The video below shows thugs threatening refugee settled in a slum in the New Territory and what appear as throwing bricks at an apparently non-compliant refugee tenant. From the video it is understood the registered owner is required by the Lands Department to purge unauthorized structures rented to refugees through the government contractor ISS-HK.
Vision First believes the government should do more to guarantee the safety and protection of refugees caught in the crossfire between slum lords and Lands Department officials. After two years of yawning reactions to our reports on unauthorized structures settling homeless refugees (who are prohibited from working) it appears that lease enforcement officers are taking action.
While the official line remains “… this office is still gathering the necessary information about this case”, Vision First has been informed from refugee sources about increased inspection and enforcement action in several slums south of Yuen Long, from where dozens of refugees were coerced to hastily resettle last week.
This is undoubtedly a welcome development supporting our opinion that refugees were settled in 69 dreadful compounds, as well as dozens of lone huts such as this one ‘around a tree’, with blatant disregard for their well-being, public safety and human rights in general.
A dire warning must be raised. Although refugees lived in slums for lack of earning power and housing alternatives, the responsibility for this crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of SWD officers who failed to effectively monitor their contractor. An officer informally disclosed to Vision First that they still haven’t visited these slums and obtain their principle information from this website.
Vision First obtained copies of documents sent by District Lands Offices to registered owners (critically not always equivalent to the purported landlords in ‘collaboration’ with ISS-HK) warning not to “erect or construct any building or structure of any description on the Lot or any part thereof without having obtained the approval … Breach of the said covenant will give the Government a right to re-enter the Lot.”
A notice ordered, “I hereby require you to remedy the said breach by demolishing and removing the Structure in all respects to my satisfaction within 28 days from the date of this letter, failing which … the Government’s right to take lease enforcement action against the structures … re-enter upon the Lot … other actions as may be deemed appropriate …”
Problematically, landlords are made aware that they risk losing more than a gainful ‘collaboration’ with ISS-HK. If the Lands Department re-enters the land, owners will be struck off lands registries thereby forfeiting use and enjoyment of properties forever.
Here is where relations deteriorate and get ugly: In the case below, which Vision First has been told is not an isolated incident, thugs were summoned for the dirty work of threating and intimidating refugees to leave in a hurry, or else …
Is it sufficient for ISS-HK case workers to urge refugees to hastily relocate without offering affordable rooms, given they have no money and no right to work? Is it acceptable for SWD to wash its hands of a crisis they failed to avert and was foreseeable two years ago? Why are vulnerable refugees exposed to criminal intimidation of the sort they might have fled in their homeland?
We call him “Russia”, although his real name is Leo, because he hails from Leo Tolstoy’s country. His experiences and his namesake speak convincingly of an aphorism applicable worldwide and here in Hong Kong: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.
Leo sleeps on a sofa at the Refugee Union to avoid being homeless, not owing to this winter cold that barely tickles Russians, but owing to the disgrace of his unavoidable predicament. In fact, upon registration he politely asked if he could sleep on the rooftop to avoid being out on the street.
Urban refugees who either don’t have a home, or don’t have money to pay rent surplus, lament the humiliation of being let down by the authorities that treat them indifferently, to say the least, as if condemning human beings to physical suffering and psychological despair were a customary prerogative of power.
There was a time, and not so long ago, when refugees received no help at all. The dark ages ended in 2006 with the introduction of meagre assistance, but today is hardly a progressive time as welfare seems formulate to include deprivation and punishment. Vision First contends that perhaps ‘no aid’ is preferable to ‘some aid’ because those with much to hope, have nothing to lose in activism.
Let’s consider two aspects, housing and food, before drawing conclusions. First, unrealistic rent assistance force hundreds of refugees into the grip of slum lords, who think nothing of verbal abuse and, in extreme cases, criminally intimidation. Last week, in another extreme case, landlord thugs launched dogs against refugees and threw burning paper into rooms in arson attacks.
Second, failed food distribution generates a host of alarming practices: the widespread and mysterious phenomenom of deminishing rations; substandard and undesirable products that encourage the ‘revolving door scam’; profiteering through questionable merchandising practices, and inferior or rotten produce; and, in one extreme cases, distribution of contraband milk.
Vision First is reluctantly becoming the reporter and repository of ‘extreme cases’ that seem to shed their extremeness as they increasingly become more prevalent and less surprising. Refugee victims regularly file police reports, but lament that perpetrators avoid prosecution as demonstrated by the persistence of their actions. Are certain social groups fair game for abuse?
Apathy in law enforcement is indicative of a selective application of law and order, as resident victims might arguably experience a swifter and less biased application of criminal law. Beyond apathy, it is the way laws and regulations to upheld justice at times work against the justice they should upheld, to the point that the police might be less inclined to pursue local goons when they can take an easy shot at people perceived as enjoying lesser human rights.
Thus, are refugees perceived as second-class victims already submerged in criminality? Is their victimization tolerated within the culture of rejection? Why does guilt seem to circle back to them? Do we all share the blame in turning a blind eye to such developments?
