English translation by Matthew
The government announced that they are going to review the assistance for refugees and torture claimants. The authorities will preliminary increase the rent assistance so that it can match the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). At the same time the government will provide the same level of deposits.
The Liberal Party rejected the rent increase. The Society for Community Communication believes that it will help to improve the living conditions of these refugees.
Hong Kong now has more than five thousand individual with either refugee or torture claims applications. The government intends to increase the rent assistance from $1200 to $1500 for each adult. The increase rate is 25%.
The government also intends to increase the rent deposit to $1500 (per person) to assist the refugees in finding an appropriate living place.
With regard to the $1060 food assistance, the government intends to keep it unchanged. The government foresees no need to ask the Legislative Council to allocate extra funding. But the Liberal Party clearly expresses their objection.
The ISS-HK, who is assisting the operation, said that at issue right now is to shorten the time of verification so that a lot more refugees will not have to overstay in Hong Kong.
Vision First statement
In early 2013 VF members demanded that action be taken against the rent stranglehold. Vision First organized the first action in February 2013 when over 100 refugees wrote protest letters to ISS-HK demanding an increase in rent. It is regrettable that nobody was dignified with a written reply, despite empty expressions of concern.
This campaign was followed by 200+ letters to the LegCo Public Complaint Office. This advocacy triggered and emergency meeting of the LegCo Panel on Welfare on 22 July 2013. The panel concluded with a promise that the overall welfare package would be increased in a couple of months. It is now four months later.
Vision First expresses deep dissatisfaction with this palliative solution that does little to alleviate the suffering of refugees denied the right to work in one of Asia’s most expensive cities. If the government thinks there are basic, legal rooms in the market that rent for 1500$ a month, it is clearly living in the past decade.
We will not stop our hardline action until we achieve our objective of ensuring that the basic material and financial needs of refugees are met in full, or they are allowed to work.
This belated, insufficient and short-sighted adjustment of the failed welfare provision is a sure indication that the Government does not take its constitutional obligations seriously. We shall strive, united, for meaningful changes as we safeguard the rights of those we care for.
Government will increase refugee rent from 1200$ to 1500$ a month
We read once again in the newspaper that the government intends to import foreign workers to address significant labour shortage in key areas of the economy. It is hard to understand why such a call is made when thousands of refugees in Hong Kong are stubbornly denied the right to work, and are thus institutionally prevented from providing such indispensable labour.
Here is a considerable supply of workers that currently powers the informal economy and barely earns enough to survive. Interestingly, they return most if not all their income to society in the form of rent and extortionary utility bills paid to greedy landlords. Were these capable individuals allowed to work temporarily where labour is urgently needed, the government could kill two birds with one stone.
On one hand, it would make use of flexible and readily available workers who desire nothing else but to be made productive during the time they await their asylum claims to be processed. On the other, the government would only need to provide welfare assistance to those unable to work, while allowing others to deploy underutilized skills. It makes good economic sense to explore this solution.
We ask: isn’t it in the best interest of all parties to allow refugees to work when they are skilled, young and physically able to endure arduous work, thus boosting the stretched labour supply? Doesn’t it make economic sense to save on labour import cost and employ people already in the city, who are currently denied any chance to contribute their skills to society?
We are told that it will be hard to complete future construction projects without resorting to foreign labour. Some refugees report that construction site managers approached them in the streets offering work because their boss faces tight schedules to deliver projects under conditions of labour shortage. Often, refugees turn such offers down, because they lack work rights and fear incarceration.
We question the use of rendering unproductive the entire community of refugees that is keen to engage in hard work to be considered “humans and not dogs”, because “even dogs are expected to do something, while we are just made to beg for food”. The government must bear in mind these are human beings with fundamental human rights, irrespective of the merits of each asylum case.
Refugees could be granted limited work rights in specific sectors of the economy, for a limited amount of hours per week. They could be offered alternative visa arrangements to step out of the asylum impasse. They could receive temporary worker visa to provide for themselves and their families back home. Refugees are not economic migrants. However – just like you and me – they too have pressing economic needs. What would happen to you and your family if you were unemployed for a decade?
