On 23 January, Vision First reported that the government fails to support kindergarten students. The Education Bureau accepts placements for children between the age of 3 and 5 and the Immigration Department makes no opposition, but there is no support. We challenge the logic of allowing the right to school, while denying the ability to so, as destitute refugee parents are jailed if arrested working.
On 28 January, Vision First wrote to the Security Bureau about this shameful situation that appears be both inhumane and illegal since Hong Kong has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which rights are enshrined in domestic law. There is a clear disconnect in government policies that hinder access to kindergarten as a misguided strategy to encourage voluntary departures.
There is no other explanation or motive for such an unreasonable policy as Hong Kong cannot turn its back on the crucial education of young children. Taking into consideration that protection claimants are stranded here for years, often stretching into a decade, such punitive policies harm a second generation of refugees that, born in Hong Kong, might in the future enjoy the right of abode when laws change.
On 30 January, Vision First led a delegation of 19 kindergarten children to the Legislative Council for a press conference with lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung. The parents voiced their concerns about the lack of financial support which has kindergartens shun refugee applications, worrying that bills will not be paid. An African father, torture case not assessed for 11 years, lamented being disrespectfully rejected by twenty school that had said they had vacancies, before he admitted being a refugee.
Admission clerks inquired how he would pay various fees (at times amounting to 30,000 HK$) and, upon hearing that he had a letter from the government, would become annoyed with him. They would brushing him off and abruptly dismiss him with, “We will call you later”. That never happened on twenty occasions. Apparently skin colour is no concern if you carry bags of money, but the refugee labelling is impossible to overcome. The lack of adequate support exacerbates discrimination against this minority social group.
Legally speaking it’s a no-brainer: the government has a constitutional duty towards impoverished refugee parents and the kindergarten education of their children. Vision First urges the Security Bureau to comply with its obligations and take positive steps towards reformulate a broken policy. Kindergarten students must receive the same support as primary school kids, because the right to education starts when the majority of resident children attend “K1 or K2”.
These and many more parents are determined to fight for the future of their children – their only hope in a grim life of asylum. The ball is now in the government court. The Security Bureau must make the next move: either it reviews an unfair policy, or it encourages all refugee parents to apply for judicial reviews in the High Court, for a result that will surely complies with international treaties and domestic law.
The government should be concerned that refugees are succumbing to the pressure of segregation. Ugly forces are taking hold of refugees who despaired for too many years, often more than a decade, without hope and justice. Vision First is alarmed that some refugees have been oppressed to the breaking point. They are exploding.
One longtime refugee noted, “You can only pour so much water into a bucket before it spills. The government should worry about security because refugees have started to do some things that hurt the community. Before they were not thinking about this. Before they were expecting that things would improve, but now they had lost hope. When hope is gone, people do desperate things.”
Refugees are becoming convinced that Hong Kong will never protect them. An African refugee said, “The government is just stirring us around in a hot pot. They offer one fake solution after the other. They call the latest one USM. We have no future, no hope and have lost trust in Hong Kong. After years of abuse Hong Kong has become the enemy. We are trapped. We have nothing to lose and we resent those who failed to protect us, refused to screen us for years and have robbed us of our future.”
Scores of individuals are slipping into the heart of darkness. They come from Africa as well as South Asia. They belong to every nationality that has struggled against asylum injustice in Hong Kong. They are becoming desperate having reached a point where they would rather die, than continue suffering. One might learn valuable lessons from Palestinian youths who lost hope under Israeli oppression.
The Hong Kong government should take the blame for the radicalization that is emerging. It is shameful how extraordinary refugee claims were left unassessed for years, because supposedly they could not be reasonably rejected. Such policies inflict violence on individuals who once decided that violence was not the answer. One should consider that these people have seen blood, family and friends chopped to pieces. They have laid in the blood of their loved ones. They are not intimidated by anything.
A Middle-Eastern refugee said, “Hong Kong should start building more prisons because refugees are going crazing. They cannot take this oppression any more without exploding! Arrest and imprisonment mean nothing. It’s a cake walk for people who were tortured and raped. What do they have to lose?”
Authorities should pay attention to this shift. The answer to the asylum problem is not oppression, but JUSTICE. Deny justice for too long, to too many people, and trouble should be expected. These refugees blame the government for not taking them serious. Those who were waiting can wait no more. Those who were patient, have lost their patience. Scores are today slipping into darkness.
These people know the streets. They know where security cameras are and where they are not working. They live in the streets and observe enforcement patters and routines. Many of them were in the army. Some have advanced military skills. A few spent years in training camps in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan and the Yemen. They arrived with different passports, as nationality is not a fixed concept in the third-world.