ISS approved this slum for 7 years and now they want us to leave in 7 days. We don’t like to live in these bad conditions, but we cannot work and do not have money to rent good room. Before I tell my (ISS-HK) officer, I say outside homes in Yuen Long are very expensive. Maybe room cost 2000$, so how we rent for 1500$ budget ISS give us? He say to me, ‘Not my matter. Not my problem’ … So what we do? Should we be homeless because Hong Kong Government, Social Welfare Department and ISS refuse to provide home, refuse to increase refugee rent allowance and refuse refugee from working? This is why we come today to protest at the Social Welfare Department main office because this is shameful treatment of refugees.” – Aziz, refugee in Hong Kong since 2006
Vision First reported to the Social Welfare Department the case of a refugee girl, Shamea, whose parents said only receives 4 (four) cans of baby milk formula from the government contractor each month. This quantity might have been sufficient when she was an infant, but are 120 grams of formula sufficient when she turns 3 next month and no other food is provided?
The Srilankan father and Indonesian mother report they were confronted by a wall of indifference as they pleaded with three different caseworkers, over three years, who all stringently stuck to the line that the formula was all the girl required and the parents should share their rations with her!
Vision First is appealed that an utter disregard for the physical needs of young children is displayed, despite the SWD assuring that food allowances for refugees are carefully evaluated by nutritionists of the Health Department to guarantee the health and wellbeing of refugees, both adult and children. If that is so, how are these incongruences explained? Where else in society do children aged three subsist on baby formula alone, besides it being insufficiently provided?
The parents are deeply distressed. They are keenly aware that refugees are not allowed to work and of consequence food rations are their lifeline. On 7 January 2015, Vision First received three such complaints from similarly distraught mothers. Does this evince a covert policy to punish refugee families by making life difficult for their children? We would want to hope this line of thinking is too cruel to be even taken into consideration.
But, the SWD receives copies of the monthly food distribution sheets. Considering the known age of children, doesn’t the SWD question whether rations are sufficient for each age group? The SWD cannot raise ignorance as an excuse when the data is in front of their eyes.
We query: Is the SWD indirectly encouraging parents to work illegally? Will the SWD step forward to defend parents compelled to earn money to supplement welfare? Why do present welfare policies, supposedly formulated on humanitarian grounds to prevent destitution, manifestly fail to reach such an objective?
On 11 September 2013 Vision First reported on the Slum in the Honeymoon House where ISS-HK settled more than 30 refugees, including babies, in wooden shacks and metal containers. In our view, this compound clearly demonstrated the result of unsavory practices between an unscrupulous purported landlord and a government contractor who, at a minimum, failed in due diligence.
Over the past sixteen months, Vision First regularly visited this slum collecting evidence of refugees being housed in dangerous and unhygienic structures that no right-minded person could remotely consider suitable for human beings. A lack of sanitation and sewerage was the least of the problems, as these ramshackle huts seemed on the verge of collapsing under their own weight.
Further, we are alarmed that refugee, some having lived there for 5 years, raise concerns about ownership as they inform about a slum lady who used a company (names withheld) for tenancy agreements to receive rent from ISS-HK, despite the land not being registered in that company’s name. Refugees report that the slum lady sold the property in early 2014 to a distraught new buyer who now faces stringent enforcement action by the authorities.
In the wake of numerous cross-departmental complaints filed by Vision First, the Lands Department is finally cracking down on the unauthorized structures erected in this slum that must be demolished or removed as a matter of urgency. Notices issued on 11 and 29 December 2014 have been retained as evidence that ISS-HK settled refugees in illegal structures not fit for human habitation. Again we wonder what supporting documents were submitted to SWD.
The Lands Dept notices call for demolition and warn “The public should thus stop to purchase or rent or reside in the unauthorized structures erected on the Lot. Otherwise, you may face losses or liability in the event of enforcement action by the Government against unauthorized or unlawful structures.”
The department is taking a surprising step, “Besides, for cases where estate agents have been involved in facilitating sales/rental transactions, the District Lands Office will refer to the Estate Agents Authority for her appropriate action.” We wonder if the fallout will implicate ISS-HK caseworkers who also facilitated rentals.
Recently we have been informed from refugee tenants of caseworkers contacting and urging them to move hastily out of this compound. Further, Vision First has been informed that refugees were told these huts were illegal and they would be settled in guesthouses while they looked for suitable rooms. This came as a shock to a refugee who queried, “Why was this location approved by ISS for seven years and suddenly we all have to leave in one week? If it is not good now for us, why was it good before?”
Lands Department inspectors surveyed every inch of the lot and found that not only the tin shacks, but also the solid brick-and-mortar homes are illegal. In no unequivocal terms, the registered owner was told that the entire lot must be returned to its original farmland condition for the raising of crops, which we presume excludes categorically the raising of refugee children.
