First is deeply concerned that ISS-HK case worker Tanya Tse failed to protect a vulnerable and homeless family in their hour of need. Tanya Tse had a fiduciary duty to assess the danger faced by her clients and to ensure that criminal damage to property and criminal intimidation were reported to the police.
Despite being fully aware of the dangerous situation, Tanya Tse showed no concern about her clients’ safety and where they would spend the following two nights, May 6 being a public holiday.
There was clearly no humanitarian spirit to settle and protect helpless victims of criminal abuse, who remained homeless while Tanya Tse returned to the comfort of her home to enjoy the Buddha’s Birthday – unconcerned and indifferent in typical ISS-HK fashion.
The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, emphatically states, “Refugees and asylees are authorized to work indefinitely.” The right to work for asylum seekers is a fundamental human one which Hong Kong Government violates by selectively interpreting international treaties such as ICESCR and ICCPR.
Most people agree that no capable human being feels dignified, respected and socially worthy without employment, particularly if forced unnecessarily into Hong Kong’s inadequate welfare system.
Refugees and asylum seekers have a right to self-sufficiency and they demand the right the work. They want to productively care for their families, plan for the future, contribute to society and feel a sense of belonging while awaiting asylum decisions.
Hong Kong’s policy of partial welfare and no employment is manifestly cruel and unlawful.
It is unacceptable that 6000 human beings are moved into the community with insufficient welfare and no employment right. Whoever formulated this policy should demonstrate how to live under such inhuman conditions – it is simply impossible!
This punitive treatment fails to be an ineffective deterrent for new arrivals (effective, timely and credible screening would be) while causing mental stress and physical hardship to vulnerable individuals punished for seeking sanctuary in Asia’s World City.
Pushed to the extreme margins of society, destitute and unprotected, refugees enter the informal economy where they are unscrupulously exploited, exposed to dangerous conditions without labour protection and often jailed for up to 22 months for working illegally.
Make no mistake, every adult refugee is obliged to raise money monthly for rent, utilities, food, clothes and daily necessities. If he or she have children, financial problems compound exponentially.
Hashid explained this dire situation, ““I am here as a refugee for six years and Immigration has never interviewed me. I try my best. I don’t break the law. Sometimes I work, but what other way do I find money to survive? … I want to ask God … I cannot pay rent. I cannot pay electricity. I don’t have clothes.”
Anyone who chooses to ignore this reality is conveniently sidestepping the obvious and turning a blind eye to social injustice. Anyone who disagree with the unfairness of this situation probably earns a decent salary and returns every evening to a comfortable home.
In history it is often those who enjoy rights who justify why others shouldn’t have them.
Vision First encourages refugees to oppose welfare solutions and fight for the right to work.
Often we are told of refugee populations suffering famine and genocide in remote countries, miles away from our peaceful and wealthy community. We are shown photos of frail children looking blankly into the distance, as their emaciated, sick bodies tear at our sense of guilt.
Successful fundraising campaigns are often structured upon an imaginary of ‘refugeeness’ that portrays vulnerability, starvation, disability and voiceless inaction. We are thus told of these people’s fatigue, mental disorder and difficulty to integrate into new surroundings.
In short, the refugee is constructed as someone to pity; someone who should be cared for and provided with assistance; someone who would find it extremely hard to survive without the efforts of NGOs raising money (or accepting government funds) for their welfare.
What we are not told is that refugees do not need this assistance. Other than in the most extreme cases, most refugees display enviable resourcefulness, courageous and determination in seeking sanctuary.
Their agency is demonstrated by the thrust that propels them across fortified borders, by enduring what is often a long and difficult journey and by overcoming dangers resulting from agencies responsible to interdict their passage.
When we hear these refugees’ narrative, these people are often depicted as undesirable individuals travelling to Hong Kong to seek illegal employment, abuse welfare or worse, to commit crime.
Vision First believes there is a disconcerting correlation between the widespread depiction of refugees in Hong Kong as economic illegal migrants and/or criminals and the work of NGOs that appeal to the inherent vulnerability of refugees to justify their existence.
