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3 March 2011 – our Homebase opens!

Mar 8th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

Yes, we finally opened our centre at 102 First Street, Sai Ying Poon! After working in the streets for two years, building a charity, assisting hundreds of refugees, developing efficient programs that solve problems and engage the community, at last we have our own bright and spacious “homebase”! We don’t like to call it office or even center, terms which doesn’t convey our purpose. We wish it to be a welcoming homebase, firstly for our members who struggle courageously through years of deprivation, secondly for our volunteers who braved weather, inconveniences and tough conditions in outreach, and finally, for the community to learn about Vision First and why we are so passionate about this mission. We want to take a moment to thank each of you for supporting us, our early efforts and subsequent endeavors. We would especially like to thank all of our long-time donors who believed in us two years ago and had faith we would deliver on our dream of proper operation. It wasn’t easy. It took longer than expected as we waited for a rent-free opportunity. You stuck with us! Your confidence kept us going and your donations powered this journey. Put simply, without your generosity there wouldn’t be VF and without VF there would be more suffering among the city’s refugees.

Since incorporation in June 2009, we have studied, listened to and absorbed your feedback and are now energized to march towards our next goals: a shelter and a community space. As you already know, our goal is to build sustainable solutions to pressing asylum problems, with due consideration of the challenge that is beyond any single NGO. We can’t tell you how important it is to us that the community rally behind meaningful charitable efforts – in this field and others – because it is only by reaching to a broader base that true solutions emerge. For example, seemingly out of the blue, yesterday we visited a landlord who offered our members four quality subdivided apartment: deposit-free, fully fitted, at ISS rent prices, with new a/c units, fans, water heaters and stores. Who? Somebody we’d never met before. Why? Because he heard he could trust us. How? With the simple signing of tenancy agreements, having handed over the keys last week. We must highlight this because we take no credit for this success, that simply landed on our lap. Having blogged about how hard-nosed most landlord we rent from are, this gentleman’s generosity proved us dead wrong! The point is, when efficient and convincing programs are in place, word-of-mouth is the best promotion and the Community loves to support those who assist others – especially the least cared for among us. Refugee welfare drives Vision First and we are privileged and honored to be of service any way we can. Our results have only been possible thanks to the dedication of our team and the generosity of our supporters, so today let’s join hands and be proud of our “homebase” – thank you!

The Vision First opening day team - thank you guys!
The Vision First opening day team - thank you guys!


Don’t make the mistake of being born black

Feb 27th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

Hello, my name is Anon and I’m a Srilankan UNHCR recognized refugee, stuck in Hong Kong for many years. This is a real story that happened last month. Me and my friend were walking down a road near Kam Tin, when we saw a very old Chinese lady standing there with many stuffs in her hand, waiting for crossing the road. When she was crossing some of her stuffs fell down. When we saw that, my friend was running towards her to help her. He picked up the stuffs she dropped on the road, but suddenly that lady called 999 and caught hold of his arm to block him! When the police arrived they took him to the Pat Hueng Police Station. I don’t know what she told the police. The police also didn’t ask anything to my friend, they just brought him to the station. I went there and asked the police why they arrested him. They say he was about to ROB that lady. I argued with them that he did not try to rob her … HE TRIED TO HELP HER … I explained everything clearly to them, but they didn’t believe what I said and told me to leave the station. The next day they called my mobile and asked me to come to the police station and when I got there they released my friend. Some days ago, when I was walking in the street early in the morning like 8:30 AM, an old man fell down near the subway in Hung Shi Kiu. I ran over and helped him to stand on his feet and passed him his walking stick. I gave him some tissues, but that very moment he pulled away from my hands and just threw the tissues in the rubbish bin. He huffed at me with contempt and left without saying thanks. Similar events happen all the time for me and my coloured friends. Makes us wonder: What did my friend do to the old lady? What did I do to that old man? They don’t even know who we are … Why is there so much discrimination and racism? Is it my mistake to born as black? Is it that all the blacks are bad? I was about to help and in return I only got hatred. When will all this prejudice come to an end?

