On 13 February 2015 Vision First conducted a joint slum inspection with a team of lease enforcement officers of the Lands Department, who are tasked to identify unauthorized structures and take enforcement action against registered owners in flagrant breach of lease covenants.
Following the slum blaze in which a Sri Lankan refugee was burned to death, the government approach towards and tolerance of refugee slums appears to have markedly changed. It was regrettably predictable. Vision First campaigned vigorously against hazardous slums advising officials to prudently take preventive actions against dangerous structures before the loss of life and property.
The lead Land Executive confirmed that the present compound at the Slum on two Storeys, the site of the fatal fire, was in breach of the land lease. She explained that the Squatter Control Survey only classified three small huts as “tolerated structures”, erected prior to 1982 and marked “TS” on Lands charts (red ellipse), and those shacks no longer exist.
The Lands executives were shown around the slum and spoke to resident refugees. They were lead to the back of the second storey where the most hazardous cubicles are not easily accessed. It was confirmed that enforcement action started after the fire and warning notices had been posted on 11 February 2015. Lands was yet to hear from the registered owner.
The appalling living conditions – dreadful waterless toilets and bathing buckets in particular – raised grave concerns with the lead officer who asked, “Has the Social Welfare Department visited this place?” She was surprised to learn that her colleagues at the SWD had never visited any of the refugee slums they supported through contracted agent ISS-HK. She assured Vision First that she would refer this case to the SWD and Fire Services for follow up.
We shared a ride in the Lands van to the nearby “Slum that rose like a Phoenix”, which takes its name from a previous blaze and was reported by Vision First on 20 November 2013. We witnessed the Lands executives posting a notice on the perimeter fence 450 days after our original blog. The notice warned that present structures are in breach of lease conditions and must be purged within 28 days to avoid further lease enforcement action.
The lead officer confirmed that following a public complaint, Lands had inspected the site last week and identified unauthorized structures in which dozens of refugees appeared to have been living for some time. She questioned the appropriateness of such arrangements on agricultural land that were not tolerated. She further explained that the government will reenter the land if the registered owner fails to demolish the offending structures in a month’s time.
Affected refugees are gravely concerned about the prospect of being suddenly evicted, though they generally appreciate that short-term discomfort (moving to guesthouses or dormitories) is preferable to years of living dangerously in structures that could as easily collapse as erupt in a ball of fire like Lucky’s hut. Death has a way of focusing attention on what is most important in life.
Vision First emphasises that securing adequate housing for refugees is a government duty, not a task for penniless refugees without savings and work rights. Few doubt that Hong Kong Government is at fault if it fails to meet the legal requirements of the High Court “Usman Butt” case (HCMA 70/2010):
“A genuine torture or refugee claimants deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status. However, his basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government” – Justice Cheung.
Following the death of a refugee in the Hong Kong slums, AFP went on assignment with the Refugee Union. The shameful treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers was captured by an expert lens for the world to witness. Over a day we visited five notorious slums and met refugees who on average waited already five years for a decision on their claims without receiving a reply. They wait patiently in total destitution as those responsible turn a blind eye to their plight.
The material used to partition slum rooms are advertising billboards that might have been discarded after some fancy show at luxury shopping mall. It is striking that amid the city’s unbridled affluence there are human beings suffering under government care without proper accommodation. These living conditions tarnish the reputation of Hong Kong as an international financial centre where every person ought to be treated with respect, irrespective of immigration status.
The refugees welcomed us inside their shacks where, they explained, every item was recovered from garbage pits including electric stoves and flat-panel TVs. They spoke about the dynamics of survival in a metropolis, where coping without work is harsher than most people imagine. Despite such odds, refugees preserve great dignity which was masterfully captured by the photographer.
From all accounts, it might be the twilight of refugee slums in Hong Kong and the Refugee Union was grateful for the coverage this reprehensible policy is getting. “Show the world how they treat us,” exclaimed Afzaal from Pakistan, “We are not animals to lock in a farm shed. One night a snake bit my leg inside my hut. I had no idea if it was poisoned. We are scared of electricity, flooding, fires and the police banging our doors in the middle of the night. We are refugees, not criminals.”
The LegCo “Panel on Housing” of 2 November 1998 states “Any illegal structures or extensions built after 1 June 1982 on … leased agricultural land without the approval from the Lands Department, are classified as squatters and are subject to demolition as and when they are discovered. Structures registered in the 1982 Squatter Control Survey are tolerated until such time when their removal is required for public development, environmental improvement or safety reasons.”
On 11 February 2015, the Lands Department affixed this notice at the Slum on Two Storey, the site of the fatal fire. The registered owner is notified that three metal and wood structures of specific measurements had been tolerated. However such structures had been previously demolished and replaced with the current unauthorized structures, thus cancelling the squatter license. In other words, the entire compound is found to be illegal and must be returned to agricultural use.
A quintessential expression captures the moment – closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted. Since May 2013 Vision First has advocated tirelessly for safe and proper housing for slum refugees by reporting our findings to departments including the land authority. Two weeks after the death of a refugee squatter, lease enforcement commenced against an unscrupulous slum lord.
