Following eight turbulent months of street activism the first organization to unite asylum seekers and refugees in Hong Kong regroups for the next phase of development. Born from a widespread dissatisfaction with failed welfare services, the Refugee Union is steadily evolving into a society that promotes the human and refugee rights of its members.
By-monthly meetings continued regularly since the Union was conceptualized on 27 January 2014, which in itself is a testament to its leadership’s organizational skills, their wish to participate (particularly considering that members are not provided with transport fees), often accompanied by children and friends who wish to join this promising society. Forty-five old and new members signed the attendance record at Monday’s gathering.
These meetings are foremost an opportunity for members to evaluate current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) and refine objectives in a harsh environment in which threats are numerous and opportunities almost non-existent. Such is life for refugees whose resilience, tenacity and self-reliance is challenged to the highest degree in our unwelcoming city. Most claimants are cognizant of the fact that significant progress requires personal commitment and self-sacrifice.
Many hands shot up when questions were asked about new problems. For example, it appears there is great uncertainty about the food supplied by the ISS-HK appointed grocery shops. Refugees reported hearing from staff at the shops that supply contracts ended in September and the itemized client lists for October had not been distributed. This situation is highly unusual as the shops will not stock the necessary supplies for next week after their contractual obligations have ended.
While the following information cannot be verified, ISS-HK staff informed some refugees that they had not submitted the food lists to the shops because the SWD had not renewed the contract yet. It may be surmised that if the shop contracts ended, there should be calls for tenders on the ISS-HK website (the usual practice since 2009), but there are no such documents. Further, shop owners complained they would not continue supplying at the old tender prices because groceries appreciated significantly in the past year.
The Refugee Union takes credit for exposing failures in the ISS-HK food distribution, with the South China Morning Post research supporting claims that the food supplied by the contracted shops costs between 13 and 30 per cent less than the HK$ 1,060 worth of food that ISS-HK was contracted to provide. The 19 February 2014 article reported that, “last week, a refugee union claimed only HK$600 to HK$700-worth of food was distributed, rather than the HK$1,060-worth required for each adult per month. The union sought a price list, which both ISS-HK and the Social Welfare Department declined to provide, saying it was a confidential tender document.”
Other problems refugees face related to rent and deposit payments approved discriminately by ISS-HK case workers. The Refugee Union lodge complaints with the SWD against case workers denying the full 1500$ rent assistance (to refugees who pay that much or more), or refusing to pay security deposits with no better excuses than flat rejections. In this respect, several participants reported that less confrontational refugees seem are less likely to receive full assistance than those who stand up for their rights.
Further, looming ahead are issues relating to the blanket rejection of USM cases by the Immigration Department and its Appeal Board. As far as the community knows, the acceptance rate hasn’t improved since the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) was launched last March. On the plus side, this year refugees appreciated that appeals must be lodged even if the process is believed to be hopeless.
The trend is such that the last reasonable chance is to apply for a judicial review at the High Court (Form 86) with assistance from Legal Aid. In the long run, this might have serious implications for the higher courts that could soon be overwhelmed by hundreds, if not thousands of plaintiffs demanding justice where protection was unreasonably denied. Due to poor implementation, the Hong Kong asylum arena remains chaotic.
A South Asian refugee moved his family into a traditional Chinese house in Au Tau, south of Yuen Long village, to protect his two year-old daughter from the unhygienic and unhealthy conditions many of his friends endure in refugee slums. He didn’t want his daughter to live and play in a filthy environment where she could get injured by rusty metal sheets or sick with the dirty water.
The family of three paid a few hundred dollars more than their monthly rent allowance for a decrepit brick house they considered safer than plywood and tin shacks. Little did they know that this assumption would be perilously challenged! Refugees receive 1500$ in rent assistance and children half of that amount. The housing reality is such that in most cases they can only afford illegal spaces in converted animal farms.
Vision First visited this family’s house in June and our attention was alarmingly drawn to a bulging wall that appeared to barely support the weight of the building. The family had buttressed a side wall with an internal brick structure that in retrospect might have only postponed the inevitable. A rickety wooden ladder led to a mezzanine floor where the family slept under the tiled roof.
“I was cooking dinner when I heard the wall crashing. I was so scared! I turned around and ran to the door. As I ran I heard the wall collapse behind me. The roof came down. It was like the walls were chasing me outside” said the wife about her escape. “Lucky my husband and daughter were outside walking because otherwise they would have been hurt. My neighbours only saw me and were shocked. They thought my daughter was inside!”