Here is something nobody knows. To get some cash in our hands we have no choice but selling the ISS food that we must eat. It’s not what we want as we don’t like being hungry, but when I need money I must find a way for surviving day by day. The ISS food must be for ten days and even that is never enough, as we share with others and have to beg for food from NGO charity and friends. Let me give you some examples. If you need a day-pass from Kam Tin to Tsim Sha Tsui, you can sell 5Kg BASMATI rice for 35$, which at shop cost 90$! We want more money, but the buyers know we have no choice, so they shout “No, no this is most or you go away, Black Devil, Curry Devil!” If you need 30$ you must sell 1/2L ANCHOR Milk which at Wellcome cost 95$ so the shop can sell for high profit. The Soybean/Sunflower/Peanut OIL cost 22$ but we sell for 9$, less than half the price. The one kilogram SUGAR is worst of all as it cost 12$, but they buy for only 5$. We know we are cheated! The one kilogram of frozen CHICKEN cost 45$, but we can only sell for 20$ because frozen cannot store. MISTER JUICEY one liter cost 22$ at Wellcome, but we sell for only 9$. Now you can better understand to make 50$ CASH we need to sell a lot of the week’s food. The best hope comes from some Philippina maids who on Sunday send food to their families and pay a few dollars more, but only on Sunday as other days they live in the employers’ homes, so don’t come to Kam Tin for shopping. I know the ISS Case Workers say: “If you sell the food we will stop given food to you!” How do they think we can buy SIM card for phone they must call us for? And also calls from UNHCR and Immigration Department. How they believe we live without even coins in our pocket? Maybe I better drink water from rain than milk and juice, but I need money for LRT and MTR. How else we pay electricity, cooking gas, clothes, medicines, haircut, fixing home and living for days and days, months and months, years and years??? If you have the chance, you can try being an asylum seeker in a foreign country – it’s really interesting! My Chinese friend jokes with me: “Don’t make the mistake of being born black when you come back to another life!” He’s a Buddhist and now he is afraid of rebirth as refugee nobody will help

CIA World Factbook – Sri Lanka: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ce.html

Don't make the mistake of being born black!
Don't make the mistake of being born black!

Nobody chooses to be a refugee

Feb 22nd, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

My name is Farah Gedi and I’m a UNHCR refugee. I’m from the Capital city of Somalia, Mogadisho. I was born and raised in Mogadisho. Following the Somali Civil War, in the absence of an effective central government, significant areas of the country have been ruled by Somali Warlords (in Somali = dagaal oogayaal). Immediately following the 1991 break-down of law and order in the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, many criminally minded individuals and groups sought to profit from the ensuing chaos. Army bases and police stations were ransacked. Militias stole all they could carry in guns and ammunitions. As a member of a minority clan (Edit: Somalia has a caste system like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal) my life is not secure in any region of Somalia. I frequently suffered abuse, torture, discrimination, life threatening and other atrocities, that is why I fled my home country. Having reached Hong Kong as an asylum seeker I’m categorically prohibited to work and study. I am given basic necessities food, shelter, that does not cover the basic needs. I think I’m an ordinary human being, but became I am a refugee many of my fundamental human rights were violated and I was forced to flee my homeland.

Nobody chooses to become a refugee! I believe that I deserve special consideration and I am personally willing to take responsible steps to meet my needs in Hong Kong. Now every day is like “holiday” for me: I wake up in the morning and go out of the house, I don’t know where I’m heading. I feel so sad when I see people coming in and out from the buses and MTR rushing to work. I feel half of my life is missing, that I fell out of the frying burn and into the fire. I remember every moment the insurmountable obstacles forcing me literally into a hand to mouth existence.  I risk losing my physical and mental health as well as faith in humanity. However, I face the challenge of an uprooted life with the support of my family and community. The day is too long, when the night approaches I remember the nights I passed because I don’t get prober sleep, I starve to get sleep. My worst worries start at month ends: I don’t know  how to pay either Electricity and Water bill within the limit of my tiny allowance.  The people of the charity Vision First deserve much thanks for their tireless support, because they help us pay electricity, water, and also deposit for our home. I have no future here in Hong Kong, but hopefully a change will come sooner. I also pray my country end the civil war to resume peace again in the name of God.

