Prior to February 2015 a considerable number of homeless refugees were assigned single-occupancy rooms in guesthouses by ISS-HK when they failed to find rooms for the 1500$ rent assistance. Today the refugee community is reluctantly coming to terms with a hard to swallow shift in policy.
The practice was ironic and ill-conceived, as ISS-HK would spend 8000$ a month on hotels (in some cases for over a year), having frequently refused to increase the rent assistance by only a few hundred dollars. This resulted in an avoidable waste of public funds, as Vision First reported in several blogs, including “Homeless refugee forces ISS-HK to pay for guesthouse”, “A refugee clashes with the absurd at ISS-HK” and “Breaking the rent assistance barrier”.
Starting last week, refugees were unceremoniously locked out of guesthouses after ISS-HK payments were stopped. The decision is not unreasonable, as the guesthouse solution wasted millions of dollars that should have been more prudently allocated. Ibrahim from Togo requested a 400$ increase for his family of four, only to be turned down and lodged in a 13,500$ guesthouse room instead.
What next? The clampdown on guesthouses comes at a time when dozens of refugees are evicted from illegal refugee slums across the New Territories without adequate assistance. About a hundred refugees have found themselves in the streets. This amounts to a worrying housing crisis. Considering the prohibition from taking up employment and 15 months jail for working illegally, a perfect storm is heading towards increasingly homeless refugees. Does this reflect a hidden agenda?
Refugees say they are encouraged by caseworkers to share rooms and handed the mobile number of housing ‘fixers’. Last week five African refugees rented a two-room flat in To Kwa Wan for 7800$ which their combined rent assistance of 7500$ almost fully pays. Assuming they can share tight quarters for months, what will happen if one is deported or leaves Hong Kong? Policy dictates that security deposits are only paid once for as long as a refugee is in town.
The refugee community is divided. Many South Asians have for years bunked together and are already accustomed to living 4 to 6 in subdivided rooms where they sleep back to back, sometimes taking daytime and nighttime shifts. Housing ‘fixers’ enjoy a thriving business and an astute lady operating from Tsim Sha Tsui Mansion is said to lodge almost 200 refugees with payments from ISS-HK.
However the arrangement of packing 4 to 6 adults into rooms no larger than Ping-Pong tables should raise concerns. Aren’t these flats effectively unlicensed dormitories, where overcrowding presents more than a challenge to safety and fire regulations? How are hygiene and health standard managed when kitchens are turned into sleeping areas and toilets used for storage?
In a community where health risks pose daily concerns to the authorities, is it appropriate to pack refugees in such confined, inhumane spaces? What happens when one falls sick? Where do they store documents and personal belongings? Are refrigerators large enough for food rations? And why are potentially traumatized refugees forced to give up privacy as if in detention? Mental disorders and PTSD, often caused by persecution, are aggravated by ongoing stress and anxiety.
Further, the aggregate rent paid for such subdivided flats (one unit partitioned into five rooms) often exceeds 20,000$ which clearly is a huge incentive for fixers to expand market share while the slums close down and the number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong nears 10,000 for the first time in history.
Vision First urges the authorities to review the failed ‘humanitarian assistance’ for refugees as tightening the welfare screws to avoid ‘creating a magnet effect’ is evidently a failure. The number of refugees from the Global South seeking asylum in Hong Kong doubled in 2014. This is not a temporary ‘problem’ that can be fixed by ill-treatment that only tarnishes the reputation of our great city.
On 13 February 2015 Vision First conducted a joint slum inspection with a team of lease enforcement officers of the Lands Department, who are tasked to identify unauthorized structures and take enforcement action against registered owners in flagrant breach of lease covenants.
Following the slum blaze in which a Sri Lankan refugee was burned to death, the government approach towards and tolerance of refugee slums appears to have markedly changed. It was regrettably predictable. Vision First campaigned vigorously against hazardous slums advising officials to prudently take preventive actions against dangerous structures before the loss of life and property.
The lead Land Executive confirmed that the present compound at the Slum on two Storeys, the site of the fatal fire, was in breach of the land lease. She explained that the Squatter Control Survey only classified three small huts as “tolerated structures”, erected prior to 1982 and marked “TS” on Lands charts (red ellipse), and those shacks no longer exist.
The Lands executives were shown around the slum and spoke to resident refugees. They were lead to the back of the second storey where the most hazardous cubicles are not easily accessed. It was confirmed that enforcement action started after the fire and warning notices had been posted on 11 February 2015. Lands was yet to hear from the registered owner.
The appalling living conditions – dreadful waterless toilets and bathing buckets in particular – raised grave concerns with the lead officer who asked, “Has the Social Welfare Department visited this place?” She was surprised to learn that her colleagues at the SWD had never visited any of the refugee slums they supported through contracted agent ISS-HK. She assured Vision First that she would refer this case to the SWD and Fire Services for follow up.
We shared a ride in the Lands van to the nearby “Slum that rose like a Phoenix”, which takes its name from a previous blaze and was reported by Vision First on 20 November 2013. We witnessed the Lands executives posting a notice on the perimeter fence 450 days after our original blog. The notice warned that present structures are in breach of lease conditions and must be purged within 28 days to avoid further lease enforcement action.
The lead officer confirmed that following a public complaint, Lands had inspected the site last week and identified unauthorized structures in which dozens of refugees appeared to have been living for some time. She questioned the appropriateness of such arrangements on agricultural land that were not tolerated. She further explained that the government will reenter the land if the registered owner fails to demolish the offending structures in a month’s time.
Affected refugees are gravely concerned about the prospect of being suddenly evicted, though they generally appreciate that short-term discomfort (moving to guesthouses or dormitories) is preferable to years of living dangerously in structures that could as easily collapse as erupt in a ball of fire like Lucky’s hut. Death has a way of focusing attention on what is most important in life.
Vision First emphasises that securing adequate housing for refugees is a government duty, not a task for penniless refugees without savings and work rights. Few doubt that Hong Kong Government is at fault if it fails to meet the legal requirements of the High Court “Usman Butt” case (HCMA 70/2010):
“A genuine torture or refugee claimants deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status. However, his basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government” – Justice Cheung.
Following the death of a refugee in the Hong Kong slums, AFP went on assignment with the Refugee Union. The shameