Mohammed’s email

Mar 18th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

I am a Somalia national presently residing in Hong Kong as an Asylum seeker. And I firstly would like to thank Vision First and its administration for its continuing Humanitarian Support for the refugees and displaced people from Somalia. Somalia’s nationals are grateful to the Hong Kong Government and, particularly, the people of Hong Kong for their understanding and tolerance towards refugees. Regarding UNHCR it’s very clear that they are not doing much! I remember its chief, Antonio Guterres, informing that his agency hasn’t done enough to meet the needs of Somalis. So my expectation of the UNHCR was never high. In Hong Kong 85% of Refugee’s are from Somalia. Sometimes the one questions here is our human dignity. Where is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Is it just another labeling brand of words? We kindly request and ask good people to support us refugees with donations and any other possible means by assisting Vision First. The more you help Vision First, the more we have a chance to survive! Thank you very much Vision First for doing a great job. To UNHCR, we are safe here in Hong Kong but there are millions of refugees in camps without any means to survive, they are the ones who are a top priority. This does not mean that UNHCR’s moral responsibility is clear. They don’t explain where the millions go. Please everyone help us we are in danger of becoming homeless – please support Vision First – thank you.

Free haircuts at Vision First

Mar 14th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

What we does best is listen to members’ needs and design effective programs to meet those needs with available resources. The arrival of a cheerful and helpful hairdresser from the Horn of Africa enables VF to offer free haircuts on our rooftop. With the sponsorship of a local salon, we are happy to invite our members every Monday afternoon for haircuts and shaves, glad it saves 50 HK$ charged by the cheapest Chung King Mansion barbers. Thank you Team for making this happen! Perms and coloring will be next :-)

New Hairdresser Program
New Hairdresser Program

Maggie’s testimonial

Mar 11th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

Dear Parents -

Yesterday I found out hundreds of refugees live a squalid life in Hong Kong. I am a parent of two students at West Island School, where we went to celebrated Fair Day. In the gymnasium was a table that attracted considerable attention thanks to the charisma of a friendly African towering above everyone. I was dragged over there by my daughter’s desire for the “Sharkies” candy he offered. Against the wall two posters projected the distinctive logo of a refugee charity: VISION FIRST. One poster read: “Who are refugees? Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution – article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. I was intrigued and needed to know more.

The guys at Vision First are doing a terrific job! They work for free. They operate from a donated office and shelter. They guarantee 100% of funds support directly the most vulnerable refugees. And, most importantly, they have a contagious passion to serve unparalleled in the community. I write to introduce this organization that serves enthusiastically where even the government fails. It is inspiring to discover that a group of friends developed this small charity into a force of change.  I write to recommend Vision First for your support as they strike me as being both highly professional and thoughtfully compassionate. I had the chance to talk to refugees who spoke of it as their extended family – as people they depend upon and as friends they trust.

Dear Friends, I learnt that refugees are not allowed to work. Further, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) cut support this year and shifted their welfare to the government, that only supports refugees with 1200 HK$ rent and emergency rations. The photos I saw said it all. Vision First’s beneficiaries are condemned to a miserable life, totally unacceptable amid the city’s prosperity. They beg for every necessity. They scavenge for food. They live in horrendous conditions at the bottom of society. Without the commendable effort of Vision First, their plight would not have reached my attention. What refugees urgently need are the items we discard: used clothes, used sneakers, pots and pans, bed sheets and books, toys and diapers. When your family grows out of these or when you buy new ones, please remember that nobody needs them more desperately. Recently my donations were turned down by the Salvation Army that asked for new stuff. Instead Vision First will come to your home and gladly collected anything you can spare. It doesn’t get any easier to make a positive impact in refugees’ lives! Please spread the word among your friends and send them this flyer: Vision First flyer

Thank you,


West Island School "Fair Day"
West Island School "Fair Day"

