On 21 November 2016 about two hundred refugees staged a remarkable group protest at the Social Welfare Department (SWD) head-office in Wanchai. This protest followed a petition to SWD last week (link), in which the Refugee Union complained about insufficient levels of assistance. Such levels are well-known and haven’t been adjusted since January 2014 when already they ensured that the refugee community subsisted below the poverty line. Since then, inflation has rendered such assistance increasingly unrealistic, and refugees are prohibited from working.
Further, the grim reality that refugees are forced to navigate was recently made harsher by a policy change deployed by ISS-HK, namely, that refugees provide a resident guarantor for the renewal of tenancy agreements. This is an alarmingly punitive policy with a questionable legal basis. It is also a policy that does not have any social basis, as refugees do not necessarily have resident family, or sponsors to share long-term financial burdens.
At the protest, a refugee mother explained, “My caseworker requested I find somebody with ID card to guarantee my new home contract, or they will not pay rent assistance for me and my daughter. Where do I find somebody with ID? I don’t know anyone in Hong Kong who will help me like this.”
Unfortunately, this policy is making life extremely hard for refugees, who are being cast into the very destitution the government assistance is supposed to prevent. Ibrahim, a leader of the Refugee Union, didn’t receive rental assistance for November because he couldn’t provide the ID card copy of a guarantor. His landlord has already threatened to cut off electricity to his flat.
Vision first wonders if ISS-HK will be responsible for refugees and their children being left without power and suffering from malnutrition (no fridge) and discrimination (no lights for homework) as a result of this policy. Ibrahim perceptively observed, “Already the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese media make us look very bad, as if all refugees are criminals who come here to abuse the system. How can we now find residents to guarantee our rent when they read this stuff in the paper?”
Vision First would like to know who devised this policy change? Is it a reaction to high rents for subdivided flats and “coffin rooms” (unaffordable with the 1500$ rent assistance), or has Hong Kong Government lost millions of dollars in security deposits on rooms vacated by refugees who could not afford to pay rent surpluses? Is it yet another trick to force refugees to give up seeking asylum and return home ‘voluntarily’? Or is it a device to force them to work unlawfully, thus filling the labour shortage in the informal economy? And will this poorly advised policy lead to unexpected protests?
Today, guarded by about 20 CID police officers, refugees protested peacefully. A representative of the SWD was persuaded to hear the grievances expressed by the Refugee Union on behalf of its members. The police capably mediated. The SWD officer was reminded that a response to the petition was urgently needed because the refugee community is under tremendous pressure, unable to subsist with the current levels of assistance and new demands for rent guarantors.
With professional composure, the SWD officer listened to the requests of the Refugee Union and revealingly replied, “We received your letter last week and we will handle it with the Security Bureau. We will give you a reply soon. The Refugee Union’s spokesperson, Peter Maina informed, “ISS is requesting a guarantor and if we don’t provide one, they will not pay our rent. So how are we supposed to pay rent?” The officer assured, “As I mentioned, we will reply to you as soon as possible”.
At that point Ibrahim politely interjected, “The issue of the guarantor is very serious. Even for my family ISS did not pay rent this month.” The SWD officer responded, “As I mentioned, we need to handle it with the Security Bureau.” Ibrahim expressed concern, “My situation is very serious because I don’t want to bring my kids to be homeless outside …” The officer assured, “Sure, I understand. Each case is also serious … thank you, thank you” and she retreated behind the police to her office.
Back on Queen’s Road East, the police and the Refugee Union agreed these were pressing issues and future protests will be better organized. Then a liaison officer inquired, “When will the next protest be?” A Refugee Union leader frankly replied, “Next week … two or three times. Great pressure must be put on the SWD because only they can control ISS about this rubbish demand for rent guarantors. It is also SWD’s job to discuss our welfare with the Security Bureau. So they will hear from us again next week and every week until our problems are resolved.”
The right to protest unfair treatment is all that remains for refugees oppressed by a failed welfare system. The Refugee Union put it clearly in their petition, “We maintain that the current levels of assistance have been designed to ensure we refugees are destitute at all material times. Such conditions have been designed to compromise our physical and psychological well-being. This system of control thus compromises us to the extent that some refugees embark onto self-remedies such as illegal work, theft, etc. in order to pay for food and rent putting their liberty rights at risk.”
This is a situation that any level-minded person, whether resident or not, will find unacceptable.
Vision First attended court yesterday to witness two refugee members being prosecuted for allegedly working unlawfully. The prosecutor revealed that the employer will testify as a witness. Bail was denied.
