Refugee Bobby lives in a converted pig farm and collects food rations at the Nepali shop in Yuen Long. He has to buy groceries when the 10-day ration runs out in 6 to 7 days. Every day is a struggle to make ends meet. A far cry from the comfortable life he had in Africa.
Bobby explains, “My family was prominent and we lived well. Because my father opposed the government everything fell apart and we were persecuted. I left to save my life. You think I come here to beg for this rubbish food ISS gives me?”
He continues, “A few months ago I went to collect food with a friend. At the shop I saw that he was getting more food than me. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not right’. We are both refugees. We are the same age and the same hungry. Why he get more?”
Later Bobby complained to his ISS-HK case worker Mary Lee. Mary opened his file and said, “Let me check if you used all your money.” She made some calculations and exclaimed, “You can add a few chickens and take more food.”
The hungry and destitute refugee was speechless realizing that, a) Mary had cut short his food allowance, b) Mary was fully aware how much value he was getting, c) Mary had not provide the full 1200$ food allocation when needed, d) Mary provided more food after he complained.
Bobby was furious and shouted, “Give me all my money (food value) and stop this! Bring me to the top (of my food allowance) and it is finished. This is the way we do it!”
He reported to Vision First, “Some refugees don’t complain, but if you do then ISS gives them the full amount? The problem is if you come new (new-arrival), and you don’t know, they don’t give you all the money. It is later when you complain that they give you more to shut your mouth. This is wrong!”
Refugee Raja lives in an ungodly slum without clean running water, kitchen plumbing and toilet sewerage. It is no mystery that many tenants suffer from chronic gastroenteritis. He has been losing weight since he arrived in 2009 and is skin and bones now.
Raja reports, “Really this food is not enough. They say it is 1200$ a month but they are lying. Two chickens and two (pieces of) mutton for ten days is not enough. Then I must go buy (more food). Three tomatoes and two onions they want us to eat (for) ten days? I ask my friend, please give me some vegetables, (because I have) not enough.”
The distraught refugee points at a countryman writhing in pain, “Look at my friend. Look at his photo when he arrive in 2008. He was strong man. Very handsome. Before he is 68Kg and now he is 40Kg. He has so much pain (in the stomach), but hospital never give him good medicine. He suffer much. Look at him now … dying man!”
Raja cannot hide his anger, “Maybe next year he die. Then ISS is responsible. The food always make us sick. The food is expired. The vegetable is, how to say? … Bad, very bad … cannot eat it! We are sick from ISS food. We have pain (in the stomach, then) we are hungry but cannot eat. So much pain!”
He continues, “I am from India but only in Hong Kong I (have been) hungry! So much pain. I complain to (case worker) Felicity Wong, but she don’t listen. I say to her my food is not enough, my food is 250$ not 400$, but she don’t care. Who make inspection of this problem? Me not (allowed to) working. I have no money for buying food. This veeery big problem. Where the money coming???”
Refugee Ali is a respected leaders of the Pakistani community in asylum. He speaks with self-assurance and brings to the debate the experiences of many suffering individuals and families. That the Pakistani shop in Yuen Long last week gave him a can of baby formula with 19 days to expiry will be overlooked for now (Shops buy close-to-expiry supplies to maximize profits).
Ali explains another widespread trick ISS-HK adopts to manipulate food, one reported by many. Case workers and refugees select the food items by ticking a food collection sheet monthly. As prices are not indicated, refugees have no assurance the total is worth 1200$. But refugees appraise value upon collection.
Problems arise when case workers call refugees to say, “Sorry your choice of X is cancelled because you are OVER BUDGET.” There no point protesting over the phone as ISS-HK controls distribution.
Hundreds if not thousands of refugee complain about the “Over Budget Problem” that deletes essential items previously confirmed. It remains to be seen if the food sheets were subsequently amended and, even if they were, the system is inefficient at best.
Ali explained that in early April his case worker Mary Lee called to again reduce his allocation. Mary Lee, a veteran staffer who should know better, keeps getting prices wrong because the price list is hidden.
The “Over Budget Problem” makes victims of refugees who have no control. Vision First is concerned that ISS-HK shop do not provide a copy of the food collection list to refugees as standard practice. This means that refugees denies refugees to keep the system in check.
It should be noted that unilateral alterations are the norm, not the exception. Refugees lament the “Over Budget” phone calls that frequently deprive them of necessary items. Vision First is concerned about the discrepancies between the food selection sheets and the rations refugees take home.
The current arrangement brings the system into disrepute and could be easily remedied by publishing a price list for case workers and refugees to calculate openly and transparently.