A few days ago Vision First wrote to the Child Protection institute querying if they had taken into consideration refugee children when writing to the SCMP saying the government is doing all it can to prevent destitution. Apparently, if the government is, its contractors are not.
Vision First reported to the Social Welfare Department the reprehensible treatment of a refugee child who has been allegedly denied rent, utility and adequate food assistance for reasons unexplainable. The boy, Samuel, was born in 2013 to a Pakistani father and Indonesian mother.
Samuel was issued with an Immigration Recognizance Form in August 2013, after which the parents requested he be added to their Agreement on Provision of Assistance. However, the mother laments, “Our caseworker refused to add our boy, because she said it was not necessary and we already got enough help.”
For reasons that remain unclear, young Samuel was not recognized by SWD contractor ISSHK as a ‘service user’ entitled to standard levels of assistance for rent, utilities and food, as determined by the Hong Kong Government. Raising a family is expensive and refugee parents are denied the right to work.
At the core of the matter was the parents’ request to change their lodging because the room in which they lived had become too small for a unit of three. They therefore located what they thought could be a suitable room priced at 4500$. However, since August 2013 the family was told by their ISSHK case-worker that the small room they occupied was sufficient and it was unnecessary for them to relocate. The caseworker (name withheld) refused to pay the security deposit and first month rent.
The family reports that ISS-HK also did not increase the electricity allowance and failed to provide sufficient food for Samuel. In recent months, the two year-old boy was allocated one box of cereal, one can of milk formula (900gr) and 10 eggs for a 10 day period. The mother, who could not breastfeed, laments that her son would finish the formula in 5 days as he didn’t have solid food.
The distress mother complained to Vision First, “This is too much painful. Why they can treat us like that?”
Good question! From our experience, it is claimed that each case is different and a case-by-case assessment is implemented, as if this was reason sufficient to dispel complaints concerning some receiving more and others less than what is said not to exist, but is factually a “Refugee Welfare Package”. In this light, Vision First is greatly concerned about what seems to be an arbitrary, biased treatment, particularly because the family claims they were told “the manager did not agree” as an explanation of service refusal.
Vision First calls on the SWD to promptly investigate this case and explain to this family, and the community in general, what guidelines are in place in this cases, why ISS-HK decided that this family should not move to a larger room after having a baby, why their utility allowance should not be increased and why Samuel was punished with a reduced food allowance at a critical stage of growth and development.
On 13 September 2013, Vision First reported on the Slum on the Hilltop where ISS-HK paid rent for many refugees at least since 2010, according to the oldest resident interviewed. We were informed that other refugees had lived at this location earlier, under the auspices of ISS-HK, before moving elsewhere.
At this slum Vision First collected copies of numerous Agreements on Provision of Assistance, issued by ISS-HK and duly signed by caseworkers, confirming that the refugees in question were said to officially reside at the following addresses. We cannot but query if any of them is indeed accurate:
- 6/F, House 18, Chuck San Tsuen, Yuen Long
- 89 Shek Tong Tsuen, Yuen Long
- 18 Chuk San Tsuen, Yuen Long
- DD116, Lot 1896, 1892 39 Chuk San Tsuen, Yuen Long
- 2788 Kong Tau Tsuen, Yuen Long
- G/F, House 18, Chuck San Tsuen, Yuen Long
- DD116, 1732 Chuck San Tsuen, Yuen Long
On the most part, the refugees we interviewed were visited by ISS-HK caseworkers in 2013 at the Slum on the Hilltop that was approved as a suitable residential location. It may be assumed that the purported landlord provided ISS-HK with adequate documentation for rent assistance (1200$ a month in 2013) to be approved for each refugee. This arrangement continued into 2014.
Vision First emphatically condemned this illegal structure as unsuitable for human habitation, an opinion that obviously we are not alone to share.
Fifteen months later, in December 2014, a Notice by the District Lands Office, dated 29 August 2014 informed refugees that structures had been erected at that location without approval, in breach of the conditions in the Government lease. The registered owner was required to purge the breach by demolishing or removing the unauthorized structures. Further lease enforcement action was threatened.
Vision First has learnt that following the above notice, ISS-HK caseworkers have allegedly: a) discouraged new refugee from settling in this slum; b) encouraged refugee tenants to find suitable homes and promptly move out; c) refused to approve the renewal of tenancy agreements at this location.
When the last tenants move out in a few months, the Slum on the Hilltop will be history, but questions of public concern remain
- Did the register owner inform ISS-HK that the metal containers and wooden boxes employed to house refugees were unauthorized structures unfit for human residence?
- Did ISS-HK caseworkers conduct due diligence to protect the safety and health of refugees before approving their settlement in this dangerous and unhygienic compound?
- What proof of ownership did the slum lord provide ISS-HK to facilitate rental payments from the public purse and crucially were said documents furnished to the SWD monitors?
- What measures is ISS-HK taking to relocate refugees suddenly forced out of slums, given that the current 1500$ rent allowance is wholly insufficient to secure a basic, legal room?