Let’s stop and think. Wouldn’t it normally be the case that prosecutors seek the assistance of the unlawfully employed persons to indict unscrupulous employers, rather than the other way around? Generally speaking, how can refugees conscientiously abide by the law when the material assistance they received fails to meet their most basic needs, rent in particular?
Aside from promoting a regrettable form of xenophobia and widespread misinformation, it appears that the Government is accomplishing little more than slamming the door shut for refugees who mistakenly hoped for a more favorable outcome when seeking refuge in Hong Kong.
A plethora of problems germinates in the the well-known failures of the Unified Screening Mechanism to then spread through various branches of government tasked with dealing with refugees and finally reach deep down in the underground economy where a growing number of destitute asylum seekers are forced to find informal relief.
First, one might consider the statistics published by the Immigration Department informing that, between 2009 and 2016, just 55 of 9214 asylum claims were substantiated. This equates to a success rate of 0.6% for seeking asylum in Hong Kong compared to 30-50% in European countries, for example. Despite authorities being quoted as saying that this rate is indicative of abuse, one might question the credibility of the process that rejects 166 for every 1 case accepted.
That being said, few people realize that successful claimants do not earn the right of abode, will not get ID cards, are prohibited from working under penalty of 36 month prison (maximum sentence) and, together with the other 11,169 asylum seekers, must rely on a monthly assistance of 1200$ in food coupons, 1500$ in rent assistance and about 500$ for utilities and transport.
Second, packaged as ‘humanitarian assistance’ the above assistance was designed to remove the sting of destitution in one of the most expensive cities in the world. That is of little consolation for eleven thousand men, women and children who are expected to cope gratefully, or face hefty prison sentences for ‘breaking the law’ by earning necessary cash on the side.
Such ‘humanitarian assistance’ is in fact more a curse than a blessing. It pulls a seemingly compassionate mask over a draconian policy designed to quash hope in recipients. Overworked magistrates swiftly conclude that as welfare is provided, refugees who work illegally deserve to be incarcerated 15 to 22 months according to plea. Thus sentencing is reduced to little more than ticking the boxes with no consideration of real life circumstances.
Third, the rental crisis is spiraling towards an abyss. On the one hand, contrary to general trends, prices for subdivided rooms have increased to at least 3000$, and availability is very scarce. On the other hand, the SWD contractor ISS-HK is reported by refugees to have started to demand they produce letters from resident sponsors endorsing rent surpluses before new tenancy agreements are accepted for the disbursement of the meagre rent assistance. This could prove challenging.
While some refugees may resourcefully raise funds, these are largely informal arrangements with friends, partners, donors and churches/NGOs that might not translate into sponsorship agreements. “People are going to lose their rooms and become homeless” commented a refugee who visited Vision First for advice.
Fourth, an increasing number of refugees report that the Immigration Department demands detailed written significations. On the one side, the time it takes to lodge new claims is increasing, thus preventing destitute claimants from obtaining assistance. On the other, those whose application fails on signification are likely to abscond and are thus prevented from obtaining assistance. It isn’t hard to guess that these refugees will find support in the underground economy where also the lure of criminal activity is strong.
Fifth, applications for “BOR 2 Claims” appear to be denied to a greater extent than before (Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, Art. 2). Until recently they were the last resort for rejected USM claimants fearful of imminent removal. Since it seems the government has yet to formulate a policy to deal with these claims, rejecting such applications might be a way contain a problematic surge. However, encouraging refugees to go underground creates graver problems. The maxim “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” ought to be considered.
Sixth, residents employ refugees due to a severe shortage of unskilled labour. For undocumented workers, monthly salaries in restaurants are up to 8000$ for washing dishes and 15,000$ for cooking. A team can be paid as much as 10,000$ to unload heavy containers, irrespective of time; while the pay is about 600$ a day for demolition work in flats and for night shifts repairing roads for government contractors. Refugees are indeed sought after, and encouraged to introduce friends, because local workers turn their nose on strenuous work, or expect higher payment. In this respect, the government ought to consider a “migrant labour scheme” which refugees could join with an agreement to leave Hong Kong afterwards.
Seventh, a blatant inconsistency in criminal sentencing makes it attractive for desperate refugees to engage in criminal activity such as theft, soliciting or drug trafficking, rather than perform licit work as detailed above. For example, it has come to our attention that refugees might be sentenced to 8 months in prison for trafficking, 4 months for soliciting and a few weeks for shoplifting. Irrespective of moral concerns and social deviancy, the obvious imprisonment advantage is a factor.
