The “Justice Club” at West Island School invited the Vision First children to celebrate Christmas in what turned out to be the best day of the year, if not in the lives of all participants. Sadly refugee children are deprived of the privileges and joys enjoyed by most ordinary kids, because their parents are not allowed to work and therefore have zero disposable income.
The hardship and prejudge these young refugees suffer throughout the year were certainly forgotten for one day of happiness. West Island School has been a dedicated support of Vision First for many years and teachers Dawn and Temmy lead a team of passionate students who never fail to impress with their outstanding generosity and solidarity.
The Christmas Party was an outstanding display of thoughtfulness and kindness, as the organizers went out of their way to ensure the refugee families were treated like kings. There were delicious snacks upon arrival, which could have been the whole party by themselves. The children then played group games with prizes for everyone, before dancing and playing to their hearts’ content.
At that point it was hard to tell who was having more fun, the kids in carefree delight, or the parents watching blissfully. The biggest pizzas in town were delivered for lunch (there were also fruits and healthy snacks), before Santa arrived with the biggest load of presents anyone had seen. To top it all, a massive raffle distributed more gifts to all presents. The real challenge was later getting everything home!
Don’t tell the kids, but Santa was actually Jack, who has been like a Superman for Vision First. With his mother Dawn’s support, he collected presents at his flat since February and it’s hard to imagine they had much living space for themselves by the end. This marvelous duo was the drive behind the party and their spirit of solidarity for the vulnerable is an inspiration for us all.
Vision First is honored by the ongoing support of West Island School. This was certainly a most memorable Christmas Party! The refugee children and parents are deeply grateful for your generosity and unite behind the message of a mother, who twice a week holds her three kids from school for lack of bus money:
“Thank you West Island School for the wonderful Christmas party and gifts! God bless you more and our deepest thanks to the wonderful students and teachers who organized the event. Thank you very much! Merry Christmas to all!”
On outreach in the Nai Wai area in November 2014, Vision First visited several refugee slums with Ibrahim, an office-bearer of the Refugee Union who wish to see for himself the appalling living conditions in these isolated ghettos. Ibrahim’s experience with rural conditions in Africa did not prepared him for what he witnessed as third-world conditions might be better.
Towards the end of the day, Ibrahim suddenly said he recognized a secluded area we entered. “I have been here before!” he exclaimed. “I recognize this place. It’s where Rachel Li [then an ISS-HK case worker, today ISS-HK Mongkok branch manager] sent me to find a room in the summer of 2010. I often wondered where this place was. I want to testify in court how she pushed my family to live in the slums after our contract expired in Cheung Sha Wan.”
Ibrahim explained, “I remember well because it was after my son was born in June 2010 and our family needed to move house. The contract ended and I asked Rachel Li to help get another place. The (rent assistance) budget for our family was 2800$ but we couldn’t find a suitable place in Kowloon. Rachel Li asked the ISS accommodation officer to give me a list of mobile numbers. I still have that list. I called some numbers and then met a Chinese lady who took me to this place.”
Over the years, Vision First gathered evidence contradicting claims by ISS-HK that refugees choose to live in the slums of their own accord and case workers play no part in the lucrative business generated by unscrupulous slum lords. Ibrahim is a credible witness to what happened. Since he arrived in October 2005 he had never visited a refugee slum until his case worker sent him there.
In the summer of 2010, his ISS-HK case worker Ms. Rachel Li proactively introduced him to slum lords by providing a list of contact numbers. She encouraged him to relocate his family out of Kowloon into illegal structures in the rural area. Ibrahim was not impressed. Despite being destitute and desperately seeking a home for his family, he turned down the hut offered at 2800$ a month.
Four years later, Ibrahim returned to the location that shocked his conscience and raised questions about ISS-HK methodology in housing vulnerable refugees. It isn’t unlikely that ISS-HK case workers were instructed to promote a “Slum Solution” to urban refugees with the aim of isolating them in ghettos to reduce welfare costs and minimize social participation.
Vision First exposed this compound in October 2013 as “No. 36 – The Slum Along The Ditch”, estimating that the purported slum lady pocketed 1,400,000 HKD in payments from ISS-HK, allegedly without submitting adequate proof of ownership and title deeds approving the compound as tenantable premises under Hong Kong law.