The brick house collapsed in heavy rain three nights before a Signal 8 typhoon struck Hong Kong. It had been a lucky escape. A few minutes later the family would have been dining by the wall that collapsed. A few hours later they would have been crushed in their sleep. A few days later they would have been buried alive when the typhoon unleashed its power on the crumbling house.
This near tragedy raises concerns about the extreme housing conditions refugees are subjected to and the general indifference to this shameful situation. The truth of the matter is that for 1500$ (or multiples for families) legal, basic rooms are unavailable as even the slums cost more. This incident demonstrates that refugees live in the most dangerous structures in Hong Kong and nobody is listening to complains that certain structures are about to collapse.
In our view, it is only a matter of time before some refugees will perish in illegal or substandard accommodation approved by ISS-HK under contract with the Social Welfare Department of the Hong Kong Government – an ironical situation considering the government supposed firm stance against dangerous and illegal structures. When that tragic day comes it will be too late to point fingers as million-dollar damage claims are brought against all parties concerned.
Over the past six months Vision First has meet with over 600 refugees, many of whom expressed a desire to become members, while others already constituted the core team upon which we rely for changes in practice and policy.
Hundreds of the refugees we actively engage with have been in Hong Kong for years, often over a decade. Others are relatively newer to the asylum field. They bring a different perspective and fresh energy to debates and activism as they seem unwilling to wait in limbo for endless years.
Over the past months, we reported about new asylum claimants experiencing great difficulties in securing accommodation even after registering with authorities. In this respect, Vision First engages government offices almost on a daily basis to resolve individual cases of unreasonable marginalization and immiseration. The authorities on a whole take reports to heart and endeavour to provide responses within the limitations of what we consider a failed welfare system.
Although we take pride in being a dynamic agency that evolves with, and at times ahead of the changes we spearhead in the asylum arena, it goes without saying that Vision First’s work is hardly a bed of roses. Quite the opposite, we expect thorny issues to cut and puncture without allowing it to dishearten as we never take failure personally. Rather, we seek to learn from every outcome and welcome criticism valued for the lessons it may teach.
As a case in point, we would like to discuss the criticism we recently elicited with a view to clarifying rumors, enhancing performance and refining longterm objectives. We believe this transparent self-analysis helps invigorate our efforts as we learn from past experiences to shape future endeavours.
Here are some objections that have been considered and critically evaluated:
• The information available to members on policy changes is too little and too sparse, and such changes are at times too radical and difficult for members to understand.
Response: A new website was launched to expand communication. It will soon feature a dedicated and public “Members Page” to report and explain policy shifts, new objectives and other changes that members can read about in a timely fashion (possibly even in their own language). This will be boosted by new ideas to be unveiled soon.
• Promises relating to individual assistance were suddenly broken.
Response: Vision First never makes promises. Members are reminded that deep uncertainty dominates the asylum field, particularly for small, independent NGOs that rely exclusively on voluntary support. Vision First always qualifies assistance with words to the effect of “We will do our best according to resources available from time to time”. We constantly re-evaluate programs in light of changes that are often beyond our control. Vision First is unable to replace government services to refugees and any material or financial assistance is a temporary solution until the authorities meet their obligations entirely. In this respect, individual assistance may be tailored to promote our “Triple A strategy” – Advocacy, Activism, Advice.
• Expectations of support and assistance were unfulfilled.
Response: While it is reasonable to have expectations, we acknowledge that we did not do enough to manage them. To this end, a new website and a leaflet for new members were launched, to explain what we do and what members should expect. It is noteworthy that our membership expanded four-fold since January 2013 to almost 1300 members, with scores wishing to join. This growth required a strategic shift from merely ensuring a few hundred members live ‘comfortably’, to vigorously engaging government department so that they meet refugees’ basic needs. A genuine concern for the thousands we could not assist compelled the broadening of our strategic thinking.
• Financial assistance offered by Vision First is insufficient for members to make ends meet.
Response: This is very true! Vision First is not mandated or subvented by the government to meet the financial needs of its members. Hypothetically speaking, if each member required 1000$ a month, we would need to raise 15 million a year – clearly an impossible scenario. Vision First pioneered the concept of unconditional Financial Assistance for refugees in 2010. We are pleased to note that ISS-HK adopted a similar practice in February 2014 and now provides cash to all protection claimants (about 6500). The same can be said about security deposits for homes.