Food collection every ten days at ISS appointed shop
Food collection every ten days at ISS appointed shops


Rising above prejudice

Feb 20th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

Why are Africans seeking asylum in Hong Kong considered “more refugee” than South Asians doing the same here? Talking to people, listening to members’ stories and meeting experts, we realize some case workers more willingly assist Africans than South Asians haplessly seeking protection on our racist shores. Given similar conditions of hardship, outspoken Africans are more likely to receive aid than timid Asians, as if the former were more trustworthy, the latter more untruthful. Why is that? Given a request for products like baby food , African mothers are 10 times more likely to obtain it than demure Asians. Why is that? Is it because mainstream news of war and persecution comes primarily from Africa and few citizens watch Srilankan or Pakistani satellite TV? Is it because of media-conditioned sympathy towards malnourished “poster children” in African refugee camps appearing more deserving? Is it because the global north exploits the image of Africa as a poor, needy continent? Is it because western powers feel the guilt of their colonial legacy? Is it because missionaries accept quick conversions without questioning contemporaneous Salats? Is it psychological deference to Black stature vis-à-vis Brown meekness? Is it because of local racism against anything non-native? Glossing over this complexity, the truth remains masked behind the economic excuse of limiting resources for the smaller community, since South Asians outnumber Africans 8 to 1.

It is unfortunate that government, media and public views – “The Territory is besieged by economic migrants!!!” – are shared by certain professionals who should be at the service of all claimants, irrespective of their gender, ethnic or national background. Even more regrettably, client selection is often based on the likelihood claims will be accepted by UNHCR. It should be noted, many South Asians do not apply at UNHCR because they consider it pointless. Not because of their cases’ weakness, but because they would rather seek help from compatriots, than beg from outsiders. Their traditional culture and unwavering spirituality predisposes them to suffer silently, rather than request help from unsympathetic strangers. To complicate matters, South Asians rightly assume their applications won’t be taken seriously (some wait 5 years for first interviews, others are never called) which reinforces the spiral of distrust.

Conducting outreach in the New Territories, we meet refugees from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and some regions of India who are simply too proud for charity, too shy to ask, too ashamed to thank. Obviously this doesn’t make them less needy than Africans, but demonstrates that customs prevent proactive help-seeking, until trusting friendship is established. Once befriended, they first talk about grinding poverty at home and the imperative to escape abroad for the sake of their family, which still leaves them some dignity. Only after we spend considerable time with them, will they confide stories of rape, torture, violence and persecution which they would never divulge otherwise. Endemic poverty, deadly feuds, political tyranny and generalized violence are not acceptable UNHCR criteria for asylum, despite being the same situations African and Asian refugees escape. Nobody flees their homeland for one single convention reason. These drastic decisions are always precipitated by an inability to buy protection, avoid corruption and sway authorities in a crisis where POVERTY unquestionably plays a major party. That’s the reason why wealthy exiles swiftly secure citizenship abroad and, conversely, we never meet rich refugees suffering through asylum and resettlement.

Only a handful of South Asian are recognized refugees in Hong Kong. The vast majority doesn’t have chance and is stoically resigned to their fate - whereby a difference in citizenship corresponds to a difference in treatment. Nevertheless, they are equally deserving of our support and, above all, of our respect. Somebody’s country of origin is not an acceptable reason to deny services a fortiori, despite vulnerability and need. Provided there are UNHCR/CAT applications, service providers must respect the access granted by Immigration and honor their own duty of service and protection. In other words, leave to the competent authorities the screening and refrain from explicitly or implicitly judging the merits of cases. If vetting economic migrants is one’s preference, then a career at Immigration would clearly be more satisfying!

A life scavanged from rubbish dumps
A life scavanged from rubbish dumps

Can you spare an old laptop?