Will the Social Welfare Department continue to turn a blind eye to such questionable practices?
Vision First has one question for the Social Welfare Department as it invites tenders for the “Provision of Assistance for Non-refoulement Claimants” for almost 7000 refugees caught between a rock and a hard place, namely, a 1500$ rent ceiling and a prohibition to working.
Question: Is it acceptable for contractors to settle service users in illegal structures (unauthorized works generally investigated and purged by the Lands Department), and if so will SWD provide an indemnification letter to the contractors?
If the answer is NO, then SWD should explain why the present contractor systematically and over many years housed vulnerable refugees, including infants and children in at least 69 slums exposed by Vision First in 2013 and 2014.
If the answer is YES, then SWD should explain on which basis and by what means it will indemnify contractors from responsibility and damage claims for subjecting refugees to punitive, dehumanizing and exploitative living conditions in the 69 refugee slums we exposed.
For the avoidance of any doubt, present and future contractors should be aware that several government departments and agencies (SWD excluded) are keenly interested in the practice and consequence of establishing refugee slums since 2006 and paying rent therein with funds from the public purse.
Slum No. 69 in Hung Shui Kiu is a maze of illegal structures, unauthorized electrical, water and sewerage works that housed dozens of refugees for several years. It is estimated that the present SWD contractor pays the purported landlord in excess of 400,000 HKD yearly in rent and utilities, despite the apparent lack of rentable premises.
Refugees pay more than 2000$ for spaces defined haphazardly in tight corners, some roughly bordered by plywood boards erected around mattresses. The cooking and washing facilities are rudimentary at best, and certainly less than sanitary, with faulty plumbing and defective drains. Rodents, cockroaches and a variety of insects plague the compound and make tenants sick.
As in the other slums, it is noteworthy that every refugee holds a signed Agreement issued by ISS-HK. Further, refugees confirm that generally ISS-HK case workers inspected and approved these rooms under the existing SWD contract for “Provision of Assistance for Non-refoulement Claimants”.
One could be mistaken to believe that the Social Welfare Department tacitly approved the 69 refugee slums, despite its clear and binding duty to monitor the performance of its chosen contractor, in particular with regard to the condition of accommodation, including legality, safety and hygiene.
It appears that not everything is sound in the current welfare provision to refugee. Why?
My name is Ferdinand and I come from West Africa. I arrived in Hong Kong ten years ago, in 2004. I fled my country for political reasons, because my life was in serious danger. I ended up in Hong Kong after escaping to China where we have free visa entry. I had to find safe grounds to save my life.
Life in Hong Kong has not been the best for the past decade. It takes a strong man (or woman) to withstand the situation that refugees suffer in this cold city that doesn’t treat refugees with kindness or respect. Back in 2004 there was no welfare assistance, so most of us slept in the open at the Star Ferry Pier in TST, the only place we felt kind of safe. Most of us rummaged in garbage bins to find something to eat. We had no choice.
After being under the protection of the UNHCR for some years, I was advised to surrender to the Immigration Department which ended me up in detention for one month. When they released me from CIC Detention I was told that they would call me back for interview. I had many interviews over the years, first at Immigration offices in Central, then Shatin, then Kowloon Bay.
After ten years I received their decision – my verdict was “REJECTED!”
Do you know what it feels like to wait to hear from somebody for a decade and finally they mercilessly tell you, “Sorry your case isn’t accepted!” After all the pain and suffering of struggling to survive without dignity and work for ten long years?
Can Hong Kong Government give me back ten years it wasted to assess my case?
At an Immigration hearing a judge said to my Immigration officer, “Don’t go to sleep on this case, because you need to call him and do his case” I wanted to ask the judge, “Do you know how long I have been in Hong Kong?” when he hesitantly said, “Mister, you have to wait again.”
Wait for what, I don’t know, but I have to wait again which is very disappointing for me . Through this decade I am the helpless victim of government disorganization. When I arrived in 2004 there was the Torture Mechanism and UNHCR, then Enhanced Torture Mechanism, then CIDTP, and from 3 March 2014 they changed to Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). Hopefully it is the last one!
