On 3 December Vision First sought SWD clarification on the following points after we were invited to the tender. Vision First finds these replies largely unsatisfactory.
Comment to A.1
We question whether SWD is mistaken by operating on the assumption that refugees seek their own accommodation. SWD echoes the views previously heard from ISS-HK that the majority of refugees living in slums choose to live there and don’t want to move out. While it is true that nobody is coerced to make a home in the slums, huts were and continue to be the only locations rentable at the price point offered to refugees (currently 1500$ a month). Further, Vision First reported that the February 2014 rental increase from 1200$ to 1500$ caused ‘slum inflation’ evidenced by slum lords demanding rental increases to this day.
It is painfully obvious that the ‘persuasion process’ has limited to no effect if the rental parameters remain unchanged. In the urban areas, ISS-HK case workers frequently visit rooms, often before payments are confirmed or released. However, in agricultural-use compounds it appears, from evidence collected from refugee tenants, that slum lords and caretaker can swiftly complete transactions and have contracts approved in one visit to the ISS-HK Tsuen Wan branch.
Unlike in the urban area, security deposits and property agent fees are not required, which is a considerable financial advantage. Urban dwelling refugees report endless negotiations between reluctant landlords (refugee tenants are undesirable), property agents and case workers before any deal is completed. Why are basic legal rooms harder to rent than dodgy ones in illegal structures?
As a result large clusters of co-national refugees end up over the years in the same area. Do these men, women and children volunteer to live in dumps, or were they deprived of better alternatives?
Slum refugees are decent human beings who are not so foolish as to PREFER slums for themselves and family, if better and affordable alternatives are available.
Anyone accusing refugees of CHOOSING TO LIVE IN THE SLUMS is politically motivated and could not justify such a preposterous position in a public forum of hundreds of deprived refugees forced to live in slums, many for over 5 years. If SWD truly believes what they are saying, Vision First challenges the SWD to a public debate to support such argument before the media.
It is manifestly obvious that if refugees were provided alternative housing arrangements in legal structures in the area where they live, or in other areas close to friends and co-nationals, they would certainly move out of the slums. We have witnessed this happen on many occasions.
Comment to A.2
Thankfully the in-kind food program that exposed thousands of refugees yearly to exploitation by the operators of the food distribution chain is coming to an end. While doubting the coupon system will mark any significant improvement, Vision First cannot but interpreter SWD decision to suddenly close down the in-kind food mechanism as to be a significant statement, tantamount of an admission that not all was well in previous arrangements. It remains to be seen if law enforcement agents will take action against perpetrators of illegal activities as exposed and reported by Vision First over the last two years. Sun Tsu said: “The wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine”.
Comments to A.3
Outsourcing by its own nature creates numerous monitoring problems. Contractors worldwide cannot generally be trusted to deliver top services without strong and independent supervision. In this respect SWD’s reply is unsatisfactory. Vision First respectfully advises SWD to appoint a full-time inspection team that operates in the field all day taking leads and invitations from the refugee community quite independently from its contractors.
Many doubts come to mind. How is SWD going to implement “service inspection and performance evaluation”? How often and who will be doing this? Does this include visiting refugees at their homes, to make sure they effectively live in safe and hygienic conditions, contrary to what SWD might be told by its contractor?
Vision First will increase its watchdog role to protect the interests of refugees and report service failures. We will monitor service delivery in the three regions to ensure that demonstrable errors of the past are not repeated and do not again become systemic problems.
My name is Lillian from East Africa. I am a teacher by profession, but I had never thought about teaching or working with babies between the age of 6 months and 3 years before I was approached by Vision First to assist with their playgroup.
I said I would give it a go, though I was unsure how to entertain such a young crowd. You see I am a mother of three children (they are adults now) and I know how demanding those little ones are. The first time I attended I saw how refugee and resident children were having fun together.
On my second group I was asked to sing to the children, but my voice disappeared with the excitement and I had some kind of weird stage fright in front of those curious little eyes. I was told not to worry and practice before an imaginary class at home, singing, telling stories and entertaining them. Believe me, that work!
A few weeks later the playgroup needed assistants and fortunately I had gained enough confidence to give it a try. Six months later I had mastered the “Songs and Rhymes”, become more creative and found exciting activities for the young stars to enjoy. By then the regular children had become familiar with me and the time we shared was relaxing and fun.
By this time I had even changed the music I listened to at home. I was playing kiddy songs. I was smitten by children rhymes. I was checked out Smurf Books online and only visited websites dedicated to entertaining and instructing children. My old passion as a teacher had been revived.
I found some truly amazing website that offered fun and education activities to help children learn through play, while stimulating their senses and making sure that FUN was always the operating word. Today I believe I have become a proficient host for this age group and I respect them because these babies are totally sincere. They won’t hide their feelings or pretend to be polite!
If they are not interested in what you are doing they will let you now in less than three seconds. They don’t pretend, but are truthful, which gives opportunities to make adjustments in what you are doing with them. You have to be passionate and patient with babies and most importantly enjoy what you are doing. They can tell instantly if you are not having fun that day.
Once a week I participate in the playgroup at Vision First and for one morning I forget I fled to Hong Kong to save my life and haven’t seen my loved ones for four years already. I have discovered that playing with children is the best medicine to cure the asylum illness that has taken root in my heart.
I was resting at home one evening after a long day when my phone rang. “Is this the Refugee Union?” asked the caller. “Yes”, I replied, “This is the Refugee Union. How may I help you?” The caller replied, “I am calling from Police Headquarters in Wanchai. We need your help. We have one homeless refugee here with us. Can you offer him accommodation?”