Feb 5th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

On March 15th we will open the Vision First Centre on First Street in Sai Ying Pun. As you can tell from the photo below, renovation works were proceeding speedily before Chinese New Year. The office will be on the fifth floor of a charming ‘walk-up building’ (euphemism for no lift) which means our cardio-vascular fitness will soon be boosted. After moving in, we’ll plan the first floor Community Room and third floor Shelter, both requiring careful policies and management to get them right. If anyone wants to step forward to sponsor the decoration, this is a perfect time. With the tireless support of our friends at Crossroads (you must click here if you don’t know them!) furnishing won’t be a problem, though sadly laptops are out-of-stock.

Please, if you have an old laptop with WiFi connection kindly consider donating it to Vision First, as we require 10 for our reception, where members will hang out, watch the news and communicate with family, while research future possibilities. Since our office is relatively small and laptops will be placed shoulder-width apart, it’s preferable to avoid desktop computers with monitors, cluttering the floor with equipment and intertwined cables. Instead, we’ll run laptops with open-source software, and recovery systems against unwelcome changes, connected to a WiFi router for highest security and productivity. By the way, if you are a Tech Guy (know Ubantu?) and can help the deployment, this is a chance to join the VF Team!

What else do we need? Last week we collected our first shoe donation from Pure Fitness: a box of almost-new orphaned sneakers, that were all the rage among VF members lucky enough to get first pick. The winner item was a striking black pair of 4” high-heel shoes; they weren’t Manolo Blahnik, but they’ll sure make one lady happy! Here’s a big THANK YOU to Colin at Pure, who made it possible! These guys are rocking the scene, so go check them out here for all your fitness needs. What else do we need? When you do your spring cleaning, don’t forget Vision First: we need everything you don’t need … not only clothes, but rice-cookers, kettles, books, mobile phones, DVD-players even fridges (a friend was shifting garbage in Kowloon and found a 2010 NDSi quickly resold for good bucks. Guess one Tiger Mom got fed up with her kid!) If you don’t have any of the above, please buy a stack of MTR Octopus Cards and come make somebody’s day special. Put it this way: we are in the business of *making people smile* and if you don’t believe us, come see how we do it. Cheers :-)


Inside our office ... you should have seen it before works started!
Inside our office ... you should have seen it before works started!

The housing crunch

Jan 27th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

It is certain the lot of Hong Kong citizen is unnecessarily hard and the government is doing little to alleviate it. Our society is marked by egregious injustices and a shocking contrast between extremes of wealth and poverty. The Working Class, whose economic status is marginal at best, finds itself at the mercy of corporations and, at a sudden emergency (unemployment, rent rise, sickness) liable to indebtedness and eviction. This harsh system, is made harsher by the greed of landlords who take unmerciful advantage of the poor in order to amass more wealth, even resorting to dodgy practices like bogus meters, midnight harassment and cutting utilities. It is our experience that in the end, the poor have no redress! They are often ground down into misery before the careless pursuit of luxury which destroys Hong Kong’s character. The helpless are swept aside like leaves in the wind of indifference. How can society make progress until this dissonance is addressed?

We could share dozens of frustrating experiences, that reflect these ISS clients’ plight (edited email): “These two clients are living in Tokwawan and are disturbed frequently by the landlord who cuts the electricity almost every month. In fact, the clients signed the tenancy agreement with the landlord with the condition the rent includes electricity, but the landlord denied the agreement and keeps asking for money! Unfortunately, the electricity has been cut again, this time by the Electricity Company and will not be connected any time soon. They now have to suffer a hard time eating uncooked stale food, taking cool shower and living in the dark at night time. They are suffering great stress in various aspects of their daily life. These clients desperately need to move out from the current place where there is no electricity. Recently, rounds of room searching had been done, but failed to find a place without deposit and agency commission, which the clients can’t afford to pay.  After thorough observation and assessment, we believe that no one in their community and other possible NGOs could offer such assistance to them, but Vision First.”

