Vision First was informed that on 15 January 2014 a delegation of refugees protested at the Social Welfare Department head-office against unrealistic rent assistance levels that pushed their backs against the ropes.
As many refugees are now forced to relocate from slums in which they lived for years, these same refugees face a compelling dilemma. With rental market prices on the rise and government rent assistance generally no more than $1500, where to find affordable rooms?
“ISS gave me a list of estate agents who showed me small rooms as big as a single mattress with prices between 3000$ and 4000$ a month. Also many wanted cash payment because they don’t want to work with ISS”, lamented an irate refugee who has lived in Hong Kong for 8 years.
Vision First expects that, since reliance on refugee slums has come under fire, the housing crisis will rapidly deteriorate as hundreds of claimants are forced into homelessness by failed welfare policies.
Besieged SWD officers listened carefully to the refugees, though clearly out of their depth as far as solutions were concerned. An SWD officer confirmed that, “in the past few months ISS was trying to resolve the slum problem”. A senior officer repeated a canned defense line, “We will raise your concerns with ISS and ask them to mobilize all their resources to find a solution.” But what resources are available to constrained caseworkers?
Fresh solutions are required to resolve a matter that brings great shame to Hong Kong. It is time for Hong Kong Government to pragmatically acknowledge the absurdity of so-called humanitarian assistance that fails to adequately house refugees in our expensive city. This utterly disappointing and unpleasant situation created by unrealistic rent levels ought to be urgently reviewed.
Vision First strongly recommends that refugees be allowed to work for the years it takes Immigration Department to determine asylum claims. It is sadly pathetic that every two years refugees must protest to raise welfare levels that fall hopelessly and predictably behind inflation. Further, temporary work permits would certainly benefit Hong Kong, as research demonstrates that refugees do not steal jobs from residents, but rather contribute extensively to raising their income.
Let’s be honest. If it is policy to hold thousands of refugees in limbo while claims flounder in bureaucracy, then it is only fair that claimants be allowed to earn a living to supplement unacceptably low assistance levels. This wouldn’t be inconsistent with the token welfare safety-net that forces destitute, old and needy citizens to eke out a subsistence living on their knees.
12 January 2015. It’s a cold night! Single mother Siti endures the worst case scenario. She lost a friend’s support and ISS-HK failed to assist. She is in Fung Cheung Road Garden, near Yuen Long MTR. Her 5 month daughter cries. She prepares to sleep on a concrete slab. Nearby is a public toilet she uses to care for her baby congenitally sick since birth.
Vision First was informed that mother and child are service users of ISS-HK and their emergency situation was brought to the attention of their caseworker (name withheld) over several phone calls that afternoon and evening. Siti had been homeless for several weeks, because she is unable to secure a room for the 2250$ budget she offered. A refugee family supported her until the landlord complained.
The mother reports she called her ISS-HK caseworker for emergency assistance. She suggested that a room in a guesthouse be provided for a few nights as she continued the challenging search for a permanent home – prices for single room 3000$ and up. Apparently her request was turned down. She said she was told that guesthouses are for men only. Gender discrimination?
Siti reports that the caseworker offered assistance at the ISS-HK shelter in Central instead. However, the mother lamented she had no money for the MTR fare, about 27$ and pleaded in the name of her sick baby. Regrettably her implorations fell on deaf ears and the caseworker hung up the phone. Mother and baby then slept rough on a very cold night.
Disappointing it is when those assisting the vulnerable come short on empathy and compassion. There might be stringent welfare rules against settling women in guesthouses, but surely they are overridden by civility rules against abandoning mothers and babies in the street in winter. Personal discretion and concern, if not professionalism, should prevail.
Caseworkers may possibly find themselves overwhelmed by crises that don’t neatly follow the service arrows in the colourful flow-chart before their eyes. Calling friends is often suggested as an alternative to destitution, but is it right to expect destitute others to provide aid? What if they are not available, or phone are off because they are not afforded credit? Public shelters in winter might be full or closed. Transportation money is not provided even when a solution might be in sight. Then perhaps frustration prevails before pressing demands that have become all too common.
Such situations are dangerous failures in service, as well as daunting failures in humanity.
Vision First reported on the Slum like a Favela, south of Yuen Long, on 6 December 2013. Here ISS-HK paid from the public purse the rent of dozens of refugees. This compound, that defied belief with its unstable cubicles erected on metal stilts and piping, manifestly disregarded any health or safety standards or concerns.