2,368 website visitors from 61 countries

Mar 3rd, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

SCMP: Time to sign the UN Refugee Convention

Mar 3rd, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

Hong Kong prides itself on being a fair and caring society. We strive to provide equal opportunities for all and offer protection to those who cannot take care of themselves. But our safety net for the underprivileged and vulnerable has often been criticised as being too narrow, and the plight of refugees stranded in the city is a clear example.The government has yet to sign the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees. But that does not stop foreign nationals in troubled regions from coming to the city to seek a better life. Yet the screening process is often slow and prone to abuse. The general ban on refugees working while waiting for overseas settlement adds to their misery.This year the situation has been made worse by substantial cuts in material support from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR cites extra funding demands from a wide range of natural disasters and fierce conflicts last year, including flooding in Pakistan, a civil war in Ivory Coast and violent regime change resulting from the “Arab Spring”. The refugee agency’s Hong Kong Office says it is no longer in a position to continue providing adequate material assistance to recognised refugees in the city, numbering around 180.

Although the government has sought to fill the gap and extended its humanitarian assistance programme to the refugees, it is understandable that refugee groups find the cuts unacceptable. There is a genuine concern that refugees may turn to crime if they are struggling to make ends meet. It is in the public interest that refugees, like other underprivileged groups, are given adequate support and are able to live with dignity while they wait for settlement elsewhere.

Hong Kong needs better strategies to make it a truly fair and just society. The government can play a bigger role by signing the convention on refugees. Giving them the right to work in the meantime is also an option worth exploring.


“Seeking physical security from persecution as well as
economic opportunities in a country of destination can
hardly be regarded as incompatible objectives for
people forced to leave their country of origin” - Thielemann


Refugees left with HK$300 a month after subsidy cut

Feb 26th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

John Carney writes on Feb 26, 2012 for the Sunday Morning Post  (circulation 80,000)

To view Front Page click here + Third Page click here

The lives of refugees residing in Hong Kong have been thrown into further turmoil after the UN abruptly slashed the monthly allowance they receive to HK$300 – an 80 per cent cut. Despite receiving generous financial support from donors in Hong Kong, the cash-strapped United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees decided last month it could no longer afford to pay the HK$1,500 that 180 refugees living in the city were getting to help pay expenses. The Hong Kong government has stepped in to provide the recipients with HK$1,200 worth of food each, but refugees say the remaining cash payment falls far short of what they need to pay for rent, clothes, utilities and other essentials. Refugees, who spoke to the Sunday Morning Post on the condition that their names or countries were not identified, say the allowance cut has left them in a struggle to survive.

“I’m a recognised refugee and I will lose my room this week,” said one man from North Africa. “What can I do? Who can help me? I’m not a beggar.” Another refugee from central Asia said he was unable to pay his electricity and water bills and was “very, very desperate”. Activists’ anger over the cuts has been stirred by the fact that the UNHCR’s own website shows it received private contributions of HK$20 million from Hongkongers in 2010 and HK$16 million as of September 19 last year. “What matters for refugee families is `dollars in hand’ – nothing else,” said Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, a non-governmental organisation working with local refugees. “The problem is not fund-raising, but the allocation of money trustingly donated by our fellow citizens. The big picture remains disingenuous.”

The UNHCR said funds raised in Hong Kong were used to support its humanitarian work around the world, which have stretched the body’s financial resources to the limit. It was therefore unable to continue its “material assistance” for refugees. “My office had to secure an alternative source of support to refugees and approached the government for assistance,” said Choosin Ngaotheppitak, head of the UNHCR’s Hong Kong office. “This [humanitarian assistance] programme is in line with the standards set by the government.” He said the government programme would also give refugees access to allowances for rental, utilities and clothing. These welfare services, however, were already available to refugees when the UNHCR was still paying them the full allowance.

Human rights lawyer Mark Daly believes the UNHCR is not doing enough. “They’re effectively caving in to a government programme here that doesn’t meet the standards that the UNHCR themselves think other countries should be meeting elsewhere,” he said. “You have to ask: what are they thinking?” The UNHCR’s global budget for this year will be a record US$3.59 billion and 93 per cent of its funding comes from government sources. It serves some 10.5 million refugees, half of them in Asia.

