Vision First welcomes the accommodation term in the below notice informing:
“Locating a suitable accommodation within the assistance level is the joint responsibility of the claimants and ISSHK and ISSHK would in general assist at most three times in the identification of available housing for each claimant unless for very special cases.” (emphasis added)
This positive development ought to require case workers to accompany refugees flat/room hunting, assisting them in securing suitable accommodation. Whether it can be achieved within the rent allowance of $1500 remains to be seen, though the experience will undoubtedly educate case workers about the difficulty of such an endeavor.
Should they face difficulties with the rent allowance, refugees are invited to lodge complaints directly with the SWD Head-office (8/F, Wu Chung House, 213 Queen’s Road East, Wanchai), as assurances have been made that rent levels may be adjusted on a case-by-case basis. In this respect, Vision First confirms that many refugees have successfully increased rent allowances by pleading their case with the SWD Head-office.
A stark difference in terminology was evident at the Legislative Council meeting of the Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. On the one hand, the Security Bureau blatantly branded asylum seekers and refugees “collectively as ‘illegal immigrants’”. On the other, the welfare panel titled the session as “Issues relating to welfare of refugees, torture claimants and asylum seekers” and lawmakers used the terms refugee or claimants during the hour-long discussion,
Vision First deplores the Security Bureau’s brief that repeatedly vilifies refugees as: “foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong”, “to safeguard immigration control and for public interest, they should be removed as soon as practicable”, “the illegal immigrant status of non-refoulement claimants will not change,” and “illegal immigrants seeking non-refoulement in Hong Kong are not to be treated as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees.’”
Such rhetoric ought to be tempered by an awareness of the inalienable nature of the fundamental right to seek asylum – including in Hong Kong. In his opening remarks, Dr. Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung lamented, “Although we have not signed the UN Refugee Convention, refugees do exist … More advanced societies feel the responsibility of taking care of these refugees on humanitarian grounds. So first of all, I have to say that we should not label these people who flee their country to Hong Kong as illegal immigrants. Many of them entered our Territory through legitimate means.”
Turning to welfare issues, Dr. Fernando remarked, “Food coupons are an improvement. In the past many media organizations conducted investigations and in fact one third of funds were lost through the distribution of food at the seven food distribution outlets (appointed by ISS-HK). So food coupons are an improvement … But some refugees are prevented from purchasing (certain items). Why are they prevented? Who set the rules? … Who made the list (of allowed items)?”
The SWD responded that an electronic coupon scheme would be rolled out for purchases from other supermarkets, as well as ethnic shops selling specialty items such as Hallal food. It was further agreed that a list of banned products would be supplied so that refugees and shop attendants are informed about what is permitted and what is banned. Vision First laments that refugees were not consulted beforehand and we will lead negotiations with the SWD to optimize the food list.
The Hon. Poon Siu-ping inquired about the USM claim process, average and maximum length of asylum and locations where refugees customarily work. In this respect he inquired, “(Regarding refugees working illegally) I would like to know if this is due to insufficient welfare assistance. Has the SWD been giving extra help with their living expenses?”
Mr. Billy Woo, Principle Assistant Secretary of the Security Bureau, provided general information about 10,000 pending USM claims; Immigration will process 2000 cases in 2015; many cases of employment take place in remote recycling and auto parts yards; claimants remain in HK on average 2 to 3 years, some as long as 8 to 10 years; many overstay over 12 months before lodging a claim. The question about insufficient welfare was skillfully evaded.
The Hon. Albert Ho Chun-yan robustly criticizes current policies, “I am shocked to know that some refugees have been stuck here for almost 10 years. Even 4 years is very long! (As some are effectively stateless) we have the duty to accept them because they have been here for more than 10 years. Do they have to wait for another 10 or 15 years? … And the humanitarian assistance program is not really humanitarian enough … What can they afford with $1500 a month for accommodation? The greatest problem is they are not allowed to work … It is just like putting them in jail. Can you relax the restriction on employment?”
The Security Bureau gave a historical retrospect on court judgments emphasis that claims must be assessed according to high standards of fairness. Attentive readers might wonder whether such requirements correlate with screening results, that is, 28 successful claims out of a total of 10,000 determination in 23 years since the UN Torture Convention was extended to Hong Kong in 1992.
Mr. Woo then remarked, “If their claim is substantiated they may apply to the Director of Immigration for employment …” He was abruptly interrupted by Hon. Ho, “Yes, when their claim is substantiated, but some have been waiting for 10 years! Why can’t you allow them to take up employment with some conditions? Mr. Woo reiterated that due to immigration control and public interests, the current policy would not be changed.
