With kisses from Vision First

Nov 29th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

The South China Morning Post reports that a resident living in an 80 square foot cubicle took the government to court over insufficient welfare assistance. His subdivided room cost 1700$ a month, but his rent allowance is only 1440$. The amount was adjusted last year for the first time since 2003 and 11,800 households are demanding the government offer support that relates to market prices.

This court action is of great interest to refugees who are seeking High Court leave to judicially review the Social Welfare Department’s failure to meet their basic material needs. It is noteworthy that the Legal Aid Department approved the above case that has similarities with the filings Vision First is currently coordinating. We are hopeful that the High Court will intervene where the Legislative Council failed.

Refugees are disappointed that the Legislative Council failed to take timely action in their rescue. Promises were made at the LegCo Panel on Welfare meeting in July that another session would be held two months later and that an enhanced package would be urgently formulated. Nothing happened. Four months later not a word has been heard from the administration that continues studying the obvious.

Conversely, two weeks after lodging applications for judicial review, there appears to be widespread interest in a process that bypasses administrative lethargy to seek court judgment on whether refugees suffer destitution through government malfeasance. The question is simple: Does the current welfare package prevent destitution? Evidence proves the answer is “No” and urgent change are required.

It is reported that ISS-HK is unnerved by the impending legal attack. They know they dropped the ball. Legal Aid is contacting ISS-HK for full disclosure on each applicant. Questions are asked how refugees were expected to survive on so little. Some case workers are offering guesthouse rooms to the homeless. Others are meeting clients at 10am to search for rooms for 1500$, sometimes 1800$.

The rope of retribution dangles from the scaffolding.

The noose will be tightened around the neck of those who failed to carry out their professional duties. Files will be produced in court to show how refugees suffered: rent unpaid, extortionary utility bills, lack of clothes and household items, eviction notices, gold necklaces pawned, photos of refugee ghettos, countless complaint letter to ISS ignored, unanswered, never passed on to the Social Welfare Dept.

2014 will witness the collapse of the SWD-ISS Construct of Oppression. We shall suffer no more!

The wrecking ball will carry KISSES FROM VISION FIRST!

click above to find out what motivates us

When blind prosecution fails

Nov 28th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

High Court Judge Stuart-Moore is lauded as a hero in the refugee community. He reversed the conviction of a Vision First member who was charged with, “Taking employment while being a person in respect of whom a removal order is in force”. There Bangladeshi refugees were leaning against sheets of corrugated metal by an abandoned stone house, when police pounced and arrested them for working.

They might have been scavenging for material to strengthen their government funded shacks. ISS-HK settled them, with complete disregard to their health and safety, in appalling ghettos in Ping Che. They had very good reasons to look for something better. They became easy targets for questionable police tactics. Perhaps these officers pursued quick and easy arrests and … Shatin Magistracy readily obliged.

The judgment HCMA 745/2012 states some interesting points of fact and law:

“The facts could hardly have been more straightforward.  These arose from the arrest of D1, D2 and two others at the scene of an apparently derelict metal shed close to an abandoned stone house.  It was alleged that the four men, all originally from Bangladesh, were removing sheets of corrugated metal and taking them away from the shed in the course of employment.”

“Straightforward though the case was in the factual sense, the way it has been handled in the past reveals a complete shambles. It may be that the prosecution and the courts (Shatin Magistracy Court) must together share the blame for this. I shall not attempt to identify where the blame lies …”

“The learned magistrate decided that “there was simply no good reason for them to be near a lamppost, except to work for money”. She accepted as truthful the observation evidence given by the police and she rejected the claims of the defendants that they were only in the area because “they each had their own reason to move away from their current place, either because of increase of rent or personal preference.

“Hence, D1 and D2 together with D3 were convicted after the magistrate had referred to the relevant law and had drawn an inference that employment in the legal sense had been established.”

“As if it were not bad enough already that three defendants (D1, D2 and D3) had been convicted on the same evidence that D4 had been acquitted, the case now took a further turn for the worse as it entered the appeal stage.”

“Such a situation can only lead to a deeply felt grievance on the part of D1, D2 and D3 as they will almost certainly realise that, if their trial had come before Mr David Cheung at Shatin Magistrates’ Court, they would have been acquitted with D4.”

“In neither situation, however, would the standard of proof required in a criminal trial have been achieved as possible or even probable guilt is not the same at all as guilt about which there is no reasonable doubt and as to which the tribunal of fact is able to feel sure.”