The Security Bureau insists that granting work rights to refugees would engender a serious risk to the local labour force. What if the labour force is insufficient for the economic needs of the city? Wouldn’t that also be a serious threat to growth and prosperity? Vision First firmly reiterates that refugees would be an asset for Hong Kong, if only their skills and resourcefulness were wisely deployed.
It’s time for some lateral thinking outside the old ‘prejudice box’.
Refugees toil in the shadow economy to supplement a failed welfare system
It has been reported that ISS-HK case worker Rachel Li said to an African mother:
“We want the government to deport all you people, so we can be free!
You people are disturbing.
You people are annoying.“
ISS-HK Miss Panares said to the press, “I marvel at how brave they (case workers) have been to be actually dealing with this. I can tell you it’s quite a tough job for them because they are trying to provide support at the same time they are saying, ‘We cannot give you everything you need.’”
While Miss Panares marvels at her teams’ courage, nobody marvels at their lack of sympathy!
A Somali refugee complained to his ISS-HK case worker that he wasn’t getting three square meals a day. He was told, “That is not my problem. You go and find some food!” He noted that in his war-torn country it wasn’t as hard to stave off hunger as it is here, where he will be jailed for working for food. There is no excuse for refugees to be hungry in an affluent city that dumps 3,000 tons of foodstuff every day, or the equivalent weight of 600 elephants. Shame, shame, shame!
A recognized refugee approached ISS-HK for fresh milk for his baby. He was told, “If you want more milk, we must reduce the baby formula. We cannot give you both even if your child is losing weight!” The father asked for 20$ to buy fresh vegetables for his baby. The officer said, “No. We don’t have budget for this.” The refugee had a medical certificate confirming the child was sick and had lost weight. It meant nothing as the case worker stuck rigidly to rules in the face of evident hunger and despair.
In these three cases a pressing human need was met with professional negligence and lack of the very sympathy that the High Court demands for people seeking asylum. ISS-HK should be on notice that Vision First is recording every incident as evidence to be submitted to court, with the name of the case worker responsible for the affront. There is a time to hurt people and there is a time for pay. The husband of African lady said, “There will come a day when Rachel Li will run home with no clothes on!”
Vision First is filing “Applications For Legal Aid (Civil)” at the Legal Aid Department. The LAD officers tried to block the attempt by asking for supporting documents from ISS-HK. This ridiculous request was dealt with promptly in a very vocal and energetic fashion. Nothing will stop a rightful and long overdue judicial review of the shameful welfare that oppressed refugees since 2006. The grounds for Judicial Review are:
- Unfairness and procedural impropriety
- Apparent bias
- Order mandamus SWD to confirm refugees’ needs are being met.
The court decision is required on: Social Welfare Department and ISS-HK’s refusal to provide sufficient funds to have all basic material and financial needs of asylum seekers and successful refugees and torture claimants met in full.
click above to see how a flat is subdivided with partitions
Vision First offers short-term financial aid that is not intended to replace or even supplement government assistance. We shall continue to support destitute refugees when and where our resources allow it.
We emphatically state that refugees should not be reduced to begging for their daily survival. That is a cruel and immoral situation in light of the government’s financial reserves and purported respect for human rights.
As a reaction to the problem of refugees being made utterly destitute, today Vision First members will start to submit complaint letters to the Legal Aid Department requesting that the failed welfare provision be judicially reviewed by the High Court.
The aim is to encourage rapid procedural changes to a policy that, by design and by intent, causes greater hardship than most observers care to admit.
Hong Kong Government is under a legal obligation to meet refugees’ basic material and financial needs, since they are barred from working in one of Asia’s most expensive cities. Refugees are under the impression that they are forced to work to give authorities an excuse to deport them as undesirable criminals.
As a Srilankan refugee wisely said, “If you don’t allow me to swim than you must put me in your boat. If you throw somebody into the river with his hands tied behind his back - then you are murdering him!”
click above to download, print and fill in this complaint letter
Vision First is like a Private Members’ Club. We operate largely within a circle of trust where people come together to assist each other and advocate for change. It is important to note how Vision First acts in the capacity of a logistics provider. We offer the assistance refugees require to implement their own ideas. A case in point is the March for Protection: refugees demanded it, VF applied for police permit and organized media coverage. They did all the rallying and protesting.