Who gets what

  • Number of recognised refugees in Hong Kong -€“ 180
  • Number of (UNHCR) asylum seekers in Hong Kong -€“ 486
  • Amount donated to the UNHCR in Hong Kong in 2010 -€“ HK$20 million
  • Largest private donor – the Hong Kong Buddhist Association with US$271,337
  • Cut to refugee’s HK$1,500 monthly payments -€“ 80 per cent
  • Saving to the UNHCR – HK$2,592,000 (paid by HKSAR for food rations)
Refugee's illegal rooftop dwelling
Refugee's illegal rooftop dwelling

UNHCR Hong Kong is a donation black hole

Feb 19th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

Version Française:  Lettre Ouverte au HCR – 19 Feb 2012 
English Version:      Open letter to UNHCR 19Feb2012
Chinese Version:     Open letter to UNHCR 19Feb2012 – Chinese

Open Letter to the UNHCR Sub-Office at Hong Kong SAR: 

Attn. Mr. Choosin Ngaotheppitak (Head of Sub-Office)

Dear Mr. Ngaotheppitak–

While we represent different organizations, our mandates are the same: to protect some of the most powerless and abused people on Earth – refugees. As a representative of Vision First in Hong Kong, but also as one human being to another, I ask you to consider this letter with your full attention and care.

We find the recent UNHCR documents deeply disturbing. In particular, we draw your attention to the following article ( published on our website, which details the substantial sums raised by UNHCR from Hong Kong residents and yet also details UNHCR’s stunning reductions to the day-to-day financial aid of refugees in Hong Kong. The many comments that follow this posting are mainly from the people directly affected by UNHCR’s painful cuts, the refugees themselves.

A second, also disturbing, report is available at It is entitled, “Contributions to UNHCR for Budget Year 2011 as at 31 December 2011” and offers updated and relevant information about the UNHCR global receipts of USD 2.1 BILLION.

With the above in mind, the question rises: How can UNHCR so drastically reduce its support for refugees in Hong Kong (by a staggering 80%!) at such a difficult time for refugees while the UNHCR global receipts are at such high levels?

More to the point, and please correct me if I am mistaken: is it not true that the High Commissioner for Refugees (to whom you answer) should be working for the 193 United Nations member states? Since China, including the Hong Kong SAR, is one of these member states it follows that UNHCR carries out its operations also on behalf of the citizens of Hong Kong. Consequently, we, the staff of Vision First, our volunteers, supporters and donors, who are citizens of Hong Kong, have both the right to ask questions and the legitimate expectation to receive answers from your office.

Further, as refugees in Hong Kong were told their allowance was cut by 80% due to budget constraints, it is vital for us to understand clearly what financial difficulties UNHCR is facing that would force it to make cuts in aid to those who need it most desperately. We trust you will answer the following questions:

1. UNHCR has a global budget of USD 2,132,351,419 (received 2011); what is the Hong Kong budget spent for the well being of refugees?
2. China contributed USD 250,000 to UNHCR but Private Donors in China contributed USD 3,468,084 – how much came from Hong Kong donors? We assume the majority, as refugee concerns are not known to be a high priority for wealthy Mainlanders.
3. This page ( reports donations from HK Private Sector as USD 2,140,421 as at 19 September 2011 – what was the total figure for last year?
4. Why aren’t the “Private Donors in Hong Kong” listed separately in the 2.1 Billion reported above? Are they aggregated with the “Private Donors in China”?
5. What was the fundraising target for Hong Kong UNHCR in 2011? What total amount was raised? These are relevant questions as your staff told refugees their allowance was cut “because we [UNHCR] didn’t receive enough donations in Hong Kong due to the economic crisis”. Isn’t either USD 2.1 million (if we accept the lower figure) or up to USD 3.4 million enough?

The following comments reflect our experience of UNHCR staff as they relate to refugees here in daily encounters.
6. Many times needy refugees have been told by your staff that they should seek aid rather from Christian Action and Vision First. Why does this happen? Speaking for Vision First, we received about USD 150,000 in donations or about 5% of your collection. In other words UNHCR Hong Kong is 20 times larger than Vision First: with greater funding for refugees goes the greater responsibility and capacity to help them.
7. In our experience, often members of your staff have told refugees, “Go sleep in the street!” (and have made other unacceptable comments). Do you know this is common practice? Do these staff members really represent UNHCR’s spirit and practice of care in Hong Kong?