These issues combine to overwhelm refugees who are first failed by the government departments tasked to protect and assist them, and then exploited by landlords and employers who unashamedly prey on their need for cash. And when refugees are caught red handed, they are the ones to bear the consequences and the full weight of the law. Indeed, as a perceptive refugee succinctly put it, “Hong Kong is a closed club”, and membership is protected.
It comes as no surprise that certain media outlets foment the flames of propaganda reporting every transgression by refugees who find the noose tightening around their neck in an increasingly toxic and unsustainable environment.
Vision First finds it unacceptable that delays by the Immigration Departments in opening non-refoulement claims might compel new asylum seekers to risky behaviour, if not criminal activity, to secure food and shelter. As an example, we report the case of Jenny (not her real name), a woman made vulnerable to sexual exploitation by the long wait she is enduring to access welfare services.
Jenny’s first trip outside her country was a long flight to Guangzhou where she was promised an attractive job in a garment factory. Jenny was experienced. She had supervised a team of seamstresses in a textile factory in her country. However, when the sweet promises of a local ‘employment agent’ allured her to a higher salary in China, she accepted.
The agent arranged Jenny’s passport and promised her parents a cash gift when their daughter arrived in China, as a token of the remittances she would soon be sending back to improve their lives. With so many clothes labelled with “Made in China”, it wasn’t hard for the 24 year-old to believe that a rewarding job in a modern factory awaited her.
The agent accompanied Jenny on the flight to Guangzhou and then to Fuzhou where she met with Chinese counterparts who paid her 70,000 RMB for the ‘new hire’. It wasn’t long before Jenny discovered there was no factory, no job and no salary. Instead, there was an older Chinese man who would take Jenny as his ‘wife’ for three months in sexual slavery. Jenny had been duped and trafficked. Today she fights back tears explaining that other women were given to several ‘husbands’.
In April 2016 the traffickers arranged her travel to Hong Kong to renew her China visa. The handlers held her passport, but apparently failed to control her day and night, thus providing Jenny an opportunity to escape. Jenny finally confided in a stranger who turned out to be a member of the Refugee Union. Jenny then sought asylum in Hong Kong. Traffickers are known to kidnap and torture escapees who naively return home where police protection is unavailable.
It’s been four months since Jenny applied with the Immigration Department and still her Unified Screen Mechanism (USM) claim has not been duly opened. As of consequence, despite being issued with an Immigration Recognizance Form, Jenny has been unable to access support from the Social Welfare Department. Her name is allegedly not on the computer database that SWD officers check to establish eligibility for assistance.
Jenny explained to Vision First that Immigration officers seemingly delay opening her asylum bid because an interpreter cannot be found. She is not alone in lamenting what we argue is a blatant protection failure. It is indeed hard to accept that for Jenny, and others known to Vision First, Immigration officers maintain there are no French interpreters available. There are over 80,000 French nationals in Hong Kong. Surely a number of them must be seeking a living as registered interpreters.
Protection fails when the Immigration Department’s inability to promptly provide interpretation causes Jenny, a victim of trafficking for sexual exploitation, to live on the streets, where she begs for food and shelter. Her vulnerability is further augmented by her feeling compelled to engage in the very behaviour she fled to seek protection in Hong Kong in the first place!
It is regrettable that Jenny is in crowded company in this “life-before-asylum crisis” because the Immigration Department postpones the opening of new asylum claims, presumably hoping that claimants will just give up and leave?
In addition, Vision First is troubled by a second crisis directly connected to this one, namely the frequent rejection of applications before asylum seekers are offered a chance to obtain free legal advice, as required by law. The following reason is often given to would-be asylum seekers whose bid is rejected: “Your written signification does not give a general indication of your reasons for claiming non-refoulement protection in Hong Kong, being reasons that relate to an act falling within the meaning of torture, BOR3 and/or persecution risk.”
One should be reminded that Hon. Judge Saunders argued in the FB Judgment that: “It is only sensible that the (Immigration) Department should take a broad and liberal view of statements of risk or danger upon return to their country of origin, made by any person who does not have the right of abode in Hong Kong. To insist upon a particular formula being expressed by a person would be contrary to the high degree of fairness required by Prabakar, and would be tantamount to sitting back and putting the person concerned to strict proof of the claim.” (HCAL 51/2007)
There are “no magic words” to be use by claimants seeking asylum. No special words are necessary in the first letter that triggers Hong Kong Government’s international obligation towards refugees.
However, we cannot but question the Immigration Department’s treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers who are denied timely protection, and thus vital welfare, despite being in an obvious state of destitution – their risky behaviour being proof of such immiserating conditions.