“Each of these appeals is allowed.  The convictions of D1 and of D2 are quashed and so also are the sentences which were imposed on them.”

No. 54 – The slum under the jack tree

click above to see why refugee might need metal sheets

No 54 – The slum with gold chairs

Nov 27th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

“More than fifteen refugees lived here for years until three months ago. When ISS stopped paying rent, the landlord kicked everyone out!” said our guide as we entered this abandoned refugee ghetto. In a desolation reminiscent of the 2004 Tsunami, the only resident was a barking dog quickly chased away. Where did everyone go? Surely this ghost slum teamed with life before it trashed and destroyed.

The psychology of criminal offenders is predictable: when caught, escape and try to destroy traces of wrongdoing. The committal of offenses is only viable in secret. When exposed, criminals severe relations, run for cover and hastily dismantle the enterprise. Just as in a CSI show, evidence can be found in draws, suitcases and clothing pockets. The documents we collected prove a fruitful collaboration.

“I want to help these people because they have nowhere to stay. There is nothing they can rent for 1200$” is often the justification slum lords offer when their motivation is questioned. That would be true, if they acted with compassion. Inspecting abandoned sites like this one, there are reasons to believe that landlords are only after easy tax dollars, paid without due diligence by ISS-HK.

Each room still expresses the character and personality of its departed tenants. There are guitars, bicycles, stereos, tool-boxes, TV sets and unopened bottles of vodka. There are clothes, blankets and shoes strewn around – too many belongings for a homeless person to cart around. There are documents, personal photos, school books and DVDs scattered everywhere. People left in a hurry!

Every item speaks of shattered hopes and broken dreams of owners who left in despair.

Vision First shares the burden for this suffering. Hadn’t we exposed refugee ghettos, these residents would have been here to greet us. One cannot speak of collateral damage in humanitarian work. It breaks the heart to witness the harmful effects of hopeful advocacy. A process that attempts to improve collective wellbeing should not bring additional suffering to any single individual. That’s just not right.

Considering the ample government resources, financial and professional, why weren’t contingency plans made to avoid this crisis? Should human beings suffer because ISS-HK admits guilt by clamping down on its own slums? The damage is done and offenses are being documented. Why do refugees have to suffer twice, first when segregated in slums and then when thrown out in the streets?

Who’s in charge of this crisis? Will somebody step up and show leadership?

No. 54 – The slum with gold chairs

click above to see what happens when ISS-HK drops a refugee ghetto

No. 53 – The slum with the big shed

Nov 26th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

In and around 2009 there were over 10,000 refugees seeking protection in Hong Kong. By early 2013 the number had halved and today it is close to 4,000. After exposing over 50 heavily-inhabited slums, we wonder how ISS-HK settled the additional 6,000 service users they previously managed. It is reasonable to speculate that a third of them were forced to live in refugee ghettos that have since closed down.

This is a distant location: over a half hour bus ride from Kam Sheung Road MTR and a half hour walk through junkyards, up a hillside to the border of Lam Tsuen Country Park. It is hard to believe that refugees moved so far out to secure rooms cheap enough for rent assistance. But again they were exploited. Rooms this small in animal sheds, in such primitive conditions, should cost 300$, not 1200$

According to our guide, there was a time when over twenty refugees lived in this ghetto. His wife and daughter lived here for three years, until they were suddenly removed to Indonesia without his consent and against his will. The loss of his loved ones, the painful separation from his baby girl caused a distress that Immigration policies never take into account. The right to family union is often callously violated.

Stories are still told about a winter night when seven police vans were deployed to this ghetto to quell the anger against a ‘crazy’ landlady who had pushed it too far. She charged more than refugees could afford for rent and utilities. When bills were not paid on time, she cut water and electricity leaving everyone in the dark and forcing families with young children to put up with unbearable conditions.

On another night the entire community of twenty refugees moved to the Pat Heung police station and apparently spent the night there, as they refused to stay in dark, cold huts any longer. The police had to mediate and talk some sense into the slum lady who failed to understand her hardline tactics were bad for her illegal rental business. Merciless exploitation is encountered in every ghetto to different degrees.

No. 53 – The slum with the big shed

click above to see where 20 refugees lived in a remote hillside ghetto

Report on fraudulent food assistance to refugees

Nov 25th, 2013 | Advocacy, Food, VF Report | Comment

Report on fraudulent food assistance to refugees - 25Nov2013

Are refugees victims of malicious prosecution?