There is an obvious linkage between NGOs allegedly discouraging refugees from protesting against unacceptable policies and the perpetuation of such policies that force refugees into conditions of silence and subjugation that legitimize the work of said NGOs.
There was a time when Vision First reached out to offer these NGOs a helping hand, to open their eyes to the suffering their work exasperated contrary to humanitarian beliefs. We were shunned as controversial and confrontational.
In fact, we proudly serve a community of people who are perfectly able to express themselves. We serve them by providing advice and logistics to organize a struggle against the forces that plunge them into destitution and wish to relegate them there in perpetuity.
Day after day the refugee struggle in Hong Kong is gaining more attention and legitimacy. Newcomers are instructed in resistance tactics by three-month veterans, as the movement only started in February 2014.
Vision First provides the ideological framework and connections. Refugees then dictate the line of attack against a system that aims to render them voiceless. Refugees fight against marginalization and demand social participation.
Refugees are not ghost. They seek inclusion in society. They demand to be stakeholders in decisions and policies that shape their future. The Occupy movement gave rise to a sense of self-determination which can no longer be suppressed. The genie cannot be pushed back into the bottle!
A new paradigm is born that challenges head on the old NGO structure centered on maximizing staff salary while minimizing refugee benefits. The establishment is predictably countering this new prospective with lawsuits and yet appears frantically hopeless before the collapsing damn.
Irresponsible NGOs are attempting to subjugate and control refugees exercising a fundamental right to resist a failed welfare system that only guarantees theirs and their children’s perpetual immiseration.
Negligent NGOs, when unsupported by a drive to fight for social justice, are complicit with government departments that exasperate the plight of refugees by failing to meet their most basic needs.
The Occupy movement has reached a wider audience and changed the way refugee rights are being perceived. It is not an issue of immigration control, but of upholding human rights. It is not refugees who are the problem, but how policies fail them. It is not a question of welfare, but of justice.
It is no longer a question of food and shelter, but of a democratic struggle against injustice.
Vision First strives to preserve values of universality in human rights and is proud to safeguard such rights with refugees who dared to rise, unite and fight against a corrupt system.
Madam Thilini came to Hong Kong from Sri Lanka seeking international protection with a classic refugee claim and persecution case under Art. 3 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights. She fled her homeland alone in her sixties, leaving behind a dozen grandchildren, due to race-based persecution and ill-treatment.
In about June 2012, her torture claim petition was rejected by the Torture Claim Appeal Board, operated by the Security Bureau, and the Immigration Department decided to institute criminal proceedings against her in relation to the propriety of her entry into Hong Kong to seek refuge.
In about November 2012, Madam Thilini attended Shatin Magistracy court and the Immigration Department prosecution opposed any bail as a strategy to enforce detention, despite her never absconding, nor having a criminal record.
The gentle Grandmother would certainly be the last person that would fall under the profile of an illegal economic migrant bent on abusing the asylum system.
The charges brought against Thilini are typical for asylum seeker who are compelled to commit an immigration offense before the Director of Immigration recognizes their asylum torture claim.
Having determined her case did not amount to torture, it appears that the government was bent on prosecuting and removing the Grandmother, instead of affording her fair treatment in case she might be harmed or killed because of a rushed removal.
The Immigration prosecution never proceeded against Madam Thilini, yet every three months she was taken out of Tai Lam Women Centre (a detention or prison-type facility) and escorted to Shatin Magistracy Court where prosecution opposed bail. This process continued for 18 months.
It is noteworthy that upon instructions from Immigration, the prosecution vehemently opposed bail for a vulnerable, fragile Grandmother despite these two landmark cases compelling Hong Kong government to screen all asylum cases.
Madam Thilini requested Duty Lawyer Service to provide her with the lawyer of her choice, but her request was denied and DLS subsequently withdrew assistance to her citing her uncooperativeness for refusing to accept a lawyer unfamiliar with asylum proceedings.