Dr. Hon. Helena Wong Pik-wan put forward several requests, “Can you make a performance pledge that claims will be settled within two years of arrival? The significant criterion is how much time does have claimant have to wait … If you don’t have enough personal, you should recruit more people … This is very inhuman because (refugees) are just kept from becoming destitute, but you do not allow them to work. What can they rent for accommodation with $1500 a month? Can you tell us where the claimants live with $1500 a month? They are not allowed to work, so do they come to Hong Kong with a lot of assets? If they have no idea how long they are going to wait, shouldn’t you designate places of employment so that they can supplement their means of subsistence?”
The Security Bureau responded obliquely about the court rulings it must follow, before inviting Mr. Lam Ka-tai, Deputy Director of Social Welfare, to respond. Mr. Lam remarked, “Most of the claimants live in Kowloon and the New Territories. I have visited some who live in old building in Mongkok. Maybe 2 share a room … We encourage them to share rooms because this is not a welfare provision, but humanitarian assistance.”
Neither the Security Bureau, nor the SWD addressed the issues of insufficient rent assistance and designated work places for refugees to work legally. The Hon. Leung Che-cheung observed, “… $1200 for food does not seem to be adequate. Perhaps this is why they resort to working illegally.” Mr. Lam of the SWD responded, “… During their stay in Hong Kong, if they are unable to meet their living expenses, then on humanitarian grounds we will provide humanitarian assistance, but I emphasis this is on humanitarian grounds, it is not welfare benefits …”
The Hon. Leung Kwok-hung ‘Longhair’ enumerated current levels of assistance and remarked, “Although you say that by discretion you can approve a higher amount, basically it is not sufficient so there are only two ways to address the problem. One is to withdraw from the mechanism altogether (i.e. the UN Torture Convention) and stop claimants from coming … (the other) is to allow them to work under your supervision is better than allowing them to work anywhere. In fact (to imprison refugees for working) is more expensive than the welfare costs.” The Security Bureau reiterated it was bound by court rulings and planned to fast-track screening, but sidestepped the issue.
Dr. Hon. Kwok Ka-ki supported a performance pledge for screening before asked, “How is the $1200 amount for food set? Because $1200 a month for food really isn’t sufficient. According to media reports, ISS-HK has been receiving very bad reviews from service users, and yet the three regions of the contracts were awarded to ISS. What is the reason? Is it because you didn’t receive bids from other tenderers? Why is it that despite their poor review and feedback, you still allow the ISS to pick up the contracts?”
The SWD listed numerous food items available and remarked, “On production of a medical certificate, the SWD will decide on the case merit … if the budget of 1200$ is not sufficient. As for ISS-HK … we invited NGOs to submit bids for the service contract and ISS-HK was the only eligible bidders.” He was interrupted by Dr. Kwok, “My question is, where there other bidders?” prompting a significant clarification from Mr. Lam, “Apart from ISS-HK, we did not receive other bids”.
Vision First observes that this statement raises a thorny question: ISS-HK being a Swiss multinational, why wasn’t a single local NGO interested in providing so-called humanitarian assistance to refugees? Could it be that the levels of assistance were considered unreasonable and thus impracticable and perhaps morally reprehensible?
The Hon. Elizabeth Quat returned a leading issue of the meeting, “In relation to the accommodation, I see there is a rental allowance of $1500 per month. We are short of housing in Hong Kong. With $1500, have you considered where (refugees) are living? Are there any street-sleepers?”
The SWD responded, “They mostly live in Kowloon and the New Territories. We encourage them to share a flat, because for four persons if they share a flat they can afford a $6000 flat with two bedrooms …” The Hon. Quat interrupted, “I would like to know if the administration has the addresses of the 9000 odd claimants in Hong Kong? … Is it mandatory for the claimant to report an address to ISS?” After beating around the bush, the Security Bureau confirmed, “ISS does have the addresses.”
The Hon. Elizabeth Quat pushed on, “Perhaps a paper can be produced after the meeting. I would like to know about their state of accommodation. Do you know if any of them are street-sleepers? Do you know?” The response by Mr. Lam of the SWD came as a surprise to Vision First, “As far as I know there aren’t any! … The ISS must make an individual assessment. The ISS has to visit the accommodation and look at the conditions. They have to a thorough assessment before giving the rent allowance.” Vision First has frequently blogged about homeless refugees and brought such matters to the attention of Mr. Lam’s staff.