It appears that not all government departments are reading from the same page. On the one hand Lands Department publicly stated that several refugee slums are illegal and posted notices at certain location. On the other, the Social Welfare Department did not concede that rules and regulations were broken by settling refugees in slums since 2006. Truth would go a long way in resolving the issue.
Meanwhile the Hong Kong Police is apparently attempting to maintain order in a familiar way, namely gagging refugees from voicing grievances. Whether coordinated or the result of individual opinion, a Refugee Union leader affirms he was visited by four police officers in his tin shed at night and warned that he should not join an upcoming protest. Another refugee in a different slum was told by a policeman, “Why you complain? You have a good room”. The officers were met with silence as pajamas were not the right attire for a debate.
At this juncture, the government should be coordinating and implementing a rational clearance of dangerous slums. Priority should be given to locations with high fire hazard from which refugees ought to be urgently moved to guesthouses while permanent solutions are identified. It is meaningless for caseworkers to instruct refugees to immediately secure proper accommodation for 1500$ a month!
Refugees were victimized when they were first settled in slums years ago. Today they are victimizes again by sudden evictions. It is a no-brainer that 1500$ legal rooms do not exist and refugees have no resources to pay for rent surplus, since they are not allowed to work. Something is amiss in the government’s strategy to resolving this housing crisis in which everyone is responsible, and not only the refugees as pro-government propaganda states.
The above mentioned paper concludes, “It is the Government’s policy that no one would be rendered homeless as a result of the clearance programmes. When clearance is to be conducted in a squatter area, all persons … will be rehoused to public rental housing or interim housing units according to their eligibility.” Current practices again shamefully belittle the dignity and humanity of refugees.
“The civil war ended in 2009 but Tamil people are still dying. My second brother was kidnapped and disappeared in Sri Lanka. Yesterday I saw [Lucky’s] body in a morgue after he burned to death while in exile in Hong Kong. I hadn’t seen him since I fled to England 16 years ago,” said Sivaharan who arrived from London on Sunday as a British citizen to see his brother Lucky, who tragically died in a slum fire days ago.
The resemblance with his brother Lucky is striking. And yet their fates are irreversibly worlds apart: one is a holder of a United Kingdom Passport, the other of a Death Certificate courtesy of the Hong Kong Government that failed to protect Lucky and was unwilling to support him in a dignified manner. Such a regrettable treatment by the Hong Kong government sealed his tragic fate.
Sivaharan’s gentle smile hides a broken heart. He deleted Lucky’s photo from his mobile phone as they were too painful to see. Having to identify the charred remains of his beloved brother will only worsen his nightmares. “My mother hasn’t stopped crying,” he sighs, “She thought Lucky was safe here and cannot believe she has now lost two of three sons. How can Hong Kong treat victims of war like this?”
There is no point explaining to him that Hong Kong appears to have a well-established practice of delaying the assessment of asylum case, especially when allegedly strong, to avoid acknowledging them. That would be too crass a justification for anyone to understand, particularly the relative of a victim abandoned without adequate welfare assistance to years of living dangerously in a slum. The unfairness of such a process drags it deep and swiftly into the abyss of injustice.
Nothing can bring him back to life, but the government and rule of law that failed to protect Lucky might be redeemed by bringing to justice those who participated – directly and indirectly – in his horrific death. To this end, Lucky’s brother will bring civil proceedings against the landlord of the slum, International Social Services Hong Kong (ISS-HK) for approving and renting the tin hut, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) that failed to monitor its contracted agent ISS-HK, and the Lands Department that failed to purge known slums in a timely fashion.
A successful damage claim is virtually cast-iron as Lucky was a non-refoulement claimant whose safety and well-being was entrusted entirely with the intended Defendants being the Hong Kong Government and its agents. Regrettably the government and its agents settled Lucky in an illegal and inherently dangerous slum from September 2008 to January 2015, and thus the Defendants are all responsible for his tragic death.
“I visited other slums and I am shocked,” relates Sivaharan, “Electric wires dangle by the sink and shower. It is so scary. They look nicely decorated inside, but these are death traps. The huts are tin sheets offering little protection. I feel sorry for refugees who live in such misery for years. We don’t hear about it [HK treatment of refugees] in the UK. The lives of refugees should not be endangered by a government that ought to protect them.”
An order for specific discovery is likely to reveal the extent of negligence, malfeasance and nonfeasance of each Defendant. Let’s only hope that Lucky’s dead wasn’t in vain.
Rose is a refugee mother living in the slums. She was distressed speaking to us, “My officer no give money to the landlord from 1 February. The officer said ‘Danger the place. You find another room. Rent money stopped paying already.’ Room outside very expensive. I must find another room, but I don’t have money. What can I do?”
Rose lamented, “If I leave and stay in ISS shelter where I put my property? I have double-bed, full kitchen and many bags of clothes for me, my husband and son. Landlord said we must pay cash for February rent or we cannot leave. [In her slum] landlord is asking 30 refugees to pay cash this month. He threaten everyone to pay before we leave.”