The prosecutors opposed bail viewing her rejected torture claim as the end of the line for her asylum claims, despite knowing that the “Ubamaka case” would be decided by the Court of Final Appeal only a month later and “C case” about 5 months later.
After approximately 18 months in a detention cell a Magistrate granted Madam Thilini bail. It is assumed that the Magistrate looked at the time spent in prison and determined the Grandmother had been incarcerated longer than any sentence she might receive should she be found guilty.
Only in 2014 Madam Thilini was informed that she could apply for non-refoulement protection under asylum claims of the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). Without understanding why she had been imprisoned for 18 months, in April 2014 a magistrate granted the distraught Grandmother bail.
This is a clear example of Immigration Department utilizing the judiciary to hold someone in custody pending any prosecution and the outcome of any asylum claim under the USM.
The High Court has recently criticizes the Director of Immigration for using the Courts to keep people in remand when the issue of remand falls solely under the mandate and discretion of the Director.
As the Hong Kong public is aware, the recent Court of Final Appeal “Rbani case” found the Director of Immigration liable for violating the constitutional, fundamental right to liberty of thousands of asylum seekers.
The unfair treatment of Madam Thilini raises the questions of whether she has been the victim of arbitrary, unlawful detention and whether the conduct of the Hong Kong government has been motivated by racial discrimination. Such treatment is an affront and the results of egregious conduct by Immigration.
The Immigration Department has been warned by the Courts that it cannot keep people in custody as a channel to avoid exercising its discretion and potential liability for holding asylum seekers unlawfully at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (“CIC”). Hong Kong’s asylum system has been found to be unlawful numerous times and a chronology of the failed asylum policy is available here.
Madam Thilini will appeal before the Shatin Magistracy Court on Friday, 2 May 2014, as the Department of Justice and Director of Immigration continue their extensive efforts to prosecute a Grandmother who fled to Hong Kong seeking refuge.
Could the government machinery be on a witch-hunt of persons seeking asylum in the city?
The refugee community deeply respects Professor Gordon Matthew and his longstanding dedication to this discriminated group. The dear professor posed an interesting question on the Refugee Union Facebook page, which has been passed down to us for information:
“Why is Vision First devoting so much energy to defaming other NGOs in its blogs? Wouldn’t it be better if NGOs, whatever their different philosophies, could be working together along with refugees and asylum seekers trying to create a better situation in Hong Kong?”
We take the opportunity to once again clarify our position.
Vision First and the Refugee Union are not devoting energy towards defaming other NGOs. They are devoting considerable energy towards exposing the failures of a system that clearly pivots on the perpetration of social injustice.
The status quo is very much dependent and supported by NGOs that, while allegedly working to serve refugees, do little more than legitimizing inadequate government asylum policies.
Vision First and the Refugee Union are proponents of the principle that NGOs should aim at ‘putting themselves out of business’. This concept joins two complementary strategies, 1) ensuring the government meets refugees’ needs in full, and 2) empower refugees to be their own best advocates.
We appreciate it is evidently hard for non-refugees, people who enjoy comfortable homes, wholesome meals and monthly salaries, to walk in the shoes of destitute outcast who experience a sick system. As such we strive for the day this illness will be cured and NGO workers understand their true social function.
These are not revolutionary ideas. In the new paradigm genuine NGOs (as opposed to fake ones) would not have to meet physiological needs necessary for human survival (shelter, food, clothing, medication, etc.) which are government duties, but rather assist with non-essential needs and advise.
As a quick but powerful example, we report the narratives of Haider, a Pakistani refugee who was released from police custody on 28 April 2014. Haider was arrested for kicking ISS-HK’ shutter in frustration. He will plead not guilty for the following very understandable reasons, which nonetheless often fall on deaf ears of those who hide behind a humanitarian mandate.
“I am not a criminal. I am here as a refugee for six years and Immigration has never interviewed me. I try my best. I don’t break the law. Sometimes I work, but what other way do I find money to survive?”