In the second round of questions, Dr. Fernando remarked, “When the service contract was to be awarded, one of the terms in the tender was that no single organization can get all three (service regions). Yet the SWD has failed to follow this. This is regrettable, because we have seen many problems with ISS-HK in carrying out the contract.”
Dr. Fernando took the authorities to task, “With $1500 a month it is very difficult for anyone to rent decent accommodation. If they are willing to share a flat that is better, otherwise many refugees are paying well beyond the rent allowance. I want to ask why ISS cannot sign the tenancy agreements on behalf of the refugees. In fact many refugees have to pay more than $1500 rent. I don’t think this is possible because these people are not allowed to work, they don’t have any income.”
The lawmaker was relentless, “Where can (refugees) find the money to rent bed spaces that cost over $1500? Isn’t this policy forcing refugees to do something illegal? They cannot rent a unit costing more than $1500 without an income. I would like to known the number of cases where there is over-payment of rent and why ISS can’t sign the leases. And what is the mechanism for adjusting the rent and food allowances, is it done annually?”
The SWD sidestepped the issue by remarking that many claimants had sign contracts already before they registered with ISS-HK. This is another statement Vision First will disprove with data, particularly relating to new arrivals who seek immediately assistance and to refugees who have lived in Hong Kong for over a year, the typical duration of leases for subdivided rooms.
The Deputy Director of SWD, Mr. Lam concluded with an indirect reference to the 69 refugee slums exposed by Vision First between May 2013 and November 2014, many of which have not been closed down for lack of viable alternatives within the $1500 rent allowance. Mr. Lam remarked, “The important is for the SWD or ISS to assess whether the accommodation (refugees) have sought is appropriate or not.” Vision First will continue to monitor the legality of refugee housing.
How things have changed! Veteran refugee workers recall a time not so long ago when the SWD didn’t reply to emails about problems faced by their clients, because the task was delegated to its service contractor. By comparison today the Refugee Union communicates daily directly with the SWD head-office to report failures, lodge grievances and request assistance.
It is equally unprecedented that in April 2015 the Refugee Union approached the Legislative Council Redress System and filed 500 complaint letters drawing attention to their plight and campaigning for improvements. Vision First takes credit for paving the way that gives a voice to the voiceless and empowers refugees to stand up for themselves and demand the changes needed by their community.
Following a preliminary meeting on 22 April 2015, the Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung invited the Refugee Union to discuss welfare concerns ahead of the meeting of the Legislative Council’s Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. It is noteworthy that refugee welfare made the Panel’s agenda in under two months, compared to nine in 2013. Is it an indication that the wellbeing of refugees has gained in priority over the past two years? If so, what factors contributed to this?
Discussing the topic at hand, a Bangladeshi refugee told Fernando, “I have been in Hong Kong for 15 years and I am not allowed to work. Things are getting better. It seems the government is listening to our complaints and treating us like human beings. I lived in the slums for many years. They are closing down this year after a refugee died in a fire. It is true that for $1500 [in rent assistance] we cannot get a room anywhere. The government should increase the amount to $2000.”
An African colleague commented, “It is unreasonable that refugee without money or jobs are forced to sign agreements with landlords. Isn’t this cheating? We commit to deals we cannot keep because we cannot pay for the high rent. Is it entrapment? This policy makes us delinquent tenants when we don’t pay. ISS case-workers urge us to get money from NGOs and churches, who say they are also struggling to fundraise. Instead we suggest that our case-workers sign the tenancy agreements with the mandate of the government. All we want is a safe place to sleep.”
A refugee mother spoke about the food, “The coupons are better. There are some problems we need to resolve, but generally people are happy. However we need competition as Wellcome prices are not always cheaper. ParknShop and Kaibo supermarkets should be included. Why not give refugees an Octopus card accepted by these three supermarkets? Or Wellcome could match the lowest prices offered by competitors because already [the food allowance] is too little.”
A Pakistani added, “Yes, the coupons are good. I received $1200 also for my children and I hope it is the same for all families. It is impossible to live on $40 food so many refugees must work. The food allowance should be increased to $1500. Also, we don’t get dish soap or toilet paper [one roll a month] and razors [one a month] break in our hands. The SWD should save the money of toiletries, staff and storage to give us one more coupon to buy what we really use.” A woman then described sanitary pads considered of dreadful quality, unsafe and unhygienic.
The Hon. Fernando discussed these and other issues with the Refugee Union members, displaying genuine concern and a determination to push for improvements at the Legco Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. He noted that the 45 minutes allocated would only allow for the discussion of two topics, which were agreed to be rent and food – the greatest concerns of the community.
