The Refugee Union floated a new idea as reported by a recent post on Facebook. The SWD or ISS-HK should sign the lease agreements with landlords to house refugees. The proposal makes perfect sense because refugees:
- Are entirely and passively dependent on welfare;
- Did not determine the rent assistance of 1500$;
- Have no savings or income to handle economic transactions;
- Are prohibited from working under threat of 15-22 months jail;
- Have no bargaining power with landlords and agents.
The Hong Kong Government ensures that refugees suffer destitution with the aim of avoiding the creation of a ‘magnet effect’ that would encourage others to seek asylum in the city. As such, the authorities are responsible for their lodging, food, clothing and medical services of this group.
Given that refugees often scramble for cash to purchase necessities such as cooking gas and shoes, it is unreasonable to expect penniless people to sign a 12 to 24 month tenancy agreement for residences that, in today’s market, typically cost more than 2500$ when assisted with only 1500$.
No wonder estate agents and landlords are loath to rent properties to refugees. Property owners expect to be paid rent monthly and don’t appreciate chasing tenants for payments which might be indefinitely delayed due to lack of income. Who in his right mind would rent his property to an unemployed individual who has no savings and work rights?
By deciding that refugees should not work, the government denied the entire group participation in solving the problems relating to their livelihood. By doing so, the authorities effectively reduced them to ‘children of the state’, who can do nothing more than beg from charities and well-wishers. If that is the nature of seeking asylum in Hong Kong, then refugees are 100% dependent on the state.
There are other advantages to having caseworkers secure and sign lease agreements. First, they would experience the stress of flat hunting with a laughable 1500$ budget. Second, they would appreciate negotiations with wary agents and landlords unsure who will foot the bill. Third, they might become advocates for a better housing policy as they clash against the inadequacy of current arrangements.
It seems that refugees have had enough of the housing games and want caseworkers to handle the impossible task of renting rooms for a 1500$ budget and dealing with the complications that arise from forced cohabitation when several individuals share a tiny room. The question is how will refugees compel caseworkers to step into this minefield?
The rebels incinerated the home of a father of five, killed three family members, and brutally tortured and left him for dead. When news spread that he was still alive, arrest warrants circulated and, a dead man walking, the father fled alone to China with the assistance of a consular friend. His wife and children hid in the bush where his eldest son died. Almost two years after seeking asylum in Hong Kong, Immigration Department accepted his claim as substantiated.
Another victim of persecution, a parent of two children, sought the protection of Hong Kong Government in mid-2014 and was recognized a refugee less than a year later with the support of exhaustive documentary proof. Between 3 March 2014, when the Unified Screening Mechanism was launched and 12 February 2015, there were 5 substantiated cases out of 826 claims, maintaining Hong Kong’s effective zero percent acceptance rate (0.61%).
Setting aside vexing doubts about the other 821 claimants denied protection, Vision First is deeply concerned about the harsh and inhospitable treatment of successful claimants. They are in one breath notified a potentially life-changing decision and also informally told they are not welcomed to integrate and reconstruct a new life in Hong Kong.
Despite the promise of not deporting them into harm’s way, claimants are made acutely aware that the prohibition from working stays while they remain confined to the same inadequate welfare provisions they experienced as asylum seekers. Protection (from refoulement) does not come with the right to make a living in Hong Kong.
The Notices of Decisions clearly express the authorities’ position on reluctantly granting temporary asylum until alternative solutions are identified to rid the city of the annoyance of refugees. Claimants are informed that “in the circumstances, you will not be returned to [your country] for the time being”.
Then cases are “passed to the UNHCR for consideration should (you) be recognized as refugees under its mandate and … resettled to a third country as appropriate”. It seems that asylum policies in Hong Kong haven’t evolved from reliance on the United Nations to conveniently sweep away local problems with minimal expense and hassle.
The Notice of Decision warns that, “the making of removal order against you would not be precluded”, i.e. stopped, as “the Immigration Department may consider whether there is any special country other than (your homeland) to which you may return. If any such specific country is identified, you may be removed there.”
Further, the Notices of Decision issued by the Immigration Department states, “if you wish to leave Hong Kong at your own initiative, you may do so notwithstanding your substantiated non-refoulement claims. Please however be reminded that your non-refoulement claims will be treated as withdrawn and will not be re-opened if you leave Hong Kong.”
Finally, another paragraph in the disheartening notices warns, “For the avoidance of doubt, please be also reminded that a person will not be treated as ordinarily resident in Hong Kong … during any period in which he or she remains in Hong Kong only by virtue of a non-refoulement claim, including the period when his or hers non-refoulement claim is substantiated.”
