VF is amused by the factious reporting of a tragic event in words that seems to exculpate those responsible for authorizing the disbursement of government funds for the renting of unauthorized and deadly dangerous structures. Further VF questions the knowledge of purported experts asserting refugees choose to live in converted pig farms because rooms are bigger and anyway they see Hong Kong as a temporary stopover. Undoubtedly Hong Kong is a stopover. Who would want to live an entire life in squalid slums?
The reporter seems tainted by the same government propaganda that once proudly resonated from ISS-HK spokespersons, who interestingly were neither at the accident site to explain their role, nor later explained to the public their questionable relationship with the purported landlord who settled dozens of refugees into death traps.
Vision First exposed ‘The Slum On Two Storeys’ in August 2013 when we reported that an unscrupulous owner constructed a dangerous dormitory on two levels, where ISS-HK colluded to settle over 25 refugees. Evidence revealed that the Lands Department once authorized the construction of three pigsty and two chicken sheds on the lot, though licenses had been revoked.
A year and a half later only the names of some of the refugee tenants had changed as new-arrivals moved in. No government department seemed interested to address the problem of illegal structures that, in our view, constituted veritable ‘death traps’ owing to overcrowding, substandard construction, illegal electrical wiring, gas cooking in confined spaces and alarmingly a lack of firefighting equipment.
In a 28 January 2015 meeting, we brought to the attention of Lands Department officers that the slums generally constituted a fire hazard and it was only a matter of time before one would go up in flame, possibly with loss of human life. We remarked that the Fire Services Department had seen the photos of the slums and were keen to take coordinate action with SWD and Lands.
One day later we received an SMS from a Bangladeshi member, “Kam Sheung Road have refugee house burning. One man die just before”. The Refugee Union swung into action and photos spread on social media a few minutes later. A violent fire was raged out of control. Firemen from 18 trucks with two breathing apparatus team took 40 minutes to douse the inferno. Too late for Lucky!
He was known by the nickname “Lucky”, which didn’t protect him as he burnt to death in a tin shed. Lucky often complained about faulty electrical wire that gave shocks. It is reported that his ISS case worker visited his shack and looked into the problem a few days earlier. A friend explained that refugees often wire the slums with two-face system that can short-circuit and catch fire.
Vision First was familiar with Lucky’s hut and the others lining the path to the ‘Slum on Two Levels’. There was nothing legal there. Every part and material raised alarming concerns. In the slums there is imminent danger of collapse, flooding, gas explosion, lightning strikes and – most frightening – FIRE! Had it been nighttime with most residents at home sleeping, the death toll would have been high.
We can only hope that Lucky’s tragic death will not have been in vein. It was disappointing to witness the sudden media frenzy drawn by the excitement of a raging fire and a gruesome death. Why were the refugee slums not newsworthy yesterday? Why did it take a death to draw media and public interest? Lucky’s death was entirely avoidable if the authorities had taken action in August 2013.
Vision First is encouraged that most news reports mentioned the UNAUTHORIZED STRUCTURES that contributed to this tragic fire. Several reporters interviewed the Lands Department who confirmed that the registered owner of this slum had been served with written notices that went ignored. Lands Dept. then registered encumbrances with the Lands Registry and planned enforcement action.
The authorities’ slow pace tragically cost the life of a refugee!
On 28 January 2014 senior executives from the Lands Department held a meeting with Vision First and Refugee Union representatives, one of whom has continuously resided in a slums paid for with government funds since he arrived in 2006.
The refugees presented three voluminous bundles of photographic evidence to formally lodge complaints on 69 questionable compounds erected on lots that Lands officers agreed were “mostly for agricultural use, including chicken and pig licenses no longer in use, because the government doesn’t allow [such business] having imposed many restrictions on farmers.”
The delegation was assured that registered owners were in breach of lease covenants for any structures that were not exclusively for agricultural or gardening use. It was brought to attention that the issue is not whether housing was properly constructed, but that no housing whatsoever is permitted on farmland and as such would be targeted for demolition.
It was noted that irrespective of collusion (by way of documentary inspections and site visits), registered owners were ultimately responsible for the existence of structures that third parties allegedly exploited to profit from the welfare program for refugees. The Lands Department did not consider acceptable justifications that ‘primary tenants’ had rented land for purposes landlords were unaware of.
Acting on the above mentioned complaints, warning letters demanding the removal or demolition of unauthorized structures are likely to be sent out copiously, failing which encumbrances will be registered with the Lands Registry and the government will take steps to ‘re-enter the land’.
A promise was made for zero tolerance of lease breaches. An officer explained, “Any conversions that are not designated for agricultural or gardening use are prohibited. Any structures that are not described in the land schedule must be removed”. It was categorically emphasized that settling refugees in these compounds constituted an offense under the law.
The delegation was told: “The government is very concerned. Everyone is concerned with the health of the occupants. We will step up enforcement action, including with estate agents … the Social Welfare Department is concerned with the management and supervision of ISS.”
A refugees who spearheaded the anti-slum campaign remarked, “The government accepts there is a huge problem. Last week my officer said ISS only approves the houses after getting approval from the Lands Department.” Vision First is hopeful that the tide is turning on the reckless practice of settling destitute refugees in dangerous and unhygienic slums away from the public eye. At what price?
As many refugee spouses face “Non-Decisions” by Immigration on their dependent visa applications, a process that can drag on for years with the repeated submission of the same documents, those lucky ones who receive a reply may find it unsatisfactory.
Particularly, the following judgment seems to shine light on a depraved problem. What weight is given by Immigration to the applicant’s criminal record and family circumstances when considering a visa that may change not only the life of the sponsored refugee, but also that of resident children who might grow up without the love and support of a parent considered undesirable by the state?
How many such cases do refugees need to win before proper policies give certainty to an abusive aspect of the asylum process?