A South Asian refugee moved his family into a traditional Chinese house in Au Tau, south of Yuen Long village, to protect his two year-old daughter from the unhygienic and unhealthy conditions many of his friends endure in refugee slums. He didn’t want his daughter to live and play in a filthy environment where she could get injured by rusty metal sheets or sick with the dirty water.
The family of three paid a few hundred dollars more than their monthly rent allowance for a decrepit brick house they considered safer than plywood and tin shacks. Little did they know that this assumption would be perilously challenged! Refugees receive 1500$ in rent assistance and children half of that amount. The housing reality is such that in most cases they can only afford illegal spaces in converted animal farms.
Vision First visited this family’s house in June and our attention was alarmingly drawn to a bulging wall that appeared to barely support the weight of the building. The family had buttressed a side wall with an internal brick structure that in retrospect might have only postponed the inevitable. A rickety wooden ladder led to a mezzanine floor where the family slept under the tiled roof.
“I was cooking dinner when I heard the wall crashing. I was so scared! I turned around and ran to the door. As I ran I heard the wall collapse behind me. The roof came down. It was like the walls were chasing me outside” said the wife about her escape. “Lucky my husband and daughter were outside walking because otherwise they would have been hurt. My neighbours only saw me and were shocked. They thought my daughter was inside!”
The brick house collapsed in heavy rain three nights before a Signal 8 typhoon struck Hong Kong. It had been a lucky escape. A few minutes later the family would have been dining by the wall that collapsed. A few hours later they would have been crushed in their sleep. A few days later they would have been buried alive when the typhoon unleashed its power on the crumbling house.
This near tragedy raises concerns about the extreme housing conditions refugees are subjected to and the general indifference to this shameful situation. The truth of the matter is that for 1500$ (or multiples for families) legal, basic rooms are unavailable as even the slums cost more. This incident demonstrates that refugees live in the most dangerous structures in Hong Kong and nobody is listening to complains that certain structures are about to collapse.
In our view, it is only a matter of time before some refugees will perish in illegal or substandard accommodation approved by ISS-HK under contract with the Social Welfare Department of the Hong Kong Government – an ironical situation considering the government supposed firm stance against dangerous and illegal structures. When that tragic day comes it will be too late to point fingers as million-dollar damage claims are brought against all parties concerned.
Over the past six months Vision First has meet with over 600 refugees, many of whom expressed a desire to become members, while others already constituted the core team upon which we rely for changes in practice and policy.
Hundreds of the refugees we actively engage with have been in Hong Kong for years, often over a decade. Others are relatively newer to the asylum field. They bring a different perspective and fresh energy to debates and activism as they seem unwilling to wait in limbo for endless years.
Over the past months, we reported about new asylum claimants experiencing great difficulties in securing accommodation even after registering with authorities. In this respect, Vision First engages government offices almost on a daily basis to resolve individual cases of unreasonable marginalization and immiseration. The authorities on a whole take reports to heart and endeavour to provide responses within the limitations of what we consider a failed welfare system.
Although we take pride in being a dynamic agency that evolves with, and at times ahead of the changes we spearhead in the asylum arena, it goes without saying that Vision First’s work is hardly a bed of roses. Quite the opposite, we expect thorny issues to cut and puncture without allowing it to dishearten as we never take failure personally. Rather, we seek to learn from every outcome and welcome criticism valued for the lessons it may teach.
As a case in point, we would like to discuss the criticism we recently elicited with a view to clarifying rumors, enhancing performance and refining longterm objectives. We believe this transparent self-analysis helps invigorate our efforts as we learn from past experiences to shape future endeavours.
Here are some objections that have been considered and critically evaluated:
• The information available to members on policy changes is too little and too sparse, and such changes are at times too radical and difficult for members to understand.
Response: A new website was launched to expand communication. It will soon feature a dedicated and public “Members Page” to report and explain policy shifts, new objectives and other changes that members can read about in a timely fashion (possibly even in their own language). This will be boosted by new ideas to be unveiled soon.
