Unfair and unrealistic asylum policies force refugees to contend with unscrupulous landlords for living space that is confined, overpriced and often illegal. While the last word hasn’t been said on the 66 refugee slums exposed by Vision First in 2013, numerous refugees accept dangerous and substandard accommodation only partly subsidized by the official 1500$ rent assistance.
Five refugees rent partitioned rooms in a derelict structure erected on the rooftop of a decrepit building in Kowloon City recently targeted by the Building Department for “unauthorized building works”. One South Asian refugee lived here three years. Vision First queries how ISS-HK case workers approved these rooms in the absence of “Evidence of ownership” (according to ISS-HK rental guidelines) that presumably relevant departments would not issue for illegal structures.
Basic, legal rooms cost about 2400$ in urban areas and greedy landlords squeeze refugees for all they are worth. “We don’t have any choice.” said Marcus from West Africa who lived here for two years, “If we don’t pay the difference, the landlady shouts ‘(Expletive) you pay or you go out!’ And if one of us comes short, her husband cuts electricity to all seven rooms until everyone pays. She wanted 3000$ for my room, but I told her 2000$ is the maximum I can afford. There is a shortage of cheap rooms. What can we do?”
Saeed from Pakistan stayed in a guesthouse for six weeks after Vision First reported he was homeless. In May 2014 he moved into this structure under a metal sheet roof. In August his electricity bill shot up to 1,340$ because his air-conditioner is mounted between two rooms and recycles overheated air with no external vent. Saeed installed a fan in the false ceiling to remove cooking fumes, blowing more heat above, not outside. He pays dearly for a room he thought he rented for a bargain 2000$. Then there are the rats “running over the ceiling like having fights”.
Number 7 is a coffin-room shocks the conscience of any visitor. At the edge of the rooftop, plywood separates a cooking-washing-toilet space that defies descriptions (see photos below). A gaping space above the wall with no window is only covered by a plastic sheet. The air-con unit from room 6 vents into this space. A mattress is thrown on the floor in a crawl-in area without a proper ceiling, where plastic bags hang to catch dripping rain. Here is a room that rents for 1500$ and supports ISS-HK claim that some refugees actually live within the budget!
It’s hard to believe that Mahmood has stayed here two years. He explains, “I cannot work so how can I rent more? I have no money to pay more rent so I cannot leave this place. There is no window to stop the rain. This is fake room. Nobody want to live here, but I have no choice. Summer is too hot. I go park. I go walking around at night until it is cool, because too hot under the metal roof.”
It is questionable that this unauthorized structure was approved as accommodation for five refugees with rent from government funds. These partitioned rooms are constructed to give an appearance of suitability from the entrance, though, upon closer inspection, the walls and ceiling tiles conceal a deceptive reality. It could be argued that some Chinese residents also live on rooftops, though stronger construction and maintenance is not overlooked for their dwellings.
Inspection of the ISS-HK agreements raised further concerned about the addresses: one contract showed the 5/F, another showed the 6/F; the street number changed from 25 to 27, although the latter is correct. If case workers fail to examine ownership documents with due diligence, purported landlord may complete tenancy agreement with incorrect information that places refugees in other buildings and on different floors, when only separated by plywood walls.
Vision First objects to unrealistic asylum policies that force refugees to accept dangerous and substandard housing, often paying extortionary rentals, with little or no support from case workers who should manage landlord relations. These five refugees living under a metal sheet roof are a case in point. They live in a condemned structure and pay excessive rent under threat of eviction. Their rooms are shoddy illegal structures, with unlicensed electrical work, overheating air-conditioners, poor sewage and either no ventilation, or no windows at all!
The overall picture is bleak for the refugee community. 9000 refugees are denied adequate rent assistance by failed welfare policies and prohibited from working which would enable them to rent basic, safe housing. Immiserated by these two contradicting restrictions, they are exploited, criminalized, vilified and presented as a burden instead of being allowed to work until their asylum claims are determined.
My name is Jakir and I am an African refugee in Hong Kong. I wish to congratulate the Refugee Union for registering as a society!