Nov 22nd, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Malicious prosecution denotes the wrongful initiation of criminal proceedings to intentionally and maliciously pursue a suspect without probable cause or sufficient evidence. Law enforcement officers (police, Customs or Immigration) might charge arrested persons with offenses on the basis of circumstantial evidence, i.e., without reliable witnesses, DNA proof or hard evidence. Victims of such prosecution can file compensation claims against the government. Consider these cases:

- Four Bangladeshi refugees searched for cheap rooms in a slum where shacks were being erected. The police pounce and arrest them. They were charged with breach of conditions of stay (working) for being at that location. They plead not guilty and were sentenced to 22 months imprisonment. After 10 months the High Court releases them on lack of evidence.

- Two Pakistani refugees were arrested and charged with robbery after being identified by a Chinese victim in an ID parade (don’t minorities look the same to a non-trained eye?). They pleaded not guilty, refused bail and held 9 months on remand. The victim failed to recognize them at trial. Two other suspects were convicted for the offense. They were released.

- An Indian refugee, with a complicated immigration record, was held at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) despite having torture and CIDTP claims. He was harassed and attempts were made to remove him. He made it clear that he would rather spend his life in CIC than return to face danger. He was released after one year and two weeks of detention.

- Two Indonesian refugees borrowed money from a friend at her place of employment. Immigration pounces and they were arrested for working. They pleaded not guilty. They were held over a month in prison. They were threatened and promised a 2-month sentence if they pleaded guilty. Under duress they agree and were shocked to receive 15-months instead.

These cases have a few elements in common. The defendants are undesirable South Asians torture claimants. Irrespective of the merits of their case, they were profiled as suspect who fit a certain description: brown skinned, poorly educated, little understanding of English, unassertive and generally subdued in character, easily intimidated by authorities and persuaded under duress, unknown to NGOs and human rights lawyers, unaware of their rights and of little interest to duty lawyers.

Law enforcement might be motivated by performance targets: arrests per month, successful prosecution, guilty pleas and increased crime statistics for torture claimants. Under pressure it is understandable that arrested persons collapse. Another refugee pleaded guilty after a month-long trial and turned down the judge’s suggestions he think about it for two weeks. He had broken down and simply couldn’t take it anymore. He would rather go to jail than be harassed daily in court.

Vision First is extremely concerned about the racial profiling of South Asian refugees, their arrest and prosecution without adequate legal assistance. It is evident from numerous cases brought to our attention that prosecution standards must be raised. Refugees should not be manipulated into crime statistics to prove they are criminally minded and merely motivated by a desire to abuse the system.

We are filing compensation claims for the above cases and welcome inquiries from victims of malicious prosecution and unlawful detention who require legal assistance to seek justice and redress.

Hong Kong citizens believe in justice and expect law enforcement to meet high standards of fairness.

Should refugees be removed as a *sacrifice* to protect Hong Kong’s wealth?

Poverty and destitution in Hong Kong

Nov 21st, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Destitution is generally understood as a deprivation or lack of something – an extreme want of resources the lack of which may jeopardize survival itself.  It is worth repeating here that ISS-HK is contracted by the government to provide services to refugees in a form that “prevents destitution.”

But what exactly determines destitution? This new article helps to clarify the concept by analyzing what deprivation is in Hong Kong. After researching community views, a list was compiled of the items that Hong Kong people consider a necessity. It flows that a lack of such items directly undermines an acceptable minimum living standard. The results define poverty in real terms and more specifically than by measuring income alone, which is the government preferred method.

Poverty is much more than lack of income and one doesn’t have to lose one’s job to appreciate it.

Interestingly, out of the 35 items that emerged from this study as to be a must for Hongkongers – divided in the categories of  “accommodation and food and clothing”, “medical care”, “social connections”, “training and education” and “basic amenities” – the great majority of ISS refugee clients we know possess very few.

It’s a no brainer, for most people, to conclude from our many ghetto reports, that refugees definitely do not have a “safe environment without structural dangers”, “sufficient living space at home, with no need to stay in bed all day”, “bathroom inside a self-contained apartment, with no need to share” … “a window”.

Yes, a simple window! An opening most residents take for granted, even if it opens on an adjacent building. To be able to look out of one’s home has a huge psychological effect anyone can appreciate. The opposite – being trapped in a coffin-room – produces a feeling of imprisonment that many readers would find hard to grasp, but is the structural oppression most refugees suffer and not only in the slums.