The analysis of such protection documents reveals five warnings from Immigration: 1) we won’t send you back for now; 2) you are not welcome so get the UNHCR to resettle you elsewhere; 3) you are under a removal order and could be deported to another country; 4) you can’t work and won’t receive adequate welfare, so you can volunteer to leave; 5) if you are stuck here for years be aware that you are not treated as ordinarily resident and won’t be allowed citizenship.
As if the above were not depressing enough, the inauspicious Notices conclude with a final warning, “Please also note that your substantiated non-refoulement claim may be reviewed should there be any changes of circumstances and other reasons for considering revocation.”
Hong Kong Immigration’s notices granting international protection to distraught refugees conclude with the word: REVOCATION. It might reflect the spirit in which the Immigration Department reluctantly grants protection following a series of court judgments warning that, “the courts will on judicial review subject the [Immigration] determination to rigorous examination and anxious scrutiny to ensure that the required high standards of fairness have been met.”
On 17 February 2015, a group of 60 refugees protested at the Social Welfare Department head-office with yet another chorus of complaints to demand greater scrutiny of the current housing crisis that followed the clampdown on refugee slums.
For the third time in a month refugees evicted from illegal huts and shacks made it clear to SWD officials that they are boxed in on four sides:
- They are not allowed to work and are jailed 15 to 22 months upon conviction;
- The 1500$ rent assistance is wholly insufficient in the current housing market;
- Land authorities demand the purging of slums triggering mass evictions;
- Guesthouse rooms are no longer offered as an alternative to homeless refugees.
Pressured by slum lords to leave and unable to secure cheap rooms, 21 refugees represented a hundred colleagues in the slums of Yuen Long and Kam Tin and demanded an urgent and lasting solution to housing needs. They were joined by several homeless refugees from Kowloon and supported by refugee activists and Vision First to lodge formal complaints with SWD social workers.
However, when told that grievances would be referred back to ISS-HK caseworkers, the protesters became agitated. Refugees accused SWD and its contractor of shifting them around, telling refugees in Yuen Long there were rooms in Kam Tin and vice-versa, when inhabitants from both areas sat side-by-side and were familiar with housing prices and shortage.
It was reported that ISS-HK had raised justifications with SWD by accusing the affected refugees of being ‘uncooperative and refusing to accept offers’. But refugees demanded that caseworkers bring such offers to SWD HQ and explain location, occupancy and rental, on top of the legality of certain arrangements. SWD replied that it wasn’t necessary for ISS-HK to bring over the ‘master list’.
It is worth noting that the one refugee who could have died in the blaze that killed Lucky, was lodged by ISS-HK in a guesthouse the next day and not asked to leave. However his colleagues from the same slum, whose huts did not go up in flames, had their rent stopped and faced eviction. Does this point to a government policy to offer guesthouse rooms only to refugees who had a near death experience?
To great consternation and frantic activity in the SWD head-office, the stand-off continued till evening. The press arrived followed by the police. After failing to mediate and suggesting that ISS-HK join the negotiations, the police noted that the protest was peaceful and there was nothing more they could do, so they left. The protesters were preparing to start an occupation and considered options.
Then a senior SWD officer unofficially agreed that the guesthouse solution would not be scrapped, but kept as one option in the protocol in the winding down of slums. An adjustment period is necessary for refugees accustomed to spacious yet dangerous and illegal slum rooms, to transition to multiple-occupancy in apartments. A degree of flexibility and respect is owed to slum-dwellers who were neglected for years in dangerous slums and suddenly evicted.
Further it was accepted that traumatized refugees, and those with medical conditions, should not be threatened with eviction when they fail to secure 1500$ rooms, or refuse to share with strangers, until lasting solutions are identified.
It is hoped that this wave of protest brought home to officials that genuine ‘case by case assessment’ does not equate with stopping rent to force vulnerable refugees overnight into shabby dormitories. This might be unavoidable when rescuing 2000 migrants in one day, but it is unpalatable for veteran refugees such as these protesters who have called Hong Kong home for 5 to 10 years. The guesthouse solution should remain available until suitable flats are secured, least homeless refugees take to the streets again in greater number.
I am a 30 year old South Asian who escaped the breakdown of law and order in a country where corruption protects the powerful who commit crimes with no fear of arrest or prosecution in court. It is meaningless for HK Immigration to claim, “You failed to report the incident to the police [in your country]”, because protection is guaranteed to the highest bidder, not to victims.
One night in 2010 I was smuggled on a speedboat from China to Hong Kong with ten other people. We were very lucky because the next day a powerful typhoon struck and the dangerous crossing could have been deadly. I was very scared at sea on a flimsy fishing boat in pitch darkness. At one point we were hit by a huge wave and we thought we would die.
The smugglers landed us on the coast and told us to walk into the mountains to find the road. They didn’t come with us and we got lost walking at night. For seven days we roamed the mountains in Sai Kung Country Park. We had no food and drank from the streams we crossed. We were relieved when the police arrested us because we were desperately hungry and afraid we wouldn’t make it.