On 20th October 2014 history was written when the police issued a certificate for the registration of the “Refugee Union” as a society. The first of its kind in Hong Kong. Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of the city, where underprivileged and unrecognized group would seek recognition through the Societies Ordinance and be granted approval.
This was a great and a significant achievement for us refugees, despite several months of waiting and uncertainty. It is a major success for asylum seekers and refugees with the Hong Kong Government who has consistently and deliberately marginalized, oppressed and criminalized us for decades by denying our most basic social and human rights as a form of deterrence.
The Government, in the name of helping the refugees, provides an inadequate welfare system that is grossly flawed, riddled with ineptitude and possibly corruption. The inhumane policies perpetrated by the government have not dampened the hope and ingenuity of the refugee community. We continue to fight for better policies and treatment from the Hong Kong society despite the odds.
The food assistance offered to refugees (two bags of dodgy groceries we collect every ten days) is meant to demean, humiliate, control and manipulate our minds. This policy has achieved the opposite result by hardening us and making the refugees more confrontational. It is time for the Government to abolish a pointless system that widely abused by the shop owners and staff.
The rental assistance is far from enough to secure refugees a decent housing. In fact it criminalizes 8000 refugees forced illegally to work to pay our rent balance every month. We people are forced to live in shared accommodation where there is no privacy, others live in makeshift containers and chicken huts and greedy landlords squeeze us for money all the time.
These two cruel, dangerous programs are not the “humanitarian assistance” the Government sells them as being. Far from it; they deprived refugee of human dignity and respect with an aim to make us suffer so we abandon hope for protection and leave Hong Kong! We do not have any choices in our life here. It’s a life of survival of the fittest, as our mind, body and soul waste away without a glimmer of hope. And that is why many people want to join the Refugee Union.
On Monday the 3rd of November the newly registered Refugee Union threw a celebration party to mark its inception and successes so far. Ove the afternoon and evening, scores of members visited our office and rooftop in Sai Ying Pun to joyously celebrate in style. There was delicious food from different countries and plenty of cold drinks to rejoice this remarkable occasion.
Refugee Union members were very excited and expressed their joy and achievement with well-deserved pride. The gathering rekindled past memories with nostalgia, when we successfully organized and executed well planned protests and occupations to push for better policies for the entire refugee community.
This was a meaningful moment: the brotherly love, support and understanding between us was palpable, there for all to see on our faces. The laughter and encouragement that the members offered each other was telling. In the words of an African colleague, “We lost everything escaping here, but we gained a new family in the Refugee Union, people who care and help each other like brothers and sisters. Even more than brothers and sisters as here we struggle together!”
It was indeed a defining moment for us refugees. From then on we all agreed that things will never be the same again. During this evening we took stock of our achievements and pledged to consolidate gains by putting plans into action and laid down a new strategy on the way forward.
In the coming year the Refugee Union will strive to raise its profile, while at the same time become the defining voice of all the refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong as untied we pursue recognition and respect for our basic social and human rights.
We already have a big and spacious office where we meet, exchange experiences and ideas, plan and offer hope and encouragement to one another. This was truly a wonderful moment for the refugee community. This will definitely be a game changer in refugee relations with the community.
All refugees, supporters and friends are always welcome to visit us at 3F, 102 First Street, Sai Ying Pun.
United we stand against our oppressors!
This new leaflet introduced Vision First’s services and aims to manage the expectations of new (and old) members. It is being translated into French, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, Bengali, Sinhalese and Tamil.
The Occupy Central movement has established civil disobedience as a method for dissatisfied citizens to voice grievances against governors who are perceived as not paying attention to their needs and aspirations. No matter how the endgame will develop, the pro-democracy demonstration has already contributed to reshaping the city’s political and social landscape.
Although the citizens’ contemporary struggle is different from the one refugees undertook this year against welfare oppression, common denominators may be found in both parties calling for the re-evaluation of basic assumptions about the purpose of advocacy, the reach of activism and the function of critical dissent. In this respect, the genie is out of the bottle.