In September 2006 a South Asian refugee was settled in a pig farm by ISS-HK. His caseworker approved the arrangement with the landlord without inspecting the shack as Vision First reported in August 2013. A few months later ISS-HK relocated him to a guesthouse. Yesterday he was alarmed, “ISS said I must leave by Thursday. The cheapest room is 3000$ so where I find a room for 1500$. Where do I go? I am very afraid.”
Aziz is a vocal campaigner for better housing assistance for refugees evicted from the slums. He is unable to find a cheap enough room for himself and his wife. He reports, “ISS didn’t pay our rent in January and February. But ISS continue to pay for electricity and water. Why they don’t give more money to rent [better accommodation] than give it to the landlord? Officers from Lands Department tell to me this lot must all be demolished and turned into farmland.”
Richard is an African refugee settled by ISS-HK in a guesthouse 14 months ago when he was unable to secure a 1500$ room. He reports, “My caseworker said I must leave on Monday, but I refuse. Where I go? Do they want me to live in the street? ISS put me in a guesthouse when I was homeless a year ago. Today house prices are much higher and they still want me to find a room for the old price. What are they thinking? Refugees are not animals to kick outside …”
An SWD spokesperson responded to our bog “Housing crisis expanding to guesthouses” with this comment, “Thank you for your email of 6 February 2015 regarding the claimants living in guest houses arranged by ISS. We are looking into the matter and ISS has been alerted about it.” Something is not right. Isn’t the contractor implementing policies dictated by the government? Isn’t shifting responsibility to underlings cowardly incompetent to say the least?
Facts lead us to believe that the authorities caused the present housing crisis by a combination of (un)foreseen ramifications and unforgiving market forces. The time has come for the government to rethink their approach and the following constraints should be evaluated:
- refugees are not a temporary ‘problem’ to be fixed with residual humanitarian assistance;
- a work ban disempowers refugees from actively participating in problem solving;
- unrealistic rent assistance prices refugees out of basic rooms, exposes them to incarceration for working illegally while enriching unscrupulous citizens;
- after years of negligence the refugee slums are targeted for closure following Lucky’s death;
- lodging refugees in guesthouses for about 7000$ a month was ill-advised;
- the escalating housing crisis is a threat to social stability and public security that demands longterm, sustainable and reality-based solutions.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of newly arrived homeless refugees, presumably desperate to get off the street and secure a roof over theirs and possibly their family’s head. Refugees are generally informed by either the authorities or their peers of the bleak life they are going to live in Hong Kong.
New-arrivals will eventually be directed to immigration authorities, if not first arrested, and upon release register at one of the SWD Integrated Family Centers around Hong Kong upon. After a means assessment and a 3 to 4 month wait, they are referred to ISS-HK, the government contractor for the provision of welfare to asylum seekers and refugees.
Newcomers learn of further restrictions on their livelihood: not only are they banned from working and will be jailed 15 to 22 months for doing so, but the rent assistance provided is arguably half of market prices for the cheapest subdivided rooms in the most rundown buildings. The present rate is 1500$, but it was 1200$ at the time ISS-HK circulated the document below.
It is at that time that refugees end up either following their peers wherever they live, to tap into similar cheap housing, or they are provided by their caseworker with addresses where they may find accommodation. In this case, one caseworker briefed a desperate homeless refugee on the rigid 1200$ rent ceiling (at the time offering neither security deposit or agency fee) and proactively encouraged him to contact the purported landlords of item 5 and item 6, which were duly marked for attention.
Several critical observations leap forward:
- The rooms in slums are often conveniently priced around the level of rent assistance;
- Other rooms seem to be priced far beyond the reach of destitute refugees;
- “No proof of ownership” evinces knowledge of unauthorized structures and land use;
- Item 6 is annotated with “6 to 7 rooms” that the caseworker keenly promoted;
- Item 6 is annotated with “house owner rent the land” indicative of a middleman/facilitator;
- Item 6 is annotated with “new address not in accommodation master list”;
(The authorities ought to forensically analyses such master lists)
- Items 3, 4, 5, 6 are identifiable by Vision First as known slums in those areas;
- Items 4, 5 and 6 indicate “washrooms” which are known to be water buckets;
- Items 4, 5 and 6 indicate “kitchen”, sample photos of which are displayed here;
- Destitute homeless refugees are cunningly forced towards the slums!
Vision First researched extensively the conditions and dynamics that pushed refugees into the 69 slums we identified. We were told by several purported landlords that the joint enterprise started with a connection at ISS-HK, details will be produced in due course. We believe that the documents with the contact numbers of 8 slum lords and the one below with the details of rooms at 4 slums, manifestly give the lie to any claim that ISS-HK had no part in a joint enterprise to settle refugees in slums. Some observers might go as far as calling these smoking guns.
Besides, whether it is admitted or not, nothing changes the fact that these slums are unauthorized structures never listed by the Lands Department for human habitation and as such should be promptly dismantled when those responsible wake up from a deep slumber.