The three families (A, B and C) below are known to both UNHCR and Vision First.
8. Family A: why did you cut this family’s budget from HKD 5,500 to HKD 1,200 knowing they are bound to a tenancy agreement and risk being evicted now?
9. Family B: why did you cut this family’s budget from HKD 4,250 to 1,200 when they have rent, household expenses and three children’s education to support?
10. Family C: the same damage was inflicted on this family, whose support was dropped from HKD 5,250 to 1,200 with no concern for how they might survive. Replacing food for cash doesn’t work, particularly when the food is worth half the price and is not what these families eat customarily. Don’t you realize the cash is always used for more than food? What do you think will happen to these families?
11. Where do you think these families and dozens of other refugees are going for help? How can NGOs even start to fill in the new shortfalls that your cuts have now created?
12. Why did your staff say all refugees agreed to the food-not-cash change after the November and December (2011) meetings when everyone there protested strongly?
13. Why does your staff appear to spread this kind of misinformation to those it is mandated to serve?

The forced choice of food over cash…
14. What was the point of your staff telling refugees that they had a choice between food and cash when you forced them to take food and refused providing funds in any case?
15. Do you realize that refusing funds to penniless refugees, while giving them unwanted food, can force them into the difficult situation where many are compelled to sell the food at perhaps a quarter of its price to unscrupulous operators?
16. Do you realize that refusing funds to penniless refugees may compel them to break the law in desperation by seeking black market work to provide for their families? Do you realize that there may be legal ramifications here for UNHCR?

And, if the relevant funds have gone, where have they gone?
17. What cost-saving measures were attempted in your office before you ordered your staff to resort to this drastic and potentially dangerous policy of cost cuts?
18. Were there salary increases in your office this year?
19. What happened to the USD millions you raised in Hong Kong?
20. Please publish an audit if UNHCR has nothing to hide.

As we all have the same objective – although you pursue yours as a duty to the member states of the United Nations and we pursue ours voluntarily out of compassion – I urge you to address the above questions in good faith. I hope we can overcome the difficulties that, we feel, have prevented UNHCR from serving the refugees Hong Kong in accordance with its mandate.

Cosmo Beatson
Executive Director
Vision First

A personal story (Chinese)

Feb 18th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

This video tells the story and shares the thoughts of an asylum-seeker, in Mandarin and Chinese.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

The economics of asylum

Feb 12th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

I came to seek asylum in 2009, leaving behind a comfortable life after my home was sprayed with machine-gun fire one night. It was a deadly warning my journalistic reporting wouldn’t be tolerated by the authorities any longer. I escaped to Hong Kong and when cash finished, I had no choice but ask Hong Kong Government for assistance to keep alive. There has been much discussion lately about the Economics of Asylum. Many want to know how refugees survive. My life was upper-middle class in the capital city, with a large home, a car and four children in university. Having lost all of this, put my wife and family through misery and stopped my children’s education, please believe I’m speaking the truth. I am the most senior VF member. I asked for my name to be published, as I’m not afraid of speaking out, but they refused knowing how vindictive the asylum system is.

Before I start, allow me to quote article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries freedom from persecution.” I fled my country in clear and present danger. It was a matter of hours before I would have died, like four colleagues blown up the following week. Without the protection Hong Kong is providing, I would be dead, so thank you from the bottom of my heart! While it is true there are those who abuse the system, there are also many in genuine need of protection. We have strong claims of persecution and are in urgent need of international security. I speak in the name of these people, those who wouldn’t be alive today without the support of Hong Kong. That being clarified, let’s see how our financial struggle unfolds:

Sharing a meal in the VF shelter
Sharing a meal in the VF shelter

1. When refugees are released from CIC (Castle Peak Road Immigration Centre), most leave without enough money for bus 52X to Kowloon. We hold Recognizance Papers that allows us to live but not to work here. We eventually receive food (groceries 3x month) and rent assistance (1000 – 1200$ month) from HKSAR. Thank you Hong Kong tax-payers!