Protesting citizens have political and economic aspirations. Refugees yearn for protection and employment. Yet both parties exhibit a fundamental aspiration for dignity and inclusion blindly denied by the establishment. Critically, both struggles unite under the umbrella of resistance of the disenfranchised against extreme capitalism and the self-serving alliance of business and politics that exploits the subjugated masses. Empowered individuals seek an end to their humiliation.
Vision First is rooted in robust advocacy and activism for refugee rights, but our modest success is ascribed exclusively to those refugees who spearheaded change. Like young citizens who choose to be bothered, we should celebrate those refugees who dared to speak out courageously against abuse and immiseration. They rise to shape their destiny against insurmountable odds.
A new era seems to have dawned. Refugee advocacy and activism have become almost mainstream. We notice this through civil society campaigns and particularly through frequent interview request from university students. “Vision has gained high reputation among refugees and those people who are enthusiastic about public welfare undertakings … I feel bad when I see so many refugees suffering in Hong Kong …” wrote to us a student.
Against this background, Vision First has encouraged for years refugees to step out from the shadows and demand the protection they are promised. To strengthen this effort, we withdrew from service provision and reinforced advocacy, because civil society must give voice to the critical conscience that condemns the inadequacy and moral bankruptcy of asylum policies. Given the voluntary nature of our engagement, whereby results are contingent on capacity, we take pride in tireless empowering refugees to become agents of change.
Today, finally, many in the refugee community are awakening to the cold realization that prolonged hardship and unavoidable deportation might not (and certainly should not) be accepted with submissive inaction. They appreciate the urgent need for deep and concerted advocacy and activism against those who wield power and fall short of legally binding obligations.
Vision First vigorously encourage refugees to speak out against abuse, articulate legitimate grievances and demand improvements to the asylum sphere. Ultimately, we go by the conviction that motivated many leaders who made history and are celebrated as heroes in this world – a concept that even refugees have often reported to us with these words: “It is better to die standing than live life on one’s knees!”
On 20 October 2014, a group of determined refugees achieved a significant result when the Refugee Union, conceptualized in January 2014, was successfully registered in accordance with the provisions of section 5A(1) of the Societies Ordinance.
The Chief Executive of the HKSAR appointed the Commissioner of Police to be the Societies Officer and the Police Licensing Office for the first time registered a society of individuals holding Immigration Recognizance Forms and subject to removal orders. It is reported that other groups of protection claimants are already following the steps of these pioneers.
From the early days of Occupy ISS-HK, the Refugee Union overcame many challenges as it developed its identity around a vision to become a union of protection claimants in Hong Kong that aims to safeguarding refugee rights and improving the protection, wellbeing and future prospects of all refugees.
Shunned by some refugees it is indeed highly appreciated by many others whose voice, given today’s asylum policies, we can only assume have long been unheard by policy-makers and non-refugee advocates. Today the Refugee Union promote self-reliance, empowerment and active participation in matters shaping the asylum sphere according to the highest standards of human rights.
After months of preparation, the Refugee Union is the first refugee-led society in Hong Kong. While similar examples exist among migrant workers, it is in our view troubling that this achievement was never attempted in the past. Perhaps the time was not ripe. This is however only one victorious step in a long journey that will last years, if not decades. Most of the work to strengthen the base and structure of union has just begun and demands sincere collaboration.
The Refugee Union is a positive development that will tests the maturity of members to think and act for the greater good of the entire community – collectively, altruistically and outside the usual third-party networks. The road ahead will not be smooth, but the excitement recorded in the hours following the announcement of the registration promises goodwill and widespread support.
What is next? Much has been learnt from challenges overcome since January, with important lessons already reflected in the Constitution currently being drafted. For example, instead of having a Chairman, members will appoint Councilors in three Committees that will balance authority and handle all matters relating to the society and members’ duties and responsibilities.
With the logistical support of Vision First, an independent office has been equipped at 102 First Street where members can meet daily to discuss problems and formulate actions to accomplish short and long term objectives. The Refugee Union will prioritize securing resources to sustain itself and become a leading voice to influence policies and practices that affect the entire refugee community, reported to be 8000 strong.