The same drive is behind exposing the slums and food problem. These ideas germinated in the minds of members who had enough. We helped to make it happen. Our advocacy is essentially based on what refugees tell us that they need. Perhaps the VF advantage is that we listen. The recent Judicial Review action came from a Togolese member who said “I want to take ISS to the Human Rights Court”. We replied, “Sorry there is no such court in Hong Kong. But how about the High Court?”
Vision First is like a bus company that sees the demand for a route and provides the service to lead passengers to a new destination. They don’t have the resources and connections, so we become the resource provider and logistics coordinator. We are a truly grassroots organization relying on its members for new ideas, energy and approaches to advocacy. This unity leads to a powerful expression.
After the bus route is established, more members see the opportunity for change. They know they can reach the destination and come to join other people. They didn’t have hope before and now they see that something is possible. This is how our membership doubled in 2013 from 400 to 800, without counting 1000 refugees who live in the slums and don’t have 50$ to come to register.
We don’t expect beneficiaries to become activists. Vision First members already are. We simply assist and reward those who don’t have the resources to fight the system. Members rather expect that Vision First will make it happen. They put pressure on us to take action, find lawyers, fight harder. There is no exchange. ISS-HK is mandated and subvented to meet the needs of refugees. VF has no gap filling duties. While we are glad to help where possible, we neither have the resources nor manpower to assist 5000 claimants.
There is no exchange for aid. Currently if refugees need help they must go to ISS-HK. If they want more/better services, they must go to ISS-HK. VF does not intend to fill gaps in SWD service specification for ISS-HK. On a voluntary basis we do what we can, though our efforts perpetuates ISS-HK’ failures. We will never turn people away where we can – that would be contrary to our spirit of community.
We don’t have many members who are uncomfortable with protesting. There were some at the MFP who wore face masks, sunglasses and hoodies, but they are hard to find in the photos. That was in relation to 800 refugees energized by the occasion to voice legitimate demands. Rather we have to hold refugees back when they demand hunger strikes, jumping into the harbour, blocking ISS-HK shops and offices, even self-immolation!
We don’t share the view with other civil society groups and NGOs that feel the need to talk for victims who are voiceless, powerless and shapeless. Refugees can speak for themselves with more credibility and eloquence than any activist. That’s why we bring them to LegCo. That’s why they accompany us to every meeting, unlike other groups. Refugees have a clear understanding of their plight and rights. Vision First only needs to provide the bus and megaphone, both literally and figuratively speaking.
Vision First empowers refugees’ agency by providing a platform, strategies and tools that they use as they wish. We only have one paid staff and operate entirely with volunteer power. Vision First is a tiny organization, capable of reaching big goals with the support of its members and volunteers. It’s a unique structure that others are looking at replicating in other advocacy fields for its efficiency and impact. Vision First broke the old NGO mold and showed a different way to uplift the downtrodden.
We believe we don’t need to act as a link between refugees and society. Refugees can represent themselves directly and by doing so demystify the construction that they are helpless victims in need of charitable assistance. Consequently, were the government to meet their material and financial needs, refugees would find it pointless to visit NGO offices. Refugees need NGOs in a failed system, as much as NGOs need a failed system to prosper and grow. The status quo thrives on submission and fears the evolution that brings forth its own demise.
In a fair and just society, the NGO link between refugees and society is made redundant.
In final analysis, this might be the change some feel threatened by.
click above to see how a failed refugee system needs NGO assistance
After I was jailed, I realized the mistake I made. In Lai Chi Kok prison inmates told me to plead guilty for a shorter sentence. At court the duty lawyer told me to plead guilty. I didn’t know he just wanted to close my case. I took the advice despite being innocent. I was sitting outside a work site when police raided it and accused me of working inside. I was not! The judge looked down at me like was the Devil!
