The Refugee Union published the Social Welfare Department reply to a petition requesting the urgent increase in welfare last enhanced in January 2014. Regrettably, the SWD informs that there are no plans to adjust welfare to interim inflation and skyrocketing rents after three years.
The SWD alleges that the assistance meets basic needs with 1500$ in monthly rent, 40$ a day for groceries and 200$ transportation, with zero provision for clothes, shoes, shaving cream, household detergents, reading glasses, haircuts, mattresses, blankets, cooking and kitchen ware, furniture, diapers, school supplies and transportation, credit for phones, dental service etc. The SWD also maintains that refugees require a single roll of toilet paper per month.
Magnet Effect and Mathematics
Vision First believe there is little substance in the justification that refugees should be denied anything more than a very basic assistance “so as to avoid a magnet effect.” As there is no evidence of any such “Magnet Effect”, it appears this claim is a wholly speculative allegation. Indeed, the Security Bureau and SWD in their own paper issued to the Legislative Council on 8 June 2015 admitted that they have a duty to meet the basic needs of refugees in full. Thus, the Magnet Effect would only apply to extra assistance, above and beyond meeting basic needs.
“The Social Welfare Department (SWD) is charged with the responsibility to provide the assistance programme through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) since April 2006. The objective of the assistance programme is to ensure that non-refoulement claimants will not, during their presence in Hong Kong, become destitute. The assistance programme is not intended to provide them with extra assistance than is necessary to meet their basic needs, so as to avoid any magnet effect which may have serious implications on the sustainability of the assistance programme and on our immigration control.”
In reality, the stringency of immigration controls has not correlation with the well-being of refugees who already sought the protection of Hong Kong Government. The Immigration Department may learn from the past, but the SWD should not raise border integrity as an excuse to oppress local refugees. Further, numbers have raised manifold since aid started in 2006, suggesting that welfare is not the reason why refugees travel here. Denying adequate levels of welfare is just a policy to oppress refugees in order to encourage constructive refoulement. After six months’ of deliberation the SWD confirms that:-
“The Government considers that the current provisions are sufficient to meet the basic needs of service users and has no plan to change the arrangement at this stage.”
However, the Refugee Union’s petition reports that welfare fail to meet the basic needs of virtually all refugees. Almost without exception the assistance by SWD and ISS-HK falls short of rental amounts, utilities, food and travel money, besides lacking the above necessities. In this regard, the suggestion that refugees in need of more assistance should provide justification to ISS-HK is frankly nonsense, as the assistance requested is to meet basic needs, and not to get something above and beyond the costs of such needs.
ISS-HK caseworkers treat requests for such basic assistance with typical rejection. Refugees are actually not asking for more assistance above and beyond meeting their basic needs. They are instead asking ISS-HK and the SWD for full assistance in order to meet basic needs – the difference is crucial. There is even greater fallacy in the advice to seek assistance from ISS-HK to locate suitable rooms because the price of subdivided, cubicle and coffin rooms is close to double the rental allowance. Thus 10,000 refugees evidently “have difficulty in so doing” and caseworkers stand powerless before landlords, despite non-binding promissory letters from rent guarantors, local or overseas. Obviously landlords deem such letters non-bankable. Finally, while it is correct that tenancy agreements reflect the terms and conditions agreed between tenants and landlords, it is wholly unreasonable to expect destitute refugees without the right to work to “ensure he fulfills the responsibilities thereunder”.
Vision First notes that under Hong Kong law and their own public statements, the Security Bureau and SWD have obligations to meet all basic needs of all refugees in Hong Kong. That is a legitimate expectation the refugee community relies upon. There are no exceptions under the law. It is disturbing that the conduct of these departments’ violates refugees’ rights by putting them at real and immediate risk. The Security Bureau and SWD have failed in their fiduciary duty towards destitute and highly vulnerable refugees.
SWD representations are false
The SWD’s reply to the Refugee Union’s reasonable demands is a false representation to refugees and the public that SWD meets the basic needs of protection claimants. In fact, the SWD arbitrarily violates the fundamental human rights of the vast majority of refugees in Hong Kong.
In our view, this conduct is unconscionable and unlawful as the SWD stubbornly refuses to meet refugees’ basic needs and further states that it will not review the current unsatisfactory levels of assistance. The next step will be a legal challenge.
On 30 November 2016, the lawyers of WRPK received a call from the Immigration Department inviting the Sri Lankan refugee to Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) to collect a “Form 8” recognizance document. Without such forms refugees are unable to approach the Social Welfare Department (SWD) for welfare assistance, or the Hospital Authority for medical wavers, as these documents are required by government departments to verify the ongoing status of asylum seekers.
What is highly unusual about this case, is that WRPK was denied a “Form 8” since he was released on court bail in October 2013, despite the best efforts of his legal team. For more than three years he suffered severe destitution and was unable to meet his most basic needs of shelter and food, as refugees are banned from working. Several legal letters seeking assistance in this respect went unattended.
In April 2015 Vision First emailed the Immigration Department informing that the delay was “causing WRPK preventable and unreasonable hardship”, for reason that he could not wait indefinitely for the court verdict before being issued with a recognizance form as he was destitute. A few days later Immigration responded, “WRPK may approach the SWD and, for the purpose of clarifying his non-refoulement claimant status, SWD will inquire our Removal Assessment and Litigation Section.” It sounded hopeful.
However, when WRPK approached the SWD he was again informed that without a recognizance form assistance was impossible. There is an inherent injustice in the asylum process when refugees are bounced between the Immigration Department and SWD by front-line staff who regurgitate unhelpful responses without considering the physical hardship of those seeking help. The protection system short-circuits when government officials thing, “It’s not my problem!”
Where criminal charges do not merit immediate custodial sentences, it is one issue to demand that refugees attend court while released on bail with government assistance, while it is another one to expect impoverished refugees to undergo lengthy prosecution without welfare. This procedural gap is inherently wrong. Such a failure amounts to a cruel and degrading treatment that indeed promotes “constructive refoulement”, that is, indirect policies that discourage refugees from claiming asylum and encourage voluntary departures from Hong Kong.
Vision First is disturbed by this case because the magistrate was repeatedly informed that the defendant had been denied welfare – but nothing was done. Time and again, the defense team informed the court it was the prosecution’s duty to inquire with Immigration the reasons why a recognizance form would not be issued – but nothing was done. Ignoring the predicament of a vulnerable refugee, the court adjourned the case repeatedly for three years, while WRPK remained destitute.
Further, Vision First is concerned that the magistrate Joseph To may have prejudiced WRPK rights by demanding that he attend court every two weeks, instead of the customary three months, pending the result of his USM claim. This exercise in futility is an avoidable waste of the court’s time considering that asylum bids may take up to a decade. To make matters worse, the magistrate set an otherwise quick adjournment to the last order of the day, forcing WRPK and his legal team to sit on the benches wasting government resources.