[He shares a 3900$ room with another refugee and ISS only pays 3000$]
“The other money how do I find? I want to ask God. For six years I must find money. I cannot pay rent. I cannot pay electricity. I don’t have clothes. ISS steal my food and give me rotten fish to eat! They give me lady Pampers! They make me an animal. They make me crazy in six years!”
“When I protest they refuse to talk to me. They lock the door. Sometimes I feel I am not human. I feel I am animal. I just need answer. How do I survive? Food not enough. Rent not enough. Sometimes I smell nice food, I want an orange, I am thirsty in the summer … Where I get 5$ to buy a bottle of water”
“I walk six years around this city, nothing to do. I just need answer. Six years what did I do wrong? Just tell me how do I survive? Not me alone, but thousands of asylum seeker living like this. I want to fight for everyone, not just for me. We all are suffering too much!”
“Everyone turn away. Everyone just close their eyes. They close their mouth and don’t want to help. They nothing see. They nothing do to help us. I want to explain to the judge why I am angry. I want to explain to all Hong Kong people what they do to refugees – they just refuse us!”
Dear professor, any citizen who has no appetite to fight social injustice turns a blind eye to government abuse and the suffering refugees endure due to shortcomings of the authorities, government contractors and those that uncritically perpetuate the system.
The news of a Somali journalist losing faith in Hong Kong and returning to war-torn Mogadishu has spread around the world. His decision further discredits Hong Kong Immigration’s reputation tarnished by its dismal protection rate: 11 recognized victims of torture out of 13,000 applications in 22 years.
Such a risible protection rate fails to instill confidence in those who come to Hong Kong believing in its rule of law and respect for human rights. It appears that “Brand Hong Kong” has excelled at elevating the city’s status adhering to the Golden Rule – who holds the gold makes the rules..
A class struggle divides the ruling elite from the “undeserving”, those incompetent enough to be poor, wretched to be ethnic minorities, nauseatingly ill, annoyingly handicapped, unattractively old, and tolerated by special visas (FDH, import labour) and the greatest pariahs of globalization: asylum seekers and refugees.
Vision First laments the culture of rejection that contaminates all government departments and the fake NGOs that do the authority’s bidding, never putting themselves on the line to address social injustice. It is more fun and safer to side with the powerful than champion the cause of the “underserving”.
The Immigration Department underwent some major changes recently that might turn out to be cosmetic. It is said that the proof of the cake is in the eating, so by year end we shall see if the department will recognize those few refugees previously accepted by the ousted UNHCR.
Vision First was shocked to learn that the Immigration Department renamed the branch that determines the now unified protection claims. Last summer the government referred to it as the “Special Assessment Section” (neutral meaning), but suddenly “Removal Assessment Section” (deterrent meaning) appeared on Immigration letterhead.
This name implies that rejection of asylum claims is the aim of the assessment and protection not a guiding principle. The appellation reflects a position in line with an authoritarian regime and implies non-refoulment protection does not exist – not in name, or spirit, or in the mind of assessors.
The Removal Assessment Section sends an undesirable deterrent message. It implies that asylum seekers are to be treated like trash, as “undeserving” elements bent on abusing the system for unjustified reasons and as such must be removed as expeditiously as possible. It isn’t implausible that staff promotion will based on successful removal rates.
Hong Kong Government should be ashamed of the “Removal Assessment Section”. The name is biased. The designation is tainted and damages both the intention and spirit of the Convention against Torture. Such a name dehumanizes asylum seekers, perpetuates caustic myths about their agency and sends a message that they will not be treated fairly.
The naming is a mistake. It takes too far the securitization of borders by instilling fear in vulnerable people who might – imagine that! – be fleeing war, torture, violence, torture or persecution.
What happened to giving the benefit of doubt? What happened to a level playing field? What happened to court instructions against ‘antagonistic behaviour’ by Immigration officers?
Hong Kong could look at Canada that calls it the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (“IRB”).