As an officer-bearer, I was glad to offer our services. The officer requested I visit the police headquarters the following morning. I wondered the whole night the reason why the Hong Kong Police Force would call the Refugee Union to request assistance. Why can’t they call the Social Welfare Department who are best suited to offer emergency services to such people? It was interesting though.
On arrival at the headquarters I was ushered into an office where I met a Middle-Eastern refugee who had been arrested and previously convicted and jailed. The officer-in-charge requested that Refugee Union offer the guy a place to stay, as well as act as high court surety to get him out on bail. At the meeting there was also an Immigration officer who was busy taking notes and asked about the newly registered Refugee Union.
The senior officer requested to inspect the Refugee Union premises before they released the refugee into our care. We drove in a police van to our offices where they carried out a comprehensive inspection. We started with our spacious and welcoming office and proceeded to the resource centre where members can get online and chat the sofas that at night double up as beds. We had a Russian, an Egyptian, an African and a Middle-eastern guest last night!
They looked at the kitchen and bathroom and were satisfied. The senior officer concluded, “This is good. You can keep this guy here, but first we need you to come to the High Court to stand as surety for him. The judge will verify the details about the Refugee Union, if the court is satisfied then he will be released and can live with you here as we proceed with his case.”
At the court the judge sought to know more about the Refugee Union and the officers produced the registration certificate. The judge asked, “Can I have a look at his documents please?” I produced my Immigration paper and Refugee Union membership card. An attending Immigration officer checked my documents before handing them to the judge. The judge then looked carefully at my membership card before nodding and handing them back.
I was proud this was the first time the Refugee Union identification documents were produced and accepted by a court of law. It was a great moment of truth as I wasn’t sure the judge would accept that form of identification as non-permanent residents are required to produce their passports together with HK ID cards for high court bail procedures.
I was very happy and excited. For once refugees have been recognized and appreciated. The Hong Kong Police and Immigration, and indeed the courts of law, acknowledged that Refugee Union and accepted that we can look after and support each other. We can step up in the hour of need of our brothers and sisters who are not even members, because the Refugee Union is here to help.
As the police drove us back to the office, my mind was in an excited spin as I could hardly believe what had happened. Events of the past few months have been very interesting and might have forged a new path for refugees to be acknowledged in society. Meanwhile the Refugee Union pushes ahead and next week we will ratify our Constitution striving for the respect of refugee rights in Hong Kong. That’s our fundamental goal. Long live the Refugee Union!
On 28 November 2014, the Social Welfare Department (“SWD”) issued a new tender invitation for the provision of in-kind humanitarian assistance to ensure that refugees will not – (a) be left to sleep in the street; (b) be seriously hungry; or (c) be unable to satisfy the most basic requirements of hygiene. The number of those “deprived of basic needs during their presence in Hong Kong” is now estimated to be around 6700.
Vision First disagrees with the government view of this project as “humanitarian assistance, not welfare”, because the authorities are bound by legal obligations towards refugees, who are prohibited from working, that extend beyond fractional and inadequate charitable assistance. It is highly unattractive for the government to abdicate responsibility for providing social welfare to indigent people or delegate such duties to underfunded local charities. (FACV 2/2013)
This fundamental difference in opinion places Vision First against the ‘thinking inside the box’ that characterizes a tender that, despite an estimate 400 million HKD value, is bound to fail to lift thousands of refugees from ‘destitution’, but will in fact continue to coerce them into begging for handouts and risking jail by working illegally to make ends meet. In practice, little will change.
Vision First strongly condemns the authorities’ failure to take into account the economic reality of seeking asylum in Hong Kong where it is impossible for anyone to subsist on the maximum monetary monthly values set by the tender, namely, 1500$ for accommodation; 1200$ for food; 300$ for utilities and 200-420$ for transportation depending on location of residence.
Such restrictive limitations fall disappointingly short of the High Court judgment requiring that refugees’ “basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government … The provision of that assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim.” (HCMA 70/2010)
As Vision First was informally told by sources within SWD, the aim of this tender is to add competition in the provision of service so that new ideas are introduced to improve services and increase benefits. Food coupons and the establishment of three service regions were announced. While these were suggestions raised by civil society, the way they are formulated raises numerable questions concerning the labelling of refugees as abusers.
For example, Vision First invites prospective tenders to question whether this humanitarian assistance might be manipulated by a hypocrite government strategy that aims to marginalize the weak while purportedly protecting the wealth of a limited circle of power that ultimately pulls the strings of command. Are contractors willing to participate in unjust oppression like mercenaries?
While Vision First rejects any solution that falls short of affording refugees the right to provide for themselves, food coupons remain highly unsatisfactory when restricted to the 1200$ ceiling for groceries (or 40$ a day). Further, although coupons will put a stop to the widespread pilfering of rations (including the Revolving Door and Food-for-Cash cams), we are concerned refugees will be blamed in the public eye for selling coupons and seemingly taking advantage of benefits by moving between regions.
This might be the case if coupons are not implemented in the three regions in which the SWD will divide the contract (Hong Kong and Islands, Kowloon and New Territories), which could theoretically be managed by three different NGOs. The three regions are designed to introduce competition between agency and service models, but could disadvantage refugees managed by a less agreeable contractor. Competition in welfare services will certainly put at risk vulnerable beneficiaries.
Within these parameters, SWD should have implemented refugee welfare directly. Alternatively, refugees should be granted the right to work for the time they need to level differences in service provision, and gather the resources SWD ingeniously expects civil society to raise. Overall the new tender only serves to perpetuate the same hardship in a different package.