After I was jailed, I understood the system seeks quick convictions to give refugees a bad name. The more refugees are jailed for working the more skewed are Immigration statistics against us. In fact, I am forced to work for rent, utilities, food and clothes. But on the day I was arrested, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If there is justice in the courts of Shatin Magistracy, I didn’t encounter it!
After I was locked up, I realized how horrible jail is. The wooden bed was so hard my back is permanently damaged. In winter we received two blankets in freezing cold cells – I have never been that cold before. You wake up with fluff in your eyes and mouth from the cheap army blankets. Dinner is 4pm and you don’t have lunch till noon the next day. You think about eating all the time between meals.
After I was released, I understood how unfair seeking asylum in Hong Kong is. Refugees cannot find a room for 1200$ and many don’t get help for utilities. Refugees go hungry with the insulting food we receive from ISS-HK shops. We have to buy fresh vegetable and fruit for our children. The welfare system is designed to entrap. It forces us to work, so they can say, “You see, he came here to work!”
After I came out, I realize that pleading guilty was a terrible mistake. Now my Removal Order is a “Deportation Order”. I can never return and if I do I will be jailed for seven years. I came here for protection. Now the notice I have reads “This conviction has led the Director to conclude that your continued presence in Hong Kong is undesirable”. I was framed by the system. I was played like a fool.
After I was freed, I learnt that justice is dead in Hong Kong. Or there is no justice for certain groups of people. It is nice to be rich in this city that worships wealth, power and status. However, the message on the prison walls is, “Don’t be a fool! Don’t think that we protect refugees! Go back to your country!” For things to change, we need action that breaks the old ways and ushers in the fairness refugees deserve.
click here to see how refugees and residents are treated differently
Civil society is preoccupied about the closing of UNHCR (a lack of fairness caused their demise) and the launch of the Unified Screening Mechanism (Immigration typically makes changes in December), but nobody speaks out against the cruel and unlawful treatment of refugees at the hands of the Social Welfare Department and their contractor International Social Service (ISS-HK). Why such silence?
It is easier to hit broad targets and distant objectives, rather than combat a reality one became accustomed to. While it is true that refugees worry about future prospects, there is something everyone can do to alleviate their present suffering. Police inspected a crumbling shack outside Yuen Long. They heard complaints about high rent and no money to pay. Their response was, “This is not our problem!”
Typical response! As long as everyone repeats and believes, “This is not my problem”, refugees will continue to be segregated in ghettos without the ability to pay costs. For years civil society and NGOs heard complaints about slums, extortionary rents, rip-off electricity bills and the incarceration of those who dared to earn a day’s wage. What remedial actions were taken to combat this blatant injustice?
“This is not our problem” leads to hundreds of children at the St. Joseph’s Primary School in Kam Tin witnessing a refugee ghetto below their classroom windows. From above, the students see explicit, institutionalized destitution imposed as punishment on those who dared seek asylum in our affluent city. What does observing this social injustice teach the future generation of our global citizens?
Sandwiched between a primary school and Mercedes-Benz, refugees doubt the promise we made on the international stage – Hong Kong welcomes and protects victims of torture. What went wrong? Who betrayed this sacrosanct promise? Who is responsible for these inhuman and illegal structures? Who is genuinely motivated to fight the cruelty and fraud that rots the refugee system? The time is now.
A new study reveals that 1.5 million Hongkongers live a poor and deprived life. This bleak picture takes into account not only income but deprivation, but how some in the city are forced to forgo items and social activities that most people consider customary. Poverty is not more than financial. It is defined as having insufficient resources over time, as a deprivation that excludes from participation in society.
The government is brainstorming poverty alleviation for 1.5 million citizens, who do have access to the labor market, welfare system and social network. Falling through the cracks is the comparatively smaller group of 6000 refugees who were not included in the above study due to irregular status. And yet this minority lives at the outer fringe of poverty and is more marginalized, deprived and excluded from society.
Revealing the official poverty statistics, the government acknowledged that “being poor in Hong Kong” means earning less than 3600$ for a single person, less than 7700$ for a couple and less than 11,500$ for a family of three. How do refugees fare in comparison? A single person’s allowance is 2,260$ (1200 for rent plus 1060 in food), which condemns refugees to struggling 37% below the poverty line.