Despair is overwhelming refugees who hoped in vain that Hong Kong would protect them. Disillusionment is taking hold of their mind. Being banned from working forces people into an aimlessness that is detrimental for fighting spirits.
Another African refugee burst out, “We are not cows. You cannot just feed us and give us a place to sleep for ten years. We want justice where justice was promised … In many people’s mind darkness is rising. Our hearts are filled with hatred, despair and rage. It’s not right the way they treated us. They took our future away and left us with nothing.” The last glimmer of hope seems to have been extinguished.
A veteran South Asian refugee explained, “This radicalization follows oppressive government policies. They are alienating people who have lost a reason to live. The answer is not to arrest everyone. They cannot all be jailed forever. They cannot go home, not today, not ever … The answer is to allow them to work so that they can build a life with dignity and respect.”
New refugee arrivals are processed by the Immigration Department’s General Investigation Section that confirms identity and determines release on recognizance. After tourist visas expires, persecution claimants may surrender at police stations, or directly to the Immigration Department in Kowloon Bay. They often do this after filing a refugee claim at UNHCR, though this channel will soon close.
Until recently, new claimants were sent to the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre for clearance, while only the sick, the pregnant and families were released on recognizance on the same day. Although detention is an unsettling prospect, refugees knew that within a month or two they would be released with Recognizance Forms (immigration papers) entitling them to SWD welfare services.
Vision First is gravely concerned that during these cold winter weeks, Immigration appears to be unable to process new claimants expeditiously. There have been numerous cases in which new arrivals, who launched protection claims, were asked to return to Immigration for registration a week later. In such incidents they risked arrest by the police as overstayers, despite having attempted to surrender. One African refugee asked Immigration what would happen and was told, “That is your problem!”
At issue is not the processing time of new applications, but how destitute human beings should survive without assistance in an unwelcoming environment. Recently several incidents occurred in which new claimants applied for protection and were told to return the following week, their passports having been retained and an appointment slips issued. However, they were not provided with Recognizance Forms and consequently could not access welfare services, despite being indigent.
Among these, one African refugee informed Immigration that he had no money and nowhere to stay. He was shocked when the officer sneered, “You go sleep in the streets at the Star Ferry and come back next Wednesday”. Another South Asian claimant was asked for his address and replied, “Outside, at the Star Ferry in TST”. He couldn’t believe his eyes when the officer wrote “ISS” in the address field.
It is outrageous that pushing refugees to sleep in the street and lying in their forms is part of Hong Kong’s policy for receiving new protection claims. Although indicative of systemic malaise, the lack of a comprehensive Reception Strategy is the most shameful part of this failed asylum policy. First impressions count and, being on the front line, Vision First assures that, from day one, our city fails to impress newly arrived refugees.
Forcing people to sleep under the cold winter sky leads to sickness that ultimately costs the government more than cheap guesthouse rooms. Until a government-run Refugee Hostel is opened, it is unconstitutional for the Immigration and Social Welfare Departments to ignore the plight of refugees who, by law, should not be left homeless in a state of destitution. It might be the case that damage claims should be launched against authorities to highlight and remedy this unacceptable negligence.
Vision First urges the government to deploy a comprehensive Reception Strategy for new arrivals. The Immigration Department must refrain from kicking people indifferently into the street – particularly those who recently suffered unspeakable tragedy. This is not a humanitarian issue, but one of the government’s mandatory duty to ensure that refugees – new arrivals or not – are not homeless and hungry. No excuse can be made for failing to provide basic asylum support to persecuted foreigners.
Hi to all Refugees -
If some Refugees work illegally – it is the Government’s fault!
If some Refugees become criminals – it is the Government’s fault!
If some Refugees are drug-trafficking – it is also the Government’s fault!
I say it is the Government’s fault, because it is their duty to care for refugees here.
We all know the fact: WE CANNOT WORK and we cannot join a business.
This totally means that Refugees can’t do anything for themselves or their future.
We are stuck between Hong Kong and the Social Welfare Department.
My point is this: if on 13 January we don’t support each other, we will be stuck again!
We will keep suffering and the Government will be even happier to play with us.
Everyone must learn about their rights and come and fight for their rights.
We will fight together! Remember that one hand doesn’t make any sound.
See you at the PROTEST RALLY at the Legislative Council, on Monday 13 January at 10am.
VF STARTS 2014 WITH THE LEGCO PROTEST.
VF COMMITS TO HELPING THE PROTESTERS.