• Promises relating to individual assistance were suddenly broken.
Response: Vision First never makes promises. Members are reminded that deep uncertainty dominates the asylum field, particularly for small, independent NGOs that rely exclusively on voluntary support. Vision First always qualifies assistance with words to the effect of “We will do our best according to resources available from time to time”. We constantly re-evaluate programs in light of changes that are often beyond our control. Vision First is unable to replace government services to refugees and any material or financial assistance is a temporary solution until the authorities meet their obligations entirely. In this respect, individual assistance may be tailored to promote our “Triple A strategy” – Advocacy, Activism, Advice.
• Expectations of support and assistance were unfulfilled.
Response: While it is reasonable to have expectations, we acknowledge that we did not do enough to manage them. To this end, a new website and a leaflet for new members were launched, to explain what we do and what members should expect. It is noteworthy that our membership expanded four-fold since January 2013 to almost 1300 members, with scores wishing to join. This growth required a strategic shift from merely ensuring a few hundred members live ‘comfortably’, to vigorously engaging government department so that they meet refugees’ basic needs. A genuine concern for the thousands we could not assist compelled the broadening of our strategic thinking.
• Financial assistance offered by Vision First is insufficient for members to make ends meet.
Response: This is very true! Vision First is not mandated or subvented by the government to meet the financial needs of its members. Hypothetically speaking, if each member required 1000$ a month, we would need to raise 15 million a year – clearly an impossible scenario. Vision First pioneered the concept of unconditional Financial Assistance for refugees in 2010. We are pleased to note that ISS-HK adopted a similar practice in February 2014 and now provides cash to all protection claimants (about 6500). The same can be said about security deposits for homes.
• Prospective members have to wait for a long time before being heard.
Response: We are very sorry! Vision First is a tiny, independent agency run by volunteer staff who passionately serve this community without drawing a salary (only one staff works on very low remuneration). The long registration time is evidence of a widespread desire to join our organization. Logistical challenges are unavoidable in an environment where thousands of anxious refugees seek urgent advice. More of this work will soon engage the wise judgment of Refugee Union members, while new methods of registrations are continually tested to speed up the process and facilitate the circulation of information.
• Registrations are actively sought by Vision First only for those who serve their interests.
Response: Vision First welcomes any refugee who filed or will soon file a protection claim, without distinction. We go to great pains to refrain from assessing the merits of claims (which is exclusively an Immigration Department’s task) as we firmly believe that seeking asylum is an inalienable right. At the same time, Vision First vigorously encourages its members to learn their rights, demand adequate government assistance, resist abuse and become effective agents of change – an invitation that understandably not everyone is ready to accept.
• Vision First favours certain individuals over others.
Response: Vision First adheres to the belief that refugees are the first advocates and activists for the changes they want to see in the Hong Kong asylum sphere. Nobody can speak better than them about systemic shortcomings and structures of abuse. It would be questionable for the victims of any unjust system to expect others to fight their battle while they stand on the sidelines to reap the benefits afterwards. Therefore the principle of Active Engagement applies and more time, capacity and resources are justifiably devoted to those who participate most ardently.
Asylum seekers as well as recognized refugees (UNHCR or CAT) are not allowed to take up employment, but are sentenced to 15 – 22 months in prison if arrested working. It is disturbing that claimants receive no mercy in magistracy courts and no sympathy in higher courts either, as the Honourable Mrs Justice V Bokhary illustrated on 5 September 2014, “Whatever the human sympathy due to persons in the Appellant’s situation, I feel unable to say that the sentence passed in this case is out of line with the established level.”
Held in the vice of inadequate welfare and prohibition to work, refugees are crushed by a draconian process that criminalizes them for trying to make a living. It should be noted that refugees do not risk prison to buy superfluous goods, but rather to pay for essential items such as rent, utility bills, clothing and food where welfare falls appallingly short. In our view, the sentencing guidelines imposed since November 2009 overlook the impossibility of surviving on welfare alone.