• Prospective members have to wait for a long time before being heard.
Response: We are very sorry! Vision First is a tiny, independent agency run by volunteer staff who passionately serve this community without drawing a salary (only one staff works on very low remuneration). The long registration time is evidence of a widespread desire to join our organization. Logistical challenges are unavoidable in an environment where thousands of anxious refugees seek urgent advice. More of this work will soon engage the wise judgment of Refugee Union members, while new methods of registrations are continually tested to speed up the process and facilitate the circulation of information.
• Registrations are actively sought by Vision First only for those who serve their interests.
Response: Vision First welcomes any refugee who filed or will soon file a protection claim, without distinction. We go to great pains to refrain from assessing the merits of claims (which is exclusively an Immigration Department’s task) as we firmly believe that seeking asylum is an inalienable right. At the same time, Vision First vigorously encourages its members to learn their rights, demand adequate government assistance, resist abuse and become effective agents of change – an invitation that understandably not everyone is ready to accept.
• Vision First favours certain individuals over others.
Response: Vision First adheres to the belief that refugees are the first advocates and activists for the changes they want to see in the Hong Kong asylum sphere. Nobody can speak better than them about systemic shortcomings and structures of abuse. It would be questionable for the victims of any unjust system to expect others to fight their battle while they stand on the sidelines to reap the benefits afterwards. Therefore the principle of Active Engagement applies and more time, capacity and resources are justifiably devoted to those who participate most ardently.
Asylum seekers as well as recognized refugees (UNHCR or CAT) are not allowed to take up employment, but are sentenced to 15 – 22 months in prison if arrested working. It is disturbing that claimants receive no mercy in magistracy courts and no sympathy in higher courts either, as the Honourable Mrs Justice V Bokhary illustrated on 5 September 2014, “Whatever the human sympathy due to persons in the Appellant’s situation, I feel unable to say that the sentence passed in this case is out of line with the established level.”
Held in the vice of inadequate welfare and prohibition to work, refugees are crushed by a draconian process that criminalizes them for trying to make a living. It should be noted that refugees do not risk prison to buy superfluous goods, but rather to pay for essential items such as rent, utility bills, clothing and food where welfare falls appallingly short. In our view, the sentencing guidelines imposed since November 2009 overlook the impossibility of surviving on welfare alone.
The Honourable Madam Bokhary mentioned human sympathy for an appellant who was compelled to represent himself in court without a lawyer. Why did Legal Aid turn this defendant down? Was it assumed his grounds for appeal had no merit? Was he viewed as a challenger to the system? Justice was apparently served according to strict legal parameters without adequate consideration of the hardship endured by refugees who are expected to beg rather than work to survive. Is that reasonable?
It might be appropriate for the Judiciary to inquire why refugees risk lengthy prison sentences to earn a paltry daily wage (200-300$). Is such a modest reward worth such a heavy penalty? Are refugees insane as well as desperate? Could the underlying issues be more complex than simplistic goals of personal enrichment? Could work be the only options for destitute refugees to make ends meet? Unbiased investigation might shed light on an asylum policies most judges would find repulsive.
Vision First laments that current asylum policies are not fit for purpose, as they heap procedural violence and unnecessary cruelty on already vulnerable and suffering people. The Hong Kong Government should take a fresh look at the broader picture and implement a fairer policy that restores dignity to refugees who should not face jail for scraping a subsistence living. Nobody is fooled by claims that the government is doing enough to meet the daily needs of the refugee population.
An African refugee said, “Three years ago I came to Hong Kong to save my children’s life. I thought it was a place that respected human rights. I was wrong. Day after day I struggle to keep a roof over our head and buy basic things. I have many skills, but cannot work and that is extremely frustrating. It is not right to condemn refugees to begging.”
A Sri Lankan refugee said, “I am not allowed to work and don’t get enough [welfare] from the Government. If you don’t allow me to swim than you must carry me in your boat. If you throw somebody into the river with his hands tied behind his back – then you are murdering him! Hong Kong punishes refugees for seeking asylum here.”
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To celebrate the launch of Vision First’s revamped website we take a step back to take a broader look at the challenges we face together with the refugees we strive to support and defend.