Again and again we hear the distressed complaints of our members who are either unable to afford massive rent hikes, or unable to find a 1000 HKD room (the rent assistance ISS pays directly to owners) without deposit requirement. We know the greatest folly today is outrageous rent increase, which apparently will be more severe after Chinese New Year. If all residence are feeling the pinch, what is happening to the poorest of the poor? We have a close collaboration with a homeless association in Kowloon, whose 1300 membership is steadily rising as more individuals crash out of the private rental market, while the government schemes have a three year waiting list. That’s for citizens with ID Cards, but what is happening to asylum-seekers and refugees who don’t qualify for government/NGO assistance? This week we visited Srilankan, Bangladeshi and African communities in the New Territory, who are feeling the pinch even in shantytowns, where rapacious landlords milk tenants for all they’re worth. When you live in a wooden/metal hut costing more than 1000$ and are forced to pay exorbitant (dishonest?) utility bills, how can you survive without work? Our members are cornered by despair: on one front they have minimum survival COST, yet on the other they risk jail for working? What would you do? Vision First had to quickly house a young lady, whose friends were egging her into prostitution, definitely the oldest solution to financial despair. This morning we confirmed our 18th HOME SHELTER, to accommodate four youngsters who absolutely must be kept off the streets. Despite being UNHCR refugees, two of them had nowhere else to turn for their right to be housed in a simple, clean and safe home. Within hours we turned down another request, just because young single males are not as vulnerable as families and adolescents, aware another will join the ranks of the homeless sleeping in cold parks tonight. Speaking of parks, take a look at the Gold Fish pictured below: it was caught by members hungry enough to overlook the culinary disdain for this species!


Advising members; blankets donation; room for two; community kitchen; illegal huts; Gold Fish dinner?

Helping refugee kids go to school

Jan 17th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

Vision First is supporting 27 families: half with 1 or 2 kids, several with 3 or 4 and one with 6 kids. We thank YOU wholeheartedly for listening to our plea and offering your assistance. Not only the 7 RCS kids, but all 52 Vision First children are doing fine. They have safe homes, though only a few have sufficient space. They have food from ISS and donations we receive. They have winter clothes, but never enough. They are mostly in school, thanks to the Education Bureau that places those under 14 in Primary and sometimes Secondary schools. We even helped one paraplegic boy enter a special needs school in Meifoo: a van picks him up in the morning and returns him to Shamshuipo at 4pm. The happiest experience for these kids is GOING TO SCHOOL. It’s somewhat surprising, but their impoverished circumstances make them appreciate the value (and fun?) of a school routine, escaping the hopelessness of refugee life, to meet and mingle with children from the broader community. There are pitfalls, naturally, and it’s saddening to hear a mother say: “Before we arrived in Hong Kong, my boys were so good. They listened to me and were respectful. Now they want mobile phones. They want wallets. They want money to buy icecream and snacks like the other children. They even get angry when I tell them we can’t join the class for excursions or o ice-skate because we have no money. Then they get angry because we are poor. They don’t understand. They just want to be like the other students.” Counseling parents through such difficulties is far from easy.

While the families have food, they don’t receive enough baby formula and ISS (the Social Welfare Department equivalent for refugees) never gives diapers. Any parent can imagine how tricky that can be. I saw a documentary on how a Nigerian village mother solved the problem: she lifted her baby with two hands, wiped its bottom on her left knee, put the baby down and wiped her knee with a corn cob! Well, that’s not ideal in Kowloon. This need prompted us to act fast and through a sister organization (Christian Concern for the Homeless Association http://www.homeless.org.hk/) we received a first shipment of Pampers. 1300 pieces which formed a two meter wide stack from floor to ceiling, enough to hide several men, and that was just for size XL (12-17Kg babies)! Made us realize why many NGO don’t deal with nappies, because without strong logistics diapers can quickly fill up storage rooms. The next requirement is baby formula and we hope to strike a deal for a monthly donation to get started. The Vine church reacted enthusiastically to our Pampers delivery and immediately asked if we could get formula as they have great need for it (being so expensive!) If you know anyone with connections to these products, please get us in touch with them.