The previous increase in levels of assistance was introduced on 24 January 2014, when the monthly rent allowance was raised from $1,200 to $1,500, security deposits and estate agents’ fees were introduced and the food budget was increased from $1,060 to $1,200. Unlike the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) provided to needy residents, there is no mechanism to tie refugee assistance with inflation – an arrangement that ought to be considered by the Panel.
At 1pm on 28 May 2015 the first message about the food coupon distribution circulated on social media. A father of three informed, “Whoever will go to sign at ISS will receive 1200$ coupons, each coupon valued 100$…. But there are limited items to choose. Not all items [are available]. Toiletries will collect from ISS offices the day of signing.”
It was good news though a distressed refugee called Vision First later that evening after returning from his first experience at Wellcome. He said words to this effect, “I went to Wellcome, but there is no Halal food. I asked the staff and they say they don’t have it. Sir, what can I do?”
Long-time observers of the asylum sphere might agree that the policy shift from the staunchly supported in-kind food distribution to supermarket coupons is nothing less than remarkable. While the authorities are unlikely to publicize the underlying research and ensuing rationale for the reversal, the change might indicate government resolve to counter questionable practices.
From a broader prospective, Vision First has been informed that independent ethnic grocery shops in Kowloon are pleased with the development although profits from the new SWD tender (estimated at over 100 million HKD for food alone) will flow exclusively into the coffers of Dairy Farm, the owners of Wellcome supermarkets, listed on the London Stock Exchange and member of the Hong Kong conglomerate Jardine Matheson Group.
A shop owner explained, “The coupons will stop the trading of ISS supplies that halved the price of flour, sugar, oil and rice around the [ISS appointed grocery] shops. Other owners reported that the middlemen stopped re-selling [ISS food items]. They were buying it cheaply from refugees and selling it to shops, restaurants and residents. Also, a wholesaler said that business picked up because shops now buy from them after the cheap reselling stopped.”
Refugees have largely reacted positively, though some mothers complained they could not buy baby formula, despite others succeeding at different branches. A refugee posted, “One of my friends went to Waihong [Chinese name for Wellcome] and wanted to buy mill for her baby and the cashier said that she can’t buy the milk with the coupon. So what is the use of the coupon that we get from ISS if we can’t buy the milk for our babies?”
Another mother was told by her caseworker that baby formula was an accepted item, though others lamented that fresh milk was excluded. Although it represents a new disruption to refugee service that could have been reasonably prevented, it is understandable that a grace period may be required to resolve service variations. Another refugee reported, “Not all Wellcome shops are well-instructed. Out of 5 shops, only 2 are OK. One shop told me I can buy only rice and noodles, nothing else.”
On the other hand, a Refugee Union member posted, “Some people from Sham Shui Po called me today. They are very happy with [the food coupons] … Yesterday I talked with one Wellcome saleswomen. She said they are preparing all the kinds of food for us. They need a little more time. And as I know that electronic coupons are coming also. So let’s wait and see.” Could this refer to an Octopus-like card replenished by ISS-HK monthly that would allow less than 100$ purchases as change is not offered for the coupons?
Finally on a positive note, a lady posted a photo of the groceries she collected from Wellcome with the comment, “This is what I buy from Wellcome today and all is OK” Her message received an encouraging response from another refugee, “As for the adult foods, we are OK. We were able to get want we want and of good quality. WE ARE HAPPY. WE FEEL THAT WE ARE HUMAN WHO CAN ALSO PURCHASE IN SHOPS JUST LIKE ANYBODY ELSE. AND FOR THIS WE THANK VISION FIRST AND THE REFUGEE UNION.” (original emphasis)
On 1 April 2015, Vision First and the Refugee Union launched an action to file complaint letters with the Legislative Council Redress System. Several hundred letters were completed and lodged with the assistance of lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung and his hardworking team.
The complaints to the Legislative Council summarized the daily plight of refugees who rely entirely on government welfare and are not allowed to earn an honest living. Most often, refugees have no savings, certainly no lawful income and most commonly cannot rely on limited social networks and NGO assistance.
It is widely recognized that the current levels of assistance offered refugees are grossly inadequate: $1500 in rent assistance, $1200 in food coupons and a few hundred dollars for utilities and transportation. Refuges are loath to rely exclusively on welfare, but stringent immigration policies punish them for working and leave them with no alternative.