Ancient cartographers were accustomed to drawing dragons and mythical monsters on uncharted regions of maps where exploration stopped or from which adventurers failed to return. Some maps warned unambiguously that in those inhospitable places “Here Be Dragons”.
Dragons play a traditional role in local culture and Kowloon (九龍) literally means “Nine Dragons” in reference to the green hills in which the creatures were thought to live, though for refugees the name might present to the mind the “Nine Dragons” that threaten their existence –
First Dragon – the appalling 0.15% acceptance rate that since 1992 recognized just 20 claimants, including their children born in Hong Kong, out of more than 14,000 asylum seekers
Second Dragon – the prolonged wait for decisions by the Immigration Department generated by the failure to establish a comprehensive asylum mechanism prior to USM (launch 3 March 2014)
Third Dragon – the draconian policies that prohibit any form of employment, paid or unpaid, depriving refugees of opportunities to lead dignified lives while they sit idle for years
Fourth Dragon – the lengthy imprisonment that punishes refugees arrested for work with 15 to 22 months jail for first offenders and a maximum 36 months and 50,000$ fine
Fifth Dragon – the shortcomings of legal representation that fails to robustly counter the generally accepted 99.85% rejection rate raising doubts about the credibility of the process
Sixth Dragon – the grim living conditions ranging from months of homelessness to years of forced residence in squalid shacks and miserable huts that shock the conscience
Seventh Dragon – the substandard food allowance distributed through a widely criticizes supply-chain that seems to pilfer one-third of allocated value from hungry refugees
Eight Dragon – the agonizing medical services that frequently offer Panadol pills as the universal remedy for all ailments and reduce refugee patients to a bothersome inconvenience
Ninth Dragon – the creeping despair that diminishes most refugees who seek asylum in a city where international protection remains a vague promise rarely gained in reality
Vision First believes in pushing the boundaries to discover precisely what dragons hide in the hills of Kowloon, so that the dangers they represent may be vigorously confronted and eventually neutralized to progress the legal and human rights of all refugees.
We do not accept an ineffective, oppressive asylum regime as inevitable and unavoidable, but rather empower refugees to resist these dangers and become themselves agents of change. It is in this spirit that we engage the refugee community and strive for meaningful change.
We are reminded that only through pushing the barriers do we learn the precise contour, strength and weakness of a system that fetters the rights and liberties of many disenfranchised social groups in Hong Kong, refugees included.
Dear Refugee Union –
Thank you for organizing refugees to voice the great problems they face in Hong Kong. Refugees here are in worse position than people really know. They are not getting enough assistance or decent food and ISS giving us just 200 HKD per month. It is just a joke, nothing else! Without money or work how can anyone survive?
Nobody can stay and sleep in their room for 24 hours a day. People need to live their life and without work how can it be possible? I want to discuss about a very serious matter: that the government of Hong Kong does not allow refugees to work it is very unfair. This situation increases the frustration in refugees as they try to get money by wrong ways because nobody can live without money in Hong Kong.
The government can reduce the crimes with the help of allowing refugees to work. Then all refugees will work instead of getting money by wrong ways and the ratio of crimes will be reduced. ISS should support well enough and never let refugees down about their respect and they should be not discriminated against.
Everyone came to Hong Kong because some serious problems in their native countries. Otherwise how can someone leave his country and loved family? Circumstances compel them to leave their families and countries. Otherwise it is hard enough to leave children and parents and sisters and brothers behind without seeing them again. This is a very tough choice to save one’s life.
I am also a refugee and I came here because of serious threats to my life in my country. I have done a MBA in Finance and have done graduate studies in political science and journalism. I was active in politics and took a stand against corruption in the government. Now I live in a refugee slum in Lam Tei, Tuen Mun which is a very bad conditions compared to my life before. I would not leave my family behind and live in these conditions if I did not have real problem.
The only room I can pay for with the money I got from ISS (1500$ rent assistance a month) has no air-condition and is made of iron sheets roof with no ceiling and plywood walls. It is very hot and humid. Sometimes I feel very serious suffocation and got some health problem because of very hot weather. How can I arrange air-condition without money?
How can I face these difficult without cash money? If I do work police will catch me and I would be put in jail for a long time. Then how can I survive? I request the government of Hong Kong to care about refugees and their living conditions. Let them work and reduce the risk of unlawful activities by the refugees. The conditions we suffer are not human and unsuitable to protect people.