The High Court found that a refugee “deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status … The provision of assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim”. Vision First tirelessly reiterates and emphasizes that this is not happening. The government is in breach of this judgment.
There are many issues plaguing refugee welfare besides segregation in government-run ghettos. Vision First is also gravely concerned about the distribution of 53,424,000 HK$ in food assistance. This annual figure is calculated by multiplying 4200 service users (recent ISS-HK quote), by the stated 1060$ in groceries, by twelve months. But what is the total value of food that reaches the plates of refugees?
We will reveal the results of a month-long research next week. There are serious doubts whether fraud and collusion are absent from the distribution of 53 million dollars through 7 shops owned by 5 companies. Is it possible that five different businessmen provide equivalent poor quality and low quantity in different districts without price fixing? Who is responsible for monitoring food value, food quality and adherence to the rule of law? Is somebody turning a blind eye? Is it not a level playing field?
Shatin Magistracy court yesterday sentenced Pakistani Waqir to eighteen months imprisonment for breach of condition of stay. He was arrested while trying to earn some badly needed cash. The Immigration Ordinance (Section 38AA) condemns torture claimants to a life of failed welfare and unreliable begging. In reality, these two strategies come up disappointingly short.
The law is clear. Section 38AA states that “a person in respect of whom a removal order is in force, must not take any employment, whether paid or unpaid.” In other jurisdictions working without a visa would be an administrative offence, punished by a fine. In Hong Kong it is a serious crime punishable by three years in jail and a 50,000$ fine. Are such sentences just in a failed welfare environment?
How often must refugees work part-time for 300$ a day to meet their most basic needs?
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes to calculate a subsistence budget:
- My rent costs 600$ over 1200$ paid by ISS = 2 days’ work
- My electricity cost 300$ over 190$ paid by ISS = 1 day’s work
- My food is worth 500$ of 1060$ ISS valuation = 2 day’s work
- My groceries cost an extra 600$ a month = 2 days’ work
- ISS toiletries lack essentials like shaving creams, etc. = 1 day’s work
- ISS does not pay for my cooking gas, cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
- ISS doesn’t pay for phone and other costs of 300$ = 1 day’s work
- ISS does not pay for my travelling costs of 300$ = 1 days’ work
- ISS does not provide cloths that cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
- If I had children this would be a much longer list!
We submit that refugees in Hong Kong should be allowed to work 12 days a month just to make up for what a failed welfare system effectively denies them. Until basic financial and material needs are objectively and fairly met, it is a miscarriage of justice to jail refugees who have no viable survival option. Anyone who disagrees is warmly invited to spend a week in a refugee ghetto without cash.
Hong Kong government should consider issuing “Twelve day Working Passes” to single refugees (families would need more) until the assistance package offered by ISS is enhanced to genuinely reflect realistic cost and actual needs. Offering half of a subsistence budget is shameful to all involved!
A half-hour minibus ride from Yuen Long are the Mai Po marshlands. With proper foundations great estates have been developed, such as Fairview Park and Pam Springs. It’s quite a different story when landlord fail to drain the land and build on waterlogged soil. The environment might be good for fish farms, but not for humans.
In fragrant violation of land use, an exploitative landlord found a new source of income when raising gold fish became unprofitable. With the conniving assistance of ISS-HK, the Slum Lord turned this property around. It is no longer an abandoned structure, but a ghetto earning 35,000 HK$ in illicit profit from government rental assistance to refugees.
At first glance on a beautiful sunny day, one could easily be mistaken. A grand metal gate ushers visitors into a spacious, tidy courtyard where children love to play. If you venture any further, however, the underbelly of the beast reveals its dark secrets. The stench is unbearable. Insects sting viciously. Toilets don’t flush and every sink is as blocked as the drains they connect to.
It is heart-wrenching to witness the conditions that 31 refugees – including a dozen young children – endure due to ISS-HK’s connivance with an unscrupulous slum lord. Rooms cost the full allowance, but since deposits are not required, this compound is full. It is an absolute certainty that this refugee ghetto would fail the inspection of any agency – except the Social Welfare Department, it appears.