The law is not always right, but the magic words argument is clear, and in these cases it appears to be blatantly violated.
In popular and official discourses, the narrative of “refugees abusing welfare” is more common than the narrative of “welfare abusing refugees”. The parameters of assistance are well-known, though few outside the refugee community take them to heart: $1500 for rent, $1200 in food coupons and a few hundred dollars for utilities and transport. In other words, the mathematics of destitution!
The government justifies these miserly levels of assistance to avoid “creating a magnet effect”, perhaps overlooking the fact that the same words and strategy have been used for a decade during which the number of refugees has grew from the low thousands to the current 12,000 plus. The success of welfare policies designed to avoid attracting ‘rent and food beggars’ is highly debatable.
Further, the law advises that refugees are provided with comprehensive assistance, thus removing the need to work illegally. Yet it is arguable that many refugees are compelled to work precisely because their assistance is manifestly inadequate. Indeed even those recognized by authorities as “genuine” claimants are left in a state of destitution identical to everyone else.
Tortured so brutally by the police in his country that he “cannot lift more than 5 kilograms”, one successful USM claimants, let’s call him AJ, despairs about being homeless, again. AJ suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and hypertension not experience prior to arriving here. His illness was perhaps exacerbated by poor diet, lack of proper medical assistance and prolonged physical and psychological suffering entailed by the horrible conditions of seeking asylum in Hong Kong.
Further, AJ lamented to Vision First that he was much happier before he received the positive result. “Before I was happier because my friends supported me. After I won, they became jealous and stopped talking to me. I call and they don’t answer the phone.” Paradoxically this experience is shared by other refugees who are shunned by friends and co-nationals when news of their success spreads.
AJ’s circumstances are not dissimilar to the hardship experienced by other successful refugees, and most asylum-seekers for that matter. The first problem we note is that it took Hong Kong Government ten year and one month to offer protection despite no new evidence being introduced in a decade. The second problem is that AJ is homeless, again. He laments, “I haven’t slept for five days as I worry what will happen and where to keep my things. What is the meaning of this protection, if I cannot get a room for $1500 (in rent assistance)? Does this piece of paper get me a room now?”
Without friends and family, without savings or charitable assistance, AJ relies entirely on the pittance of government assistance he gets from ISSHK, through the ‘humanitarian assistance’ of the Social Welfare Department. In reality, AJ has been abandoned in a state of deep and desperate destitution from which maybe only death will save him, as the state conditions behind his exile are unlikely to change in his lifetime.
AJ wrote to Immigration pleading for the right to work. Similar appeals typically go unheeded. The life of a successful claimant does not change radically with acceptance. In fact, it may get worse. It seems that in many cases it is not the refugees who are abusing welfare, but welfare that is abusing refugees.
What arguments does the government put forward to justify its indifference towards needless human suffering when so little could make a big difference to those it recognized as being in need of protection and thus not removable in the foreseeable future?
Hong Kong Government abuses Criminal Court Processes with Malicious Prosecution of Vulnerable Refugees
Over the past week the local media reported that 11 Bangladeshi refugees were arrested and charged by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for allegedly defrauding the International Social Service (ISSHK) of hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent assistance over several years. Vision First cannot but question this approach in view of the following.
The ISSHK, Fixers and Landlords Consortium
From March 2013 Vision First systematically exposed hazardous slums in which hundreds of vulnerable asylum seekers were knowingly and intentionally settled by ISSHK with government funds credited as rent assistance, not into the bank accounts of the asylum seekers (they do not have any), but into the accounts of unscrupulous fixers and purported landlords who exploited refugee tenants.
Gradually a disturbing picture emerged of at least 69 (sixty-nine) ghettos established by Hong Kong Chinese landlords in remote rural farmland and some located in dilapidated animal farms. These were distant from urban areas and hard to locate without particular knowledge.
Director and Patron of ISSHK: Tam Yiu-chung (DAB) and Regina Leung (wife of C.E. C.Y. Leung)
Among these ghettos, 64 (sixty-four) slums were situated in the geographical constituency of “New Territories West” represented by lawmaker and former head of the DAB party Tam Yiu-chung, who was also appointed a director of the board of ISSHK in 1999, a position he held until 2015. The remaining 5 (five) slums were allegedly supported by a fixer named Jane Chan, who operated an agency for foreign domestic helpers in Yuen Long, also within Tam Yiu Chung’s DAB controlled New Territories West.
A fraudulent web of deception began to emerge. Reaching across distant rural lands, this complex scheme blatantly exploited destitute and homeless refugees who desperately sought urgent shelter in their darkest days of asylum seeking in Hong Kong.