The Honourable Madam Bokhary mentioned human sympathy for an appellant who was compelled to represent himself in court without a lawyer. Why did Legal Aid turn this defendant down? Was it assumed his grounds for appeal had no merit? Was he viewed as a challenger to the system? Justice was apparently served according to strict legal parameters without adequate consideration of the hardship endured by refugees who are expected to beg rather than work to survive. Is that reasonable?
It might be appropriate for the Judiciary to inquire why refugees risk lengthy prison sentences to earn a paltry daily wage (200-300$). Is such a modest reward worth such a heavy penalty? Are refugees insane as well as desperate? Could the underlying issues be more complex than simplistic goals of personal enrichment? Could work be the only options for destitute refugees to make ends meet? Unbiased investigation might shed light on an asylum policies most judges would find repulsive.
Vision First laments that current asylum policies are not fit for purpose, as they heap procedural violence and unnecessary cruelty on already vulnerable and suffering people. The Hong Kong Government should take a fresh look at the broader picture and implement a fairer policy that restores dignity to refugees who should not face jail for scraping a subsistence living. Nobody is fooled by claims that the government is doing enough to meet the daily needs of the refugee population.
An African refugee said, “Three years ago I came to Hong Kong to save my children’s life. I thought it was a place that respected human rights. I was wrong. Day after day I struggle to keep a roof over our head and buy basic things. I have many skills, but cannot work and that is extremely frustrating. It is not right to condemn refugees to begging.”
A Sri Lankan refugee said, “I am not allowed to work and don’t get enough [welfare] from the Government. If you don’t allow me to swim than you must carry me in your boat. If you throw somebody into the river with his hands tied behind his back – then you are murdering him! Hong Kong punishes refugees for seeking asylum here.”
To celebrate the launch of Vision First’s revamped website we take a step back to take a broader look at the challenges we face together with the refugees we strive to support and defend.
Ancient cartographers were accustomed to drawing dragons and mythical monsters on uncharted regions of maps where exploration stopped or from which adventurers failed to return. Some maps warned unambiguously that in those inhospitable places “Here Be Dragons”.
Dragons play a traditional role in local culture and Kowloon (九龍) literally means “Nine Dragons” in reference to the green hills in which the creatures were thought to live, though for refugees the name might present to the mind the “Nine Dragons” that threaten their existence –
First Dragon – the appalling 0.15% acceptance rate that since 1992 recognized just 20 claimants, including their children born in Hong Kong, out of more than 14,000 asylum seekers
Second Dragon – the prolonged wait for decisions by the Immigration Department generated by the failure to establish a comprehensive asylum mechanism prior to USM (launch 3 March 2014)
Third Dragon – the draconian policies that prohibit any form of employment, paid or unpaid, depriving refugees of opportunities to lead dignified lives while they sit idle for years
Fourth Dragon – the lengthy imprisonment that punishes refugees arrested for work with 15 to 22 months jail for first offenders and a maximum 36 months and 50,000$ fine
Fifth Dragon – the shortcomings of legal representation that fails to robustly counter the generally accepted 99.85% rejection rate raising doubts about the credibility of the process
Sixth Dragon – the grim living conditions ranging from months of homelessness to years of forced residence in squalid shacks and miserable huts that shock the conscience
Seventh Dragon – the substandard food allowance distributed through a widely criticizes supply-chain that seems to pilfer one-third of allocated value from hungry refugees
Eight Dragon – the agonizing medical services that frequently offer Panadol pills as the universal remedy for all ailments and reduce refugee patients to a bothersome inconvenience
Ninth Dragon – the creeping despair that diminishes most refugees who seek asylum in a city where international protection remains a vague promise rarely gained in reality
Vision First believes in pushing the boundaries to discover precisely what dragons hide in the hills of Kowloon, so that the dangers they represent may be vigorously confronted and eventually neutralized to progress the legal and human rights of all refugees.