For five years I have been suffering as a refugee. The rent and food we receive is not enough. I have lived three years in the slums, the only place I can rent a room for 1500$. I used to work to pay for a village room, but I suffered a serious injury in the container port. A wave struck the container barge we were offloading and a cargo chain detached and snapped my right arm.
I have heard about two refugees who died under falling containers. I doubt there were any inquiries into their deaths or safety procedures were reviewed. Bosses give refugees dangerous jobs because they know we cannot complain and they won’t have to pay for damages if we get hurt. I did not come to Hong Kong to die, but to live. I risked my life coming here and also working to survive.
Last week my ISS caseworker (name withheld) told me not to protest. He said that a big officer would visit the slums and I should not join the demonstration for safe housing. I stayed in my hut and waited. The big officer did not come. I think ISS tried to block the protest because they don’t want us to talk about our suffering. ISS tell me to find a legal room for 1500$, but they know it is impossible.
I only get some food and 1500$ rent from ISS. In five years they gave me nothing, then last week they gave me a green blanket. I waited five winters for one blanket! Everything I use I collected from nearby garbage dumps where I go on Saturday nights after residents dump old things. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have clothes to wear, a bed to sleep on, a fridge to store food and a stove to cook.
I am not an economic migrant. I came to Hong Kong to save my life, not work or be a beggar.
Prior to February 2015 a considerable number of homeless refugees were assigned single-occupancy rooms in guesthouses by ISS-HK when they failed to find rooms for the 1500$ rent assistance. Today the refugee community is reluctantly coming to terms with a hard to swallow shift in policy.
The practice was ironic and ill-conceived, as ISS-HK would spend 8000$ a month on hotels (in some cases for over a year), having frequently refused to increase the rent assistance by only a few hundred dollars. This resulted in an avoidable waste of public funds, as Vision First reported in several blogs, including “Homeless refugee forces ISS-HK to pay for guesthouse”, “A refugee clashes with the absurd at ISS-HK” and “Breaking the rent assistance barrier”.
Starting last week, refugees were unceremoniously locked out of guesthouses after ISS-HK payments were stopped. The decision is not unreasonable, as the guesthouse solution wasted millions of dollars that should have been more prudently allocated. Ibrahim from Togo requested a 400$ increase for his family of four, only to be turned down and lodged in a 13,500$ guesthouse room instead.
What next? The clampdown on guesthouses comes at a time when dozens of refugees are evicted from illegal refugee slums across the New Territories without adequate assistance. About a hundred refugees have found themselves in the streets. This amounts to a worrying housing crisis. Considering the prohibition from taking up employment and 15 months jail for working illegally, a perfect storm is heading towards increasingly homeless refugees. Does this reflect a hidden agenda?
Refugees say they are encouraged by caseworkers to share rooms and handed the mobile number of housing ‘fixers’. Last week five African refugees rented a two-room flat in To Kwa Wan for 7800$ which their combined rent assistance of 7500$ almost fully pays. Assuming they can share tight quarters for months, what will happen if one is deported or leaves Hong Kong? Policy dictates that security deposits are only paid once for as long as a refugee is in town.
The refugee community is divided. Many South Asians have for years bunked together and are already accustomed to living 4 to 6 in subdivided rooms where they sleep back to back, sometimes taking daytime and nighttime shifts. Housing ‘fixers’ enjoy a thriving business and an astute lady operating from Tsim Sha Tsui Mansion is said to lodge almost 200 refugees with payments from ISS-HK.
However the arrangement of packing 4 to 6 adults into rooms no larger than Ping-Pong tables should raise concerns. Aren’t these flats effectively unlicensed dormitories, where overcrowding presents more than a challenge to safety and fire regulations? How are hygiene and health standard managed when kitchens are turned into sleeping areas and toilets used for storage?
In a community where health risks pose daily concerns to the authorities, is it appropriate to pack refugees in such confined, inhumane spaces? What happens when one falls sick? Where do they store documents and personal belongings? Are refrigerators large enough for food rations? And why are potentially traumatized refugees forced to give up privacy as if in detention? Mental disorders and PTSD, often caused by persecution, are aggravated by ongoing stress and anxiety.
Further, the aggregate rent paid for such subdivided flats (one unit partitioned into five rooms) often exceeds 20,000$ which clearly is a huge incentive for fixers to expand market share while the slums close down and the number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong nears 10,000 for the first time in history.
Vision First urges the authorities to review the failed ‘humanitarian assistance’ for refugees as tightening the welfare screws to avoid ‘creating a magnet effect’ is evidently a failure. The number of refugees from the Global South seeking asylum in Hong Kong doubled in 2014. This is not a temporary ‘problem’ that can be fixed by ill-treatment that only tarnishes the reputation of our great city.