Adding insult to injury Vision First documented that the purported slum lord recently expanded the compound – to maximize profits from refugees – with additional metal stalls jutting precariously off the second level, two meters over the footpath. It was shocking to see that a crawlspace, previously used as a doghouse, had been converted into refugee bed space! There is no end to this owner’s ingenuity and greed.
Regrettably, there is yet no sign of enforcement action by the Lands Department here.
However, according to initial documents gathered by Vision First, the purported landlord’s gainful collaboration with ISS-HK started in May 2011 and continued till December 2014, when suddenly, and for reason unknown, caseworkers pulled the plug on this compound. Why?
Indicative is that nine present residents displayed leases and ISS-HK contracts stating, “I confirm my address to be at Letter box 224, 18 Shek Tong Tsuen, Au Tau, Yuen Long.” Alarmingly there are other refugees living 15 minutes down the hill with documents showing the same address and signed by the same person. It is reported that many more are on the same books.
A refugee described being visited by an ISS caseworker in December 2014, the first time in three years. The refugee tenant says he was told roughly: “The downstairs structure is not OK. Your room is dangerous. January is last money coming for your room. This is ultimatum and you must leave.”
Not without reason, the refugee rebutted that he had lived in that same room for four years, not by choice but out of necessity, as he couldn’t afford anything better. If his room was deemed suitable for human living and conformed with regulations before, why leave now?
The officer apparently replied that this was not his problem. Rather it was “ISS team problem. They report to me. They said the structure is no good. This place is not safe for you.”
Where shall this refugee go when suddenly deprived of the social relationships he built over four years in the same slum and when not provided with the necessary assistance to find proper housing? Will another similar slum welcome him and the other evicted?
Another refugee commented, “ISS is making big drama for refugees. They want us to leave these rooms and be homeless. They think that stopping the rent solves the problem, but there are no rooms we can rent for 1500$. If I go working and police catch me, I tell the judge that ISS no help me and I have to go working. Then my case-officer come to explain to the judge?”
We can’t but wonder about the reasons why ISS-HK is suddenly keen to close down slums.
My name is Nashu. I am a Bangladeshi refugee five years in Hong Kong. I want to thank Vision First for helping my people, because before Vision First come show us the way, we Bangladeshi could not speak to HK people who treat us like we don’t count and don’t have any rights. But what is difference between Bangladeshi refugee and African refugee killed by government, I ask you?
Is true that my uncle and my cousins escape to UK same time I came to HK. Last year they returned to Bangladesh with some UK documents after they were accepted as refugees. That is good for them, but there is no hope for me in HK because Bangladeshi never recognized as a refugee by Hong Kong Government.
Many years I live in a slum and I am very angry people say that we choose to live here. Why are we choose to live in slums if we can work and can rent nice room? There are always lies when people are treated like animals and those who don’t care about problem they think and say that poor people choose to suffer like that. Maybe they never talk to poor people.
Now I want to tell you about a very sad thing I see with my own eyes. I can’t feel comfortable and something must change. Near my home there is another slum where a refugee lady lives with her 3 years old daughter. She smoke Ashish (Ganja) because she is depressed and cannot have hope for the future. Her room is 3 x 3.5 feet and small like a car, so the girl breathe the smoke when she is sleeping.
When I visit I see the little girl is like drunk and her eyes are red and not looking normal. She tell me her father is sent by Immigration already back to Pakistan. The mother and daughter are paining very much without him. They are heartbroken I understand. This is real story that happen to many refugee families when Immigration send one parent away and family is broken.
The baby eyes and body movement is not normal. When I hold her I am shocked because her body is too much hurt. I think the baby is sick, maybe fever like that. But my friend tell me it is not fever. He say that after the father send back to his country, the mother is very sad and start to use some drugs at nighttime. When I first see the baby I feel very sad. True she is like a drunk!
What is the girl mistake that she is born in Hong Kong and her father is send away? She is refugee baby but her mother cannot work so cannot have good room and cannot have money to take care for her. They cannot have good future. Who is responsible to protect the human rights of refugee children born on the land of Hong Kong?
Now I tell you reason why refugees sell drugs to pay for rent, clothes, food and other costs. If the refugees sell drugs is because they don’t have job and if the police catch them send them too long time prison for working (15 months) and short time for selling drugs (4 months).
Also selling drugs big money come easy and working time is only few hours. But to do normal job the money is only 200-300$ and the working time is very long from early morning till late at night. So refugees are more scared that police will arrest them. It is law that make some refugee choose the wrong way as we don’t have the legal way to survive in Hong Kong.