IF YOU WANT ASSISTANCE, SHOW YOUR SUPPORT.
VF HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES.
COME FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS!
Vision First organized refugees for the first LegCo welfare meeting on 22 July 2013
On 24 September 2013, Vision First assisted 80 refugees in a demonstration outside the ISS office in Tsuen Wan. The police took the event seriously and outnumbered protesters two-to-one, as if they expected trouble. This was not the first time the government belatedly confronted a social problem that could have been easily avoided. Read the blog, “Refugees protest food abuse at ISS-HK Tsuen Wan“
It was discontent with food provisions that drove refugees to complaint. The trigger point was not the quantity or quality of food – issues they have put up with for years – but the alteration of collections from 3 to 6 times a month. In itself that wasn’t a drama. The problem was that ISS claimed the change was necessary to supply fresher fruit and vegetables, which turned out to be untrue.
Instead, refugees realized they were being cheated: the bags of groceries were significantly lighter than before. People became suspicious. They made lists and took photos. Angry refugees refused to be treated like beggars. Not only were the grocery packages smaller, but the diminished amounts left them hungry. There was growing evidence of a sinister manipulation of food supplies. What was really going on?
It was crystal clear ISS had engineered the change to conceal a reduction. Vision First denounced this senseless harassment of refugees who – not being allowed to work – risked jail for working to buy food. We urged authorities to investigate the quantity, quality and distribution system as organized by ISS through seven dedicated shops. More analysis on the 53 million dollar food contract and the ‘Vanish Food Magic Trick’ is available here.
The South China Morning Post reported that, “Each claimant will be entitled to HK$1,200 worth of food a month, up by HK$140. And the allowance for basic utilities will rise by HK$30 to HK$300 per head.” Hold on a moment. The current utility allowance is 190$, so clarifications are in order. As for the food value, it matters not what the SWD pays ISS, but what ISS supplies to refugees!
The enhancement will only be trusted if refugees collect 1200$ of groceries a month – at wholesale prices – without shifty cuts, reductions or losses. Anything less points to fraudulent practices in the distribution chain and should be of grave concern to authorities. Vision First will keep vigilant: we will count and value and monitor the system to ensure transparency.
On 24 September 2013, we had no illusions of changing the system. Any fight for social justice is an arduous one, particularly on behalf of non-citizens. It is with great satisfaction that we received, unconfirmed, news that ISS will revert to 3 times food distribution in February. Staff in the seven shops have already informed many refugees. It has taken four months for that protest action – and several blogs – to bear fruit, but it is mission accomplished.
Refugees are learning that public demonstrations have the power to change their destiny.
Last week the Immigration Department released figures concerning protection claimants for the first eleven months of 2013: there were 474 new claims between January and November. This is the lowest total since 2000 and remarkable compared to a record 3286 claims in the whole of 2009. An 85 per-cent drop is significant even accounting for delays in filing (12-months according to ImmD) and the impact of a right-to-work judgment in early 2009.
The hardline Guardians of the City of Refuge are undoubtedly celebrating this victory. Hong Kong welcomed 2.5 million refugees in the Twentieth Century before the gates of asylum slammed shut. Conversely, in the last decade an intransigent message was dispatched to lands of persecution, “Make no mistake – We will send you back and make life hell until you leave!” The Guardians then devised a master plan to achieve their goal.
The Guardians first implemented policies to discourage asylum seeking. They then set rules for a filtering process, for the survival of the fittest, or the persecuted, in this case. To appear to comply with the rule of law, masterminds coated unconstitutional practices with a veneer of decency. Control of both enforcement and welfare services ensured undisputed domination of the field.
There were no posters or press releases to announce The Asylum Games. The rules were not formulated piecemeal – as one is lead to believe – but determined by a ruthless strategy to divide and conquer. Like in any great magic trick, players are played without realizing it. They face the odds of bulls dodging matadors, with the difference that bulls fight for their life.
Restrictions imposed on asylum are a clear indication of an unwillingness to grant it.
In the summer of 2004 the Asylum Games were quietly opened after the Guardians were soundly defeated by the Prabakar Judgment. They unanimously agreed that high standards of fairness were indeed necessary to safeguard the interests of stakeholders, namely, the Guardians of prosperity. How preposterous to suggest pesky refugees should be treated fairly for contributing nothing!