Further, refugees can hardly “go to a tea-house sometimes”, “have hot shower in winter”, “take transport to visit friends and relatives”. The list of NO boxes they would tick in this survey is unbearably and painfully long. Of course one leaves aside training opportunities that are denied adult refugees, unless they pay for them, which is rather difficult when they are prevented from earning an income.

The debasing tyranny of ‘in kind assistance’ not only denies freedom and flexibility, but robs recipients of dignity and respect. It is essentially a way to control the underprivileged by stating indirectly, “I don’t trust you are not an alcoholic. I don’t trust you are not a druggy. I don’t trust you with cash, so take your bag of rice … as my heart goes out to you”.

The ‘in kind’ provision prevents refugees from developing  broad “social connections”, “travel to their hometown”, have “dental check-up” and “purchase medicines prescribed by the doctor” – if they can even “consult a private doctor” that is.

The life of a refugee is a deprived life. And by this standard ISS has clearly failed in its contractual obligations.

Some people cannot fulfill their basic needs because of social exclusion rather than lack of money, for example ethnic minorities who face discrimination in the labour market, or who cannot access public services or financial instruments … These limitations can distort estimates of who is most at risk of poverty … The deprivation approach focuses on directly studying people’s actual ability to acquire the items required to meet basic needs.

“Deprivation and Poverty in Hong Kong” by Peter Saundersa, Hung Wongb and Wo Ping Wong

The remains of a refugee shack after a storm (photo by BillyHCKwok)

No. 52 – The slum under construction

Nov 19th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Hidden discreetly along a path behind Chung Uk Tsuen, is another illegal business funded by ISS-HK with tax dollars. Mr. Cheung is a shrewd slum lord who for several years profited handsomely from refugees’ rent assistance. Business has been good, but the times are changing. Five refugees live in the outer huts that survived a blaze and storm in recent months. Life is always at risk where building rules are contravened for profit.

Vision First remains deeply concerned that the government has failed to monitoring the approval of refugee housing, while authorizing the payment of tens of millions of dollars to slum lords each year. Why do government departments continue to turn a blind eye? How does this happen in a city that takes great pride in the rule of law and clean administration? Are refugee lives less valuable than those of residents?

Mr. Cheung’s investment was struck twice by misfortune. In the summer, a fire broke out in a section of the slum and even ISS-HK decided that the affected rooms could not be rented without refurbishment. In September, typhoon winds tore down other rickety shacks, leaving only five metal-sheet ones standing. Then the slum lord was forced to spend money on renovation to secure more illicit profits.

The photos below reveal the extent of the work that is not driven by humanitarian consideration, but by exploitative calculation. How many rooms in what layout will maximize payment from ISS-HK? What room size will case workers approve? Should rooms have windows? Air-conditioning for ventilation? How many washing areas and toilets are acceptable for 20 people? What sewerage?

The planning was done before the government announced last week a rent increase from 1200$ to 1500$. Today Mr. Cheung is probably rubbing his hands together with greedy glee, unaware of Vision First’s determination to hurt his income. We will make weekly visits to this site, take photos and report to relevant authorities to ensure that ISS-HK does not settle a single refugees in this newly built ghetto.

Sometimes our activism makes a difference.

#52 – The slum under construction

click above to see a refugee ghetto under construction

The Right to Work for all refugees

Nov 18th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Government concerns over opening a floodgate to refugees coming to our city to work, were policy changes implemented, such as granting them the right to work, are unjustified, says a new article by Chinese University scholars Michael Ramsden and Luke Marsh.

Using the Ma v Director of Immigration case, the authors offer comprehensive understanding of government views on refugees and strategies that should be implemented to successfully challenge the stringent employment policy with regard to refugees.

Importantly, from Vision First’s perspective, a convincing link is made between the excessive time refugees are made to wait in Hong Kong before a durable solution is found for them and the likeliness that prolonged unemployment causes a deterioration of their mental health.

This in turn is most likely to result in refugees agreeing to ‘voluntary departures’ to take their chances in their country of origin. In fact, in order to escape a protracted period of waiting while living at the margins of society, refugees would rather travel back home to face the dangers they had once escaped.

Vision First is a proponent of the idea that current government restriction on refugees working in the formal economy is cruel and unreasonable. We learn from this article that only when the refugee mental health is challenged does the director of immigration consider whether to grant permission, on exceptional circumstances, to grant work rights.

However, the threshold for claiming such ‘exceptional circumstances’ is so high that we question whether there is any willingness to effectively consider granting refugee rights on an individual basis.