2. Many refugees don’t get support for 3 to 4 months, during which they are desperate and beg for support anywhere they can find it, often sharing their countrymen’s supplies. We eat anywhere we can, grabbing rubbish from super-markets and wet-markets when hunger is stronger than shame.

3. When refugees find a room – the greatest struggle!!! – the challenge is finding friends, charities, churches or donors to pay for deposits and set-up fees. Housing is a nightmare for everyone and we inevitably experience homelessness at some point. Rising rents only make this harder.

4. Then we need to buy a fridge, stove and rice-cooker to deal with the rice and frozen meats we receive. Cooking requires gas canisters which are not provided. Our only option is to rely on charities for this assistance or make friends in the community to help us in our need.

5. Then there is the issue of extra rent over the 1000$ as the cheapest cubicle room is 1500$ without a room. And you’re lucky if you find one! There are utility bills that remain unpaid, often leading to losing rooms when landlords become angry. BTW rent assistance is the same amount paid in 2005.

6. Refugees need shoes, warm clothes in winter and, from time to time, socks and underwear. Other personal needs like haircuts, lady toiletries, diapers, baby formula and children needs are a difficult monthly challenge too. Last week VF launched a haircutting service. Imagine the relief as we’ve paid 40$ until now after growing our hair long for months. Families are those suffering them most, as single adults survive with less.

7. If our phone is broken, we need to buy a cheap one and calling cards to keep in touch with Immigration Dept, UNHCR, lawyers, NGOs and those who support us. Calling home is too expensive, but you can appreciate how tough it is for spouses and children left behind. Many wonder if dying with our loved one was better than enduring hardship as well as separation with no hope in sight.

8. Going to church/mosque is a weekly cost and not an optional one as worship sustains hope, often the only thing keeping refugees alive. Every troubled step we take is made possible by this hope.

9. Any transportation besides food collection, once to ISS and UNHCR, is out of our pockets. So if we need to make inquiries about food, room, assistance, doctors/lawyers, we need to beg. We also have to find money to visit Social Welfare Department, Legal Aid Department, law courts, with all the documentation charges like photocopies and translations for our asylum cases.

10. The food we get is a grave problem, worth of another letter that uncovers an iceberg of trouble for all the parties involved. Let’s just say that vegetables and fruit are seriously sub-standard and insufficient. We have no doubt the ISS shops cheat refugees on a daily basis.

11. Our 10 day food allowance makes no provision for breakfast, so again we have to find our own. The same for butter, jam, ginger paste, garlic paste, tomato sauce and all condiments.

12. When working it out, the minimum needed to survive is 50 HKD a day. Imagine doing that with zero!

Nansen Refugee Award: The flowers of Afghanistan

Feb 10th, 2012 | Advocacy | Comment

A third of all the world’s refugees are from Afghanistan. The Russian Occupation, Warlordism, Taliban rule and the War on Terror have left an estimated five million people displaced beyond the country’s borders. Three decades of conflict have left a shrinking humanitarian space and as poverty and insecurity in the region worsen, a new generation is looking further afield in search of a better life. Growing numbers of vulnerable Afghan youths continue to make the difficult and dangerous overland journey to Europe. Last year saw a 64% increase in unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan arriving in the European Union who applied for asylum, the average age being just 14- 15 years old. Traveling alone they are exposed to abuse and exploitation by criminals or by the very smuggling networks in which their lives are placed. Ten years on from 9/11, the surge in the numbers of children entering Europe should be cause to reflect on the plight of Afghanistan’s youth in the shadow of war.

As the recipient of the 2010 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award for her work documenting the often-overlooked humanitarian consequences of war, photographer and author Alixandra Fazzina’s reportage portrays the individual stories of Afghan children on the move. Following the flowers of Afghanistan on their clandestine routes from Asia to Europe, the work intimately explores the motives, paths and consequences of this new exodus.

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