What is unacceptable is that what I told them for ten years, that was happening in my country, they didn’t want to listen or believe me. But the same evil atrocities are happening today in my homeland and it’s documented by the international media. How can Immigration say this is not happening and it did not happen to me?
Immigration is just burying their heads in the sand. Maybe over ten years they protect me, but why did they make me live like an animal for all these years? What is protection worth if after so many years you lose your sanity and trust in the people who should help you?
All I can show for one third of my life is that Hong Kong sheltered and fed me like a farm animal while Immigration pondered my future for 4000 days! What took so long? What were they doing? Why didn’t they reject my case in a few months, when my passport was valid, so that I could seek asylum elsewhere? Is it fair how the Immigration treats refugees in Hong Kong?
They call it humanitarian service. They give us 1500$ to rent a room when rooms cost more than 2000$. They give us 1200$ in food a month, but everyone knows refugees are getting ripped off and the real value is much less. Some months I get about 600$ from the shops that get rich at our expense. How are we expected to live like this for ten years without working?
At a time when the Social Welfare Department launches a new tender process for welfare services to the refugee community, Vision First emphasizes that sound structures requires sound foundations. If the underlying parameters remain unchanged, it is doubtful the new contract will produce better results.
Policymakers should carefully consider “Temporary Work Permits” as a realistic option for 10,000 refugees in Hong Kong to effectively house, feed and support themselves without straining public funds. An inadequate welfare package (1500$ in rent and 1200$ in rations monthly) forces claimants to work and breach the law – whether that is an intentional result or not.
The ugly side of the current tender is plain to see for any refugee worker who steps out of her comfortable office to investigate the asylum scourge in the countryside. Fraudulent slum lords pocket up to half-a-million dollars a year (tax free?) from illegal structures rented to refugees, but paid by the present contractor with public funds. Will the new tender prohibit housing in unauthorized works?
Trapped between insufficient welfare and a prohibition to work, refugees are drowning in a bottomless lake. On top of rentals, there is a constant struggle to pay electricity bills that frequently exceed utility allowances for refugees battling heat in the summer and cold in the winter with damaged, discarded appliances. Will the new tender require legally compliant living conditions?
Since Vision First started visiting the slums in 2010, little has changed. Disappointingly hundreds of refugees still endure third world-like conditions. Wooden walls and metal rooftops pack human beings indecently into confined spaces far from urban residents’ sight. Dreadful cooking facilities comprises old fridges and damaged stoves which refugees are expected to buy without working. Will legally complaint facilities be required?
The Social Welfare Department cannot appraise tender performance only from carefully angled photographs of beds against tapestry walls. Independent field visits are essential and ought to be conducted without the contractor’s knowledge. Vision First is the only NGO to lead government officials to witness firsthand the failures of the current tender. Will the new tender be independently monitored?
It is obvious by looking at the photo below that questions may be raised at how such facilities were approved for human beings under the care of case workers under a government tender. None of the 69 slums exposed by Vision First have adequate cooking or bathing facilities. Some don’t even have hot water. Since 2010 the slum lady pictured below boiled on a fire cauldrons of water for refugees to mix in buckets to shower. Will the new tender prohibit such outrages?
Further, we can only speculate about the health risks such practice produces. Access to clean drinking water, which in this slum is pumped from an underground well, is denied in contravention of health regulations. Health issues can ensue when refugees are forced to drink, cook and bathe in untreated water drawn from the proximity of unauthorized drains and sewers. Will water works be monitored?
Vision First condemn the exploitation of refugees housed as cattle waiting for a one-way trip to the slaughter house. Will the new tender protect refugees if the old parameters remain unchanged?
“Where is your hijab, Sister?” called out humorously a young Pakistani man to a voluptuous Muslim woman who entered the common area of a fetid refugee slum. A twenty-two year old lady dashed joyfully past in a beige singlet sustained by two thin shoulder straps. Her flowery skirt was short and breezy. In her arms was a two month baby born outside of wedlock. Many rules had been broken.
Our Pakistani friend was joking. He too has greatly enjoyed the freedoms of a modern city such as Hong Kong: drinking, dating, social media and diverse entertainment a world away from the restrictions that control many aspects of social life in his homeland. Cultural emancipation, social freedom and independence contribute to shaping protection-related decisions for refugees.