Vision First coined the expression ‘culture of rejection’ to denote covert hostility towards asylum in a city that should theoretically grants refuge. It illustrates a dislocation between the reality in the street and promises enshrined in law. It helps to explains the paradox of offering asylum, while disallowing it. The ‘culture of rejection’ becomes the game theory behind the undeclared rules of the Asylum Games:
- Zero winners (to discourage applications and illusions of winning)
- No announcement of winners (to maintain a psychological advantage)
- Low entry requirements (to avoid unregistered players)
- Insignificant assistance (to ensure use of own resources)
- Limited emergency support (to starve players of official resources)
- Minimal private aid (to offer the illusion of fair play)
- Arrests through entrapment (to increase stress and instill fear)
- Long prison sentences (to knock out players and encourage withdrawal)
- Antagonistic biased referees (to guarantee one-sided fairness)
- Voluntary departures (to hide forced removal of players)
- Manipulative propaganda (to ensure a crushing home advantage)
- Negative overseas promotion (to deter interest and participation)
For the Guardians, the Asylum Games have been a resounding success. The zero winners rule has been a technical win for twenty-one years. The Guardians dominated the field with undisputed control, notwithstanding disruptions by raucous supporters in the Human Rights Corner. By enforcing harsh and uncompromising rules, the Guardians might achieve their ultimate goal – scrapping of the Asylum Games altogether.
Refugees denounce the exploitation by landlords through fraudulent electricity bills. With few exceptions, urban and slum landlords earn illegal profits from electricity bills. Unsatisfied with extortionary rents, every month owners extort several hundred dollars from each refugee. This practice forces tenants to work and risk 15 months imprisonment to pay dishonest bills.
While it is legal to have qualified electricians install meters (the emphasis is on qualified), it is illegal to claim more than what is charged on the underlying electricity bills. If landlords fail to produce copies of power companies’ debit notes and proceed to charge more than the underlying invoice, they commit an offense under the Theft Ordinance (Cap 201).
This abuse is the third worse strain on persecuted foreigners beside rent and food shortfalls. With 4000 refugees illegally charged a minimum 200$ a month, this amounts to a 10 million dollar yearly racket! It is widely known that landlords blackmail fearful tenants to cough up the money under threat of throwing them in the street, “Money, money … or zau la!” (走喇 “Leave”)
Landlords blackmail refugees with fraudulent electricity bills.
In 2013 Vision First visited hundreds of homes and only two landlords readily provided photocopies of electricity bills when presenting monthly notices. Refugees call on authorities to investigate and stop this widespread cheating and blackmailing. These practices force destitute foreigners to break the law in desperation. They have no choice but to work to pay such bills.
This shameful situation raises questions about the professionalism of ISS case workers. They are the controllers who ought to monitor utility statements prior to authorizing payment of tax dollars to deceitful landlords. Handwritten demand notices are scribbled on scraps of paper – sometimes Mark Six forms – handed out with the uncompromising warning, “Pay or leave!”
Under section 17 of the Theft Ordinance, it is written that: “Any person who by any deception, dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction upon indictment to imprisonment for 10 years.”
Vision First encourages refugees to report to the police fraudulent payment demands. They should state the name of ISS case workers who fail or refuse to protect them by accepting coercive notices. As such, they acquiesce to this abuse and exploitation. Refugees are deeply concerned that ISS does nothing to stop landlords from submitting false or misleading statements.
It is clear that this situation is unacceptable. ISS and SWD stand in a position of trust towards refugees. By allowing refugee to be blackmailed by dishonest landlords, both ISS and SWD are in breach of their fiduciary duties and must be held accountable. Vision First urges the Social Welfare Department to demand copies of electricity bills prior to disbursing government funds.
Refugees demand transparency and accountability in welfare services.
ISS case worker Felicity Wong accepts electricity bills penned on Mark Six tickets
The Convention Against Torture has been extended to Hong Kong since 1992. Article 3(1) of that Convention provides that “no State Party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”.
Bound by this convention by choice – it should be noted - Hong Kong offers non-refoulement protection to claimants who subsequently enjoy an absolute right not to be removed pending the outcome of their claims. This protection is unequivocally coupled with social welfare rights, as claimants are not allowed to take up employment as they await decisions.
Under the enhanced torture screening system launched in December 2009, the Immigration Department has recognized 10 victims of torture – including four children, two born in Hong Kong (who would have been citizens in other jurisdictions). One successful claim in the previous system takes the total to 11 screened-in claimants out of 13000 in 21 years.
Hong Kong’s acceptance rate is .1% over two decades
compared to 20-40% yearly in developed countries.