Families are our priorities. Returning from Christmas holidays, we spent two weeks visiting them all, leaving singles to hold tight as we realize children need to be assisted first. We were planning a children shelter in Sai Ying Poon for Spring 2011, but since our main priority is an office, we are concentrating efforts to open one in February, to then brainstorm the shelter possibility. Unsurprisingly, funding is always the issue and although we can get a rent-free space, we need to carefully access how to best employ donations vis-à-vis members’ pressing needs. It’s a painful triage, but a task we are used to: determining which needs are most pressing, which cannot be delayed and which can wait for further funding. In short, charities are always at the mercy of SERENDIPITY (to give it a positive spin) and we trust good things will happen at the right time, as they have since we started the Vision First mission. In closing, this movie poster cropped as an inspirational picture, eloquently conveys a child’s joy at education, irrespective of the calamities that strike family and surrounding. Kids appreciate school more than they let know, and at Vision First we are proud to accompany many along the paths of education. Thank you for your continuing support and please spread the word always!

Educating the future

Open and shut cases

Jan 15th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

(Published in the South China Morning Post on 14 January 2011)

Hong Kong‘s ineffective refugee policy turns away those most in need. The Hong Kong government, in its treatment of asylum seekers, is apparently trying to be humane. However, the effect of its policy is the exact opposite of what it intends, rewarding those who are most undeserving, and harming those who are most deserving. Why? There are some 7,000 people from South Asia and Africa seeking asylum in Hong Kong, making their claims to either the refugee agency UNHCR or the Hong Kong government. Some asylum seekers are fleeing torture, or political, ethnic or religious persecution; others are seeking economic advantage. Poverty in fact is closely linked to violence and persecution in developing countries, making it often difficult to separate the two streams.
A very few, lucky asylum seekers will have their claims decided upon favourably and will resettle in North America or Europe. The vast majority, however, will be rejected, will appeal, and will end up waiting in Hong Kong indefinitely, perhaps eventually to be deported or they will voluntarily return home. While claims are assessed, the Hong Kong government provides them with a very minimal life – HK$1,000 a month in rent aid, plus several bags of groceries every month and emergency health care, but prohibits them from working. Hong Kong’s policies appear, at first glance, to be reasonable. Understandably, the government does not want the city to be flooded with tens or hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum after hearing of generous aid polices. At the same time, the government is desperate to avoid having destitute asylum seekers starving to death on the city’s streets; thus, it provides a bare minimum of assistance.

However, a major problem is that the screening procedures of UNHCR and the government are inadequate, sometimes giving the undeserving refugee status, while denying the most deserving. They can also be unbelievably lengthy, taking five or more years to complete. If comprehensive refugee policies were implemented, and the process was speeded up, they could become a model of effective, humane government. At present Hong Kong’s approach towards asylum seekers doesn’t work. While it should uphold international standards and grant legal status to people seeking asylum, and eventually allow those it recognises as refugees or victims of torture to stay, it actually denies them durable solutions, indirectly benefiting the wrong people.

Visiting a shanty town in Yuen Long
Visiting a shanty town in Yuen Long
Economic asylum seekers flourish, while political asylum seekers suffer. Illegal work in Hong Kong is easily available and difficult to prosecute. So while those who come to Hong Kong to work can easily do so and return home after a few years, others are forced to work because of the lack of sympathetic refugee policies. Still others, especially those who have faith in the UNHCR and the government, believe that prosecution for illegal work would jeopardise their chances of being accepted as a refugee. So they refuse to gamble by working, but only wait, hovering on the edge of absolute poverty and brooding over the impasse to which their lives have brought them. In advising an up-and-coming entrepreneur from the developing world, one might justifiably say: “Come to Hong Kong and become an asylum seeker. You might make a good living!” In advising someone fleeing torture or persecution, one the other hand, one might justifiably say: “Don’t come to Hong Kong! You will be destroyed here.” Hong Kong’s asylum seeker policies most hurt those it most seeks to help.
Here is a solution. Screen prospective asylum seekers upon their arrival. Allow them to work for a limited number of hours per week to save on government aid, while enabling them to survive legally rather than forcing them to work illegally. Expand migrant labour schemes to let people choose whether to come here as asylum seekers or on two-year non-renewable work permits. If alternative routes to migration were available, people would no longer seek asylum as their only option. This system would ensure refugee protection while still providing Hong Kong with an inexpensive, readily available and flexible labour force. At present, cheap labour is provided by asylum seekers. In this, the current system has its benefits. It allows the Hong Kong government to deny permanent settlement to people it deems lack the skills to contribute to society, while providing the means to closely monitor the illegal population needed for the profit of many Hong Kong businesses. If this is indeed the case, then it may be that the present shortcomings in policy towards asylum seekers in Hong Kong are not only matters of unforeseen consequences, but a matter of entirely foreseen intent. Could it be that the Hong Kong government actively seeks for its policy towards asylum seekers to fail?