“You know, hundreds of helpers become refugees” Ambar said. “Some hate too long working hours, hard job and very small rooms. And the madam always controlling them. Some don’t get a day off on weekend and others don’t get paid their full salary. It’s not what the girls expected coming here.
More women approached Vision First this year than before. 49 of the past 300 registrations were former Foreign Domestic Helpers, many with little babies under the age of one. Our friend explained, “They are young and see refugee ladies being more free than them. They don’t understand our problems because they only compare their hard life with refugees’ easy life.”
Immigration turns down many asylum claims stating that “your written significance does not give a general indication of your reason … that relate to an act falling within the meaning of torture, BOR 3 and/or persecution risk.” Vision First provides services to protection claimants irrespective of applicable grounds we are not called to assess. We are reminded of the basic legal principle that every individual has the right to seek asylum.
We are concerned nonetheless that restrictive employment terms are enabling a survival game leading down the path of asylum, a game for which many forces are at play and abuse is only in the mind of those who superficially cast judgments over women deprived of their humanity to be labelled impersonal workers.
It is commonly known that the main reason why terminated maids do not return home is debt. They take heavy loans to work in HK and are rightly afraid of the consequence of failing to repay creditors. The government should consider effective policy changes, such as increasing the 14 days visa granted to terminate maids to find new employers. There should also be a government program to broaden the network beyond the limited connections of the importing agency, while also curbing exploitation, abuse and cheating on salaries and benefits. Bad employers and agents play a major part in this drama. Further, the emotional burden paid by women forced to endure long years in solitude should be evaluated and addressed.
Every former domestic helper has her own story and unique circumstances that push her towards the asylum sphere which need to be attentively assessed in proper asylum hearings. While they are responsible for their actions, indeed they are not always at fault. A few examples: there are two persons behind pregnancies, but single moms are often left with the baby; some employers exploit maids like slaves: one had hers cooking at home day and night for his restaurant; another took hers to work in Shenzhen; a maid was fired because her English was not good enough to teach the kids; another maid was only given a couple of buns a day; many don’t have a bedroom and are forced to sleep on the kitchen floor …
Caught between oppressive conditions at work and unmanageable debt at home, it is no surprise that hundreds, if not thousands, of domestic workers seek the temporary freedom of asylum to avoid insurmountable problems. Instead they should be better assisted and supported, educated about choices and informed about alternatives before they abandon the path to legal employment in Hong Kong.
One cannot expect that young ladies, often with little formal education, can master unassisted the complexities of a modern city, a city that needs to stop pushing the more vulnerable populations into ever grimmer and more daunting situations. It might wiser and less expensive to address local causes of asylum claims than through millions at a questionable screening process.
On 18 November 2014, Vision First gained access to another secluded refugee slum for the first time. We had explored this area before, but were not aware that refugees lived inside this rusty compound hidden by a high metal gate and wall. It was hard to distinguish this slum from a scrapyard until a collaborative refugee led us inside.
Isolated locations such as this one are ideal to conceal questionable practices such as the housing of refugees within the 1500$ rent budget that cannot be achieved in the open market. Over a half-hour walk from the closest Light Rail Train, a dozen refugees have been settled here for years with the support and approval of ISS-HK case workers
Inside there are two areas: a rickety two-storey metal structure (rooms on the ground floor) and an outside extension where metal shacks were recently converted into windowless concrete cubes with tin roofs baking in the sun. The owner might be following guidelines for more solid construction though these structures seem suspiciously illegal to an untrained eye.
The facilities can hardly be called such: sinks hangs precariously from rusty metal sheets; shower spaces are concrete floors with iron sheets with water (cold only) scooped from plastic bins; cooking is done outside against brick walls or side tables; a shared toilet is mounted in a corner without flushing water.
This appalling assemble of improper housing structures (and suspicious electrical wiring) is home to about ten refugees who are prohibited from working to supplement their 1500$ rent assistance. Such constraints leave vulnerable refugees at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords who seem to enjoy the support of ISS-HK to ensure there are no vacancies in refugee slums in rural Hong Kong.