The results are exceedingly eloquent. This risible percentage attests to a covert and unconstitutional Culture of Rejection that complies with the letter of the Immigration Ordinance (establishing an asylum process), while flouting the spirit of the Torture Convention (granting actual protection). The dislocation between administration and jurisprudence is complete and plain for all to see. How long will this duplicity last?
Until demonstrable changes are introduced and protection rates rise to, say, 5%, nobody will be under the illusion that goals other than protection motivated the ratification of this treaty. In the wake of such blatant, persistent hypocrisy, wouldn’t it be more honorable to rescind the Torture Convention? Why not withdraw gracefully, grant citizenship to existing claimants and slam the door shut? What is dysfunctional should be challenged and changed.
Regression is rarely desirable, but if the alternative is inflicting pointless suffering on thousands of refugees, then here is a bridge worth burning. Since UNHCR assessments were already legally halted, why not close down Immigration’s Torture Claim Assessment Branch? From a human rights prospective it would be praiseworthy.
In such an epochal shift, a few hundred Immigration officers would be reassigned to meaningful tasks; three-hundred-plus DLS lawyers would lose their bread-and-butter business; some NGOs would have to restrategize; and, crucially, Hong Kong’s acceptance rate would finally hit the dream target of zero-percent!
By contrast, asylum seekers would appreciate the frankness; thousands would get on with their lives; hundreds would seek refuge where the process is taken seriously. Meaninglessly interrupted lives would recommence; distraught families would plan reunions and their children would have a chance in life. At last, the shame asylum policies cast on our city would mercifully end.
With about 1200 new protection claimants arriving each year, Hong Kong needs a refugee hostel and welfare services for new arrivals. It is unthinkable that an international city, with 45 million visitors a year, offers asylum protection without first-step services for individuals with physical and psychological trauma and no support network. It is trite to say that refugees flee violent persecution to seek refuge in a safe place, arriving with few linguistic skills and no resources or connections.
Refugee homelessness was indeed considered by the government. The SWD Tender Reference SWD/T002/2011 states that, “The objective of providing the Services is to ensure that while … claim … is being processed … the Service User will not, during his stay in Hong Kong … be left to sleep on the street … be seriously hungry … be unable to satisfy the most basic requirements of hygiene.”
It is evident that these objectives are generally missed considering the destitution of new arrivals.
Immigration states, “Surrendered overstayer should bring along his/her personal identification documents … Determined on the merits of the facts of each individual case, a surrender may be arrested. He/she may either be detained or released on bail. He/she may also be released on recognizance pending removal from Hong Kong.” All releases are between 1 day and 3 months.
On 28 September 2012 International Social Service (ISS-HK) won tender G.N. 3332 and was allocated 396,877,881 HK$ for provision of assistance to refugees – including the prevention of homelessness and hunger. It is unclear whether little priority was given to homeless, hungry new arrivals, or whether funds aren’t efficiently deployed. It is a well-known fact that the welfare provision to new arrivals is a complete failure and has been so since 2006.
The conditions endured by new arrivals are appalling. Prevented from working, destitute refugees experience desperate situations. It takes 2 to 3 months to start assistance from ISS-HK and during this prolonged period, claimants have no place to sleep, nothing to eat and nowhere to wash or leave luggage. It is ludicrous that ISS-HK (recipient of 400M dollars) advises refugees to visit Christian Action and Vision First (recipients of 2M dollars). A travesty of this nature requires no commentary.
Current arrangements by ISS-HK are wholly inadequate to meet the needs of new arrivals.
Vision First urges the Social Welfare Department to assess the needs of new arrivals immediately upon release from Immigration offices or detention. The assessment cannot end with a referral to ISS-HK considering that 90 days will pass before assistance is given. There need to be services in this gap. When a person has no money, it is cruel to expect them to scavenge in a city they don’t know. It is the government’s duty to ensure that protection claimants are not left on the street.
The failure to put in place services for the first 24 hours and few weeks, has contributed to the degrading hardship suffered by new arrivals. These men and women suffer a plight that was not contemplated by those who extended the UN Convention against Torture to Hong Kong. Legal advocates would further stress that human rights enshrined in the Basic Law and Bill or Rights are infringed.
It is the government’s duty to ensure that new arrivals have food and shelter in the first month.
Vision First urges the government to investigate refugee experiences during the first month in town. Most pertinently, the government should ensure that new arrivals are provided with safe and clean lodging, as well as food and basic needs, without having to beg. It should be noted that refugees are in the most vulnerable state when they first arrive and are then in the greatest need of assistance. In this respect, it is a fact that ISS-HK does nothing for refugees in the first 2 to 3 months.
Vision First urges the government to urgently remedy this shameful situation.