This paper explores possible ways for refuges in Hong Kong to assert these rights and calls for a cogent administrative framework that has proper regard to a wide range of rights-based considerations in the assessment of refugee work authorization requests.

The ‘Right to Work’ of Refugees in Hong Kong: MA v Director of Immigration

Given Hong Kong’s general policy not to grant asylum it is apparent that little attempt is made to integrate refugees into society … Life as an individual is not all about survival and subsistence. This treatment places refugees in a position of destitution and denial of individual dignity (and is equivalent to CIDTP torture).

Forcing refugees to wait 5-7 years without work and income is torture

On dangerous ground

Nov 17th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Increasing refugees’ rent assistance by 300$, the government presumably added about 15,000,000 to the 203,000,000$ allocated a group that realistically requires much more to be lifted from destitution – until it is afforded work rights. With this stingy concession, refugees are entitled to 2,560$ a month (1500 rent + 1060 food) and remain repressively 30% below the official poverty line. The government set the income at 3600$ for a family of one. Shouldn’t it ensure that who depend entirely on its support lives above it?

First, it is nonsense to justify oppressing people because some might abuse the system. This should be as self-evident as assisting all underprivileged citizens, even if some might be cheating. Further, the 5000 refugees in town have, for the most part, not exhausted the screening process and must not be presumed “fake” until their claims are fully evaluated by a credible system.

Vision First strongly emphasizes and reiterates that they are human beings who deserve shelter, food and water while they wait for the government to make a decision on their life.

As long as human beings breathe and walk in our city, it is the community’s duty to ensure everyone’s needs are met without exception. One cannot raise the lame excuse that some are abusing the system, to accept, condone or acquiesce to an asylum policy that causes physical suffering to the entire refugee community. That’s equivalent to dumping a box of apples because a few a rotten. To do so is a sign that motivations other than rights-based and humanitarian are formulating the asylum policy.

Credit for the belated increase undoubtedly goes to Vision First refugee members who rose against an oppressive housing practice since February 2013 when they first signed ISS-HK Agreements ‘in protest’. That being said, adding 300$ to their rent assistance is decidedly too little, too late. Let’s analyze why.

This Spring four-square-meter subdivided rooms rented for 1700$. Today they cost over 2000$. It is bewildering that anyone should suggest that 1500$ can rent anything legal, even with a deposit. The increase is laughable in the light of definite rental hikes in the coming twelve months. 1500 today is just as unrealistic as 1200 was a year ago. This palliative remedy is truly unreasonable in the face of real-life economic pressures that besiege every strata of our society.

That the rent increase is a sizable 25% justifies accusations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDTP) against those whom the High Court said ‘deserve sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state’. Why did it take so long? Were earlier enhancements purposefully denied? Shouldn’t refugees jailed for working be now released following an official admission that rents were 25% below acceptable levels?

Vision First is most troubled that the Social Welfare Department hasn’t officially spoken against ISS-HK strategy to segregate refugees in ghettos. After exposing over 50 slums, we are deeply concerned that the government is supporting and subventing this practice by failing to provide sufficient assistance for slum dwellers to relocate into legal housing. Why hasn’t the government issued any statement against refugee ghettos? Are they officially condoned? Is it hoped that refugees will find 1500$ rooms?

It is alarming that slum lords have already increased rents over 1200$ in most of the ghettos exposed by Vision First. And that is exclusive of extortionary electricity charges. The myopic and unrealistic 300$ increase plays exquisitely into the hands of the criminals who exploit refugees the most. When slum lords learn that refugees receive 1500$, they will demand it without fail. It is likely that new ghettos will open to profit from this bonanza. Ten illegal room now generate 15,000$ a month without penalty!

The one sure outcome of this misguided increase is inflationary pressure in refugee ghettos. Nobody will escape upcoming rent hikes. The government might have considered this increase would benefit small landlords in Kowloon and in New Territory villages, but their 2000$ rooms remain unaffordable to destitute refugees. Again welfare remains markedly behind the curve and on dangerous ground.

There were only two reasonable, rights-bases solutions the government could have chosen. Either pay the cheapest rents in legal buildings in full, or allow refugees temporary work visas for as long as it takes the Immigration Department to assess protection claims.

If the current solution is the best the government could devise in four months, since the July LegCo meeting, one has to wonder whether the decision was left for summer interns to make.

If this is the “Enhanced Welfare Assistance”, then it’s too little, too late and hardly impressive.

Only Slum Lords will profit from the 300$ rent increase

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