We do not accept an ineffective, oppressive asylum regime as inevitable and unavoidable, but rather empower refugees to resist these dangers and become themselves agents of change. It is in this spirit that we engage the refugee community and strive for meaningful change.
We are reminded that only through pushing the barriers do we learn the precise contour, strength and weakness of a system that fetters the rights and liberties of many disenfranchised social groups in Hong Kong, refugees included.
A special CNN feature about individuals who dedicated their lives to charitable organizations and philanthropy around the world is schedule to run in coming weeks, having as focus the Refugee Union.
The Refugee Union has surged in recent months as a core player in the promotion of refugee wellbeing, ensuring that the plight of refugees is not just considered a serious issue, but is causally related to Hong Kong Government’s scandalous treatment of its vulnerable members.
As such the union has attracted several media inquiries, and its members have spared no effort to explain that by abdicating its responsibility towards refugees who sought its protection, Hong Kong is retreating from legal, moral obligations and welfare duty towards individuals it banned from working.
The union brought to our attention the plight of a member who had been sleeping on the streets. Now we are pleased to report that the refugee featured in this email was urgently accommodated into a guesthouse. Although the Social Welfare Department appears unable to consistently guarantee that homeless refugees are taken off the streets, if vigorously encouraged, social workers at the SWD appear to be in fact capable of settling refugees in less than 24 hours.
To borrow from the colourful vocabulary of Professor Larry Diamond to the South China Morning Post, we cannot then but query whether the neglect of refugee welfare is tantamount to lifting a giant middle finger in the face of legal and moral obligations. Hungry and homeless refugees who waited months after pleading for emergency assistance would find it hard to disagree.
In the words of a claimants, “The welfare [Social Welfare Department] told me to wait two or three months. I told them I have no money, no food and I cannot work…. The officer said to wait for a call from the ISS. I live outside since March…. I understand that Hong Kong doesn’t want refugees to come here so they punish us.”
Refugees seem to understand well that that the way they are treated is not just unfair, but in their view this unbearable gap in the commencement of assistance is created with the twofold aim of encouraging voluntary departures and forcing them to find their own means of survival However, working illegally ensures their imprisonment and loss of credibility for having breached their conditions of stay as protection claimants.
It must throughout be born in mind that the authorities are mistaken when claiming that assistance-in-kind is provided on humanitarian grounds – such as airborne food drops over overseas camps – thereby appearing to reject any legal basis for providing welfare to asylum seekers. In fact Hong Kong Government is at fault when 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.
In the evening of 27 August 2014 Vision First interviewed 15 new protection claimants who were sleeping rough under the arches of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. “Tonight many refugees are not here because is rainy and wet. Maybe they sleep on the floor in a friend’s room or inside buildings and staircases at Chung King Mansions and Mirador Mansions” said an African refugee who has slept outside for three months.
These protection claimants arrived between March and August 2014 and, after lodging asylum claims, were released by Immigration Department with recognizance. They are therefore neither overstayers, nor illegal immigrants. It is an affront to allow vulnerable individuals fleeing for their lives to be treated like animals on the streets of Hong Kong through government negligence that leaves them destitute, hungry and often sick.
A refugee from India narrated his SWD registration, “I told the Welfare Department that I have nothing to eat and I am sleeping at Star Ferry every night. They said that they cannot help me because there is a process and I have to wait 2 to 3 months for a phone call. I begged for help because I have nothing to eat and they gave me the meal times of a place in Chung King Mansions.”
Several refugees joined in and a wiry young man produced a wrinkled Meal Time notice handed to newcomers by SWD in Yau Ma Tei as an alternative to government services. Vision First queries whether the SWD has an agreement with this charity to refer legions of hungry asylum seekers who are in the government’s care. A refugee from Central Africa reported that staff at this agency was frustrated by the pressing demand for food and he noted that probably they were unaware the SWD sent them over. It is noteworthy that the Meal Time notice appears unofficial and does not bear any logo.