Vision First request that the Hong Kong Government, the Security Bureau and SWD fulfil their obligation to provide for asylum seekers and refugees’ basic financial, material needs or otherwise. These needs include, but are not limited to, appropriate quantity and quality of food assistance, payment of full rent and utilities, payment of full rental deposits to landlord, daily necessities like cooking gas, clothing, health care, transport allowance for required trips always payable in full and in advance. We request that ISS-HK sign the Tenancy Agreements as refugees have no savings or income to pay rent balances every month.
Vision First further request that a Task Force be established to investigate why persons requesting and having been granted international protection in Hong Kong have been left destitute despite a system being in place to disburse government funding to prevent this condition from happening. Such policy failures have caused refugees needless and unreasonable physical, mental and psychological suffering.
On 22 April 2015, Vision First and representatives of the Refugee Union met with the Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung to present these concerns to the Legislative Council’s Panel on Welfare. Vision First noted that deterrence objectives and criminalization of vulnerable foreigners should not overshadow welfare considerations when refugees are suffering in our community. It stands to reason that, if work rights are denied to refugees, the authorities have a legal and moral obligation to increase welfare to realistic levels consistent with human right laws.
Following the above initiative, we are pleased to inform that the Legislative Council’s “Panel on Welfare Services” has scheduled “Issues relating to welfare of refuges, torture claimants and asylum seekers” for their meeting on Monday, 8 June 2015. Refugees are invited to submit suggestions to Vision First early next week.
Remarkable events over the past year demonstrate that refugees can affect change when they work together. Consideration should be given to the events that led to the introduction of supermarket coupons to replace the in-kind food distribution that has been the preferred arrangement since humanitarian assistance for refugees was introduced in 2006.
“We request the immediate introduction of itemized price to ISS food collection forms … it is vitally important that we … are informed and allowed to make informed decisions on what is available, at what price and in what quantity.”
On that morning refugees staged a sit-in at three branches of ISS-HK to protest against practices alleged to reduce the value of rations and cause widespread hardship to refugees who rely on government assistance and face 15 to 22 months incarceration if arrested working.
The Media investigated the food distribution system established for refugees which was claimed to compromise food security rights for the asylum population.
“Post’s research supports claims that food supplied by government contractor is worth much less than its stated value … A comparison found that buying the goods on the lists would cost between 13 and 30 per cent less than the HK$ 1,060 worth of food ISS was contracted to provide … The amount for groceries increased to HK$ 1,200 this month after government nutritionists deemed an increase necessary.”
“Refugees were left hungry like dogs … The government has increased the amount of assistance to be provided to refugees … investigations have found that the food they are receiving from ISS is less than the amount set by the government by at least 25% … That adds up to just $900 per month and this is less than the official aid amount by $300.” (Translation)
“The food rations refugee collect every month have ‘shrunken’. We investigated how much the reduction is and where the missing money goes … Our reporter took his food packages to compare prices at the market. The total price of his monthly food was $993.30 or $200 less than his $1200 food allowance. Also the weight of the food Hassan collected is less than what he selected in the forms … Our reporter also found that other refugees receive ‘shrunken’ food collection … about 20% less.” (Translation)
In March 2014 the refugee community was disappointed by the initial reaction of the Social Welfare Department that dismissed many documented complaints:
“The SWD has conducted in-depth investigations into over 20 complaints made by service users about the undesirable quality and quantity of the food they received. Investigation results showed that the complaints were not substantiated. The SWD will continue to take each and every complaint seriously.”
Nonetheless, the Refugee Union directed numerous complaints to the SWD head-office on a regular basis and established trust with senior welfare officers who became increasingly sympathetic with the problems brought to light. While powerless to increase the actual levels of assistance, the SWD considered implementing remedial actions.
Cautious optimism spread in December 2014 when the SWD issued a new servive tender requesting that:
“The Contractor shall provide each Service User with food of different varieties … in the form of food coupons that should be non-transferable and non-cashable.” While concerns were raised about the actual implementation of the scheme – for example, would the current shops be involved – the shift away from emergency rations was welcomed.
Finally on 28 May 2015, the Refugee Union’s relentless campaign scored a historic victory with the introduction of food coupons from “Wellcome”, self-described as the largest and longest established supermarket chain in Hong Kong with 280 stores serving more than 16 million customers every month.
Initial reactions are positive. Yet it is reported that the Refugee Union will monitor the implementation of the system, one member noting possible shortcomings:
“There is another issue about food items which we South East Asians eat, like atta, dall, basmati rice. Will these be available at (Wellcome)? And one thing more during I was at ISS office I heard a (refugee) was arguing with officer about halal meat problem. So I asked my officer why ISS did not get refugee representatives’ advice before the take any decision?”