It appeared after attentive investigation that these refugees were exploited for financial gain by fixers who distributed and filled in ISSHK paperwork, by alleged landlords who provided false and/or misleading information, and by genuine landlords who rented out animal farms and agricultural land for residential use to unsuspecting and destitute refugees. Finally, ISSHK case-workers inspected and approved these unauthorized structures to intentionally settle the aforesaid homeless refugees for reasons that must be explained.
It is highlighted that Mrs. Regina Leung, the wife of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Mr. C.Y. Leung, has at all material times and at present day been the Patron of ISSHK, and a participant with the ISSHK board of directors. To this effect, Vision First reported about a protest by the Refugee Union outside Government House in March 2014 which failed to draw the sympathy and support of Mrs. Regina Leung. The Vision First blog of 14 March 2014 is available here.
What emerges is the picture and reality of an Orwellian “Animal Farm” environment controlled by and led by the consortium of ISSHK, real estate fixers and true/fake landlords.
The “Animal Farm” for Refugees
Vision First campaigned against the “Refugee Slums of Hong Kong” primarily because they were illegal and hazardous structures that endangered the lives of vulnerable refugees who received insufficient rent assistance to secure proper accommodation. In fact, a Sri Lankan refugee died in a slum blaze in February 2015 and exploding gas cylinders razed another slum a month later. Considerable danger from fire, explosion, flooding, collapse, electrocution and disease was always palpable upon our inspections.
Few visitors to the slums were in any doubt that the settling of homeless refugees in such dangerous huts was an egregious act by whoever was responsible for a scheme that started in 2006 and ended in 2016 when the Lands Department clamped down these illegal practices. Presumably there were also policy changes at ISSHK that quietly discontinued the questionable arrangements that generated the slums in the first place and sustained them for a decade beyond the public eye.
In July 2016, after three years of investigation, the Hong Kong Government decided to arrest and charge 11 (eleven) destitute Bangladeshi refugees who the ICAC allege of masterminding this impressive and widespread criminal enterprise that established and supported several slums in the fields of Ping Che, Fanling between 2010 and 2016.
Vision First has learnt that none of the fixers or purported landlords involved have been taken to court, while several staff of ISSHK are collaborating as prosecution witnesses. Not one person from ISSHK has yet to be prosecuted. Only the weakest and most vulnerable asylum seekers are being targeted and prosecuted by law enforcement that seems determined to fry some small fish.
It begs the question – Are these politically motivated prosecutions? The answer may well be found in the pages of George Orwell’s book - “Some people are more equal than others“.
The Politically Motivated Charges
The 11 (eleven) defendants were charged with fraud under the Theft Ordinance. They are accused of fraudulently misrepresenting residential addresses in Tenancy Agreements and housing forms allegedly to defraud ISSHK of rental assistance to live in some of the most disgusting, degrading and dangerous slums to house Hong Kong refugees in the past two decades.
All the defendants are illiterate, except for Bengali. They are generally unfamiliar with ISSHK housing procedures and the intricacy of relevant logistical and legal matters. A host of troubling questions emerge about those persons in control of the 69 (sixty-nine) slums and their complex documentary and financial transactions with ISSHK. The asylum seekers were ultimately subjected to living in inhumane, humiliating and degrading premises with no financial gain for many years. Why?
It is bizarre that the ICAC alleges that illiterate, destitute, and marginalized refugees allegedly masterminded a complex, pervasive fraud that credited tens of millions of tax dollars into the accounts of fixers, middlemen and purported landlords based on ISSHK having knowingly and intentionally sanctioning animal sheds for human habitation hidden far away from the public eye.
ISSHK – A Government Agent of the Social Welfare Department
It is highlighted that ISSHK is a Hong Kong Government contractor under the Social Welfare Department (SWD). In its capacity to provide services to non-refoulement claimants, ISSHK does not act in a role of an NGO that receives donations from the public. It is known that ISSHK does provide services as an NGO to other persons, but not to asylum seekers and refugees under its contract with SWD since 2006.
Political Persecution of the “Bengali Eleven” Defendants
Assisted by Vision First on a humanitarian basis and represented pro bono by Barrister Mr. Robert Tibbo (who acted for American whistleblower Mr Edward Snowden in Hong Kong) the 11 (eleven) defendants, or the “Bengali Eleven”, have pleaded not guilty to the fraud charges brought against them by the ICAC. They will fight robustly against this overt political persecution and will identify the true offenders.
Several the “Bengali Eleven” arrested for fraud lived for years in the “Slum Under The Tree”, photographed above during a visit by Vision First in May 2013.