by Gordon Mathews & Francesco Vecchio
(Gordon Mathews is a professor of anthropology at Chinese University, and has led a weekly discussion group for asylum seekers over the past four years. Francesco Vecchio is a doctoral candidate in criminology at Monash University, Australia, researching refugees and mixed migrations in Asia and consulting Vision First)

6,700 cases pending as torture claimants prove slow to screen

Jan 14th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

SCMP Phyllis Tsang - Updated on Jan 14, 2011

It would take 31 years to screen cases of people claiming to have been tortured if immigration officials were to continue at the existing rate. Only 214 cases were completed last year and 6,700 are still pending. The Immigration Department completed the 214 cases after the launch of a pilot screening programme in December 2009. All the claims were rejected. Of these, 108 claimants appealed, with 74 of the appeals rejected, the department revealed yesterday. Fifty-five of the claimants were deported from Hong Kong after screening, and 1,636 torture claimants withdrew their claims last year and returned home.
“We would like to speed up the screening in the coming years,” Director of Immigration Simon Peh Yun-lu said yesterday, adding that procedures were smoother now the scheme had been trialed for a year. Screening of torture claims was resumed after a series of court cases. Under the new programme claimants are provided with legal aid and a duty lawyer. An independent appeal mechanism is also in place. New torture claim cases recorded a 45 per cent drop, from 3,286 in 2009 to 1,809 last year. “Certified torture claimants and refugees are not allowed to work in the city,” Peh said, adding that a court ruling barring torture claimants from working in Hong Kong might be the reason for the drop.

Why do we keep on tormenting real refugees?

Jan 13th, 2011 | Advocacy | Comment

(Mr. Tim Collard’s letter to the South China Morning Post, 14 January 2011)

My father, Bill Collard, director of immigration from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, always insisted that Chinese illegal immigrants at the time were generally not refugees but economic migrants, and he was very clear and uncompromising about this. He waged a long and eventually successful campaign to have such illegals returned to the mainland provided they had not already settled in Hong Kong. He would have entirely agreed with the current director’s position as implied in the report that it is important not to encourage “more people with questionable claims to take a chance on coming to Hong Kong”.

Nonetheless, “hard-nosed” though he undoubtedly was about economic migrants taking advantage of a tolerant society, he was acutely aware that genuine refugees needed to be treated differently. He would have been appalled at our present government’s lack of common humanity in dealing with those whose claims of persecution and even torture have been validated. The director of immigration and his superiors are highly paid civil servants responsible for making decisions in the best interests of the community and they have powers of discretion to make exceptions to general policy when appropriate. If this were not required, a computer could just as well determine who stays and who works, and at a fraction of the cost.

Were true refugees returned to their place of origin it is highly possible they would be killed. Given that they have nowhere else to go, forcing them to exist on pitifully meagre welfare allowances, without the right to work year after year, is inhumane. It is also contrary to the spirit of international agreements on the matter, to which the Hong Kong government is a signatory. Hong Kong rightly aspires to “world city” status, but our government seems to be losing sight of the fact that this also implies some responsibility. It is necessarily difficult for illegal immigrants to obtain refugee status and very few do it. When these very few establish they were, and would still be, persecuted and tortured in their home country, and we allow them to stay on that basis, do we really need to continue to torment them in this petty, hypocritical manner?
Blanket distribution in Fanling
Blanket distribution in Fanling

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