This group of homeless refugees shared similar experiences. They had told SWD about their predicament; they had begged for help; there was no intake process or assessment; they were bounced with negligent indifference: “There is nothing we can do”, “We will call you in 2 to 3 months”, “You must wait for a phone call”, “There is a process and many claimants are in the queue”, “We cannot help you”, “You must wait for ISS to call you”, “Don’t come back here”.
It is disturbing that government welfare officers are turning a blind eye to human suffering.
It is unacceptable for the SWD to delay emergency assistance to destitute refugees with the excuse of a backlog. A savvy refugee who required medical services after weeks on the streets noted, “If there are too many refugees to register, why doesn’t the government hire more people? They warn us that we will go to jail if we work and then they give us nothing to eat and no shelter. How can we live three months with nothing?”
At stake are the well-being, health and security of vulnerable newcomers who have a legitimate expectation that their basic needs will be met by Hong Kong Government through the services of the Social Welfare Department. Vision First calls on the SWD to urgently address this problem that is causing great suffering and is damaging Hong Kong’s reputation for human rights in the international community. The cost of failing to protect refugees as well as the shame derived from it, is not insignificant.
My name is Odilon and I fled violence in my country to save my life in Hong Kong, where I am currently an asylum seeker. I arrived in early June 2014 hoping to find international protection as well as physical and psychological security. I didn’t expect to suffer great hardship without food or shelter for many weeks. I have to beg for assistance from penniless refugees to survive day by day. That’s very hard.
I don’t think it is right that Immigration Department delayed the issuance of my papers for several weeks after I surrendered as that caused me more suffering. In late July after I was issued with an Immigration recognizance form, I approached the Social Welfare Department in Yau Ma Tei, as I had no money, no food and no shelter. A refugee friend guided me there to get help.
The SWD officer photocopied my Immigration paper and said, “You must wait for maybe two months or three months.” I couldn’t believe what she said and I had no idea how to survive for three months because I am not allowed to work. I complained, “But now I don’t have place to sleep, I don’t have food. So what can I do?” She replied, “I cannot help you now. You must wait for ISS and ISS can help you.”
I told the officer that I had no money for food, but she said “I don’t care. You wait for ISS.”
I returned to SWD Yau Ma Tei twice the following weeks. I told the officer, “Now I am sick I need to go to hospital.” The officer replied that he could arranged the hospital. I told him that I was sick because I was sleeping outside and needed a place to sleep and food to eat. The officer replied that they can help with the hospital, but they cannot provide food or shelter. I was told again to wait for two or three months for assistance from ISS.
For the first time in early August I went to ISS Mongkok as many refugees I knew were assisted by them. The security guard allowed me inside even though I had no appointment. A staff took a photocopy of my Immigration form and asked me to wait. I noticed that many refugees went to that office to meet case workers and get rent and food assistance. I was hopeful that somebody would finally help me!
Later I spoke to a male case worker whose name I do not recall but with phone number 23924726. He said, “If you need emergency food, call me and I will give you.” I asked him, “If you give me emergency food, where can I eat, where can I sleep?” He replied, “Now I cannot help you. Maybe next month I can give you guesthouse.” I lamented, “I cannot wait till next month. I need help today.” He replied, “Now I cannot help you, maybe next month.” He did not give me an appointment or any further advice.
I never imagined seeking refuge in a developed and prosperous city and being made a beggar. Everywhere I go I am told they cannot help me. Everyone says that I must wait a few months. Now it has been three months and I am still sleeping in the streets. Sometimes I spend the night in Kowloon Park, other times at the Star Ferry. When I am lucky a refugee offers to share his bed, but that is only if it is raining and he has pity on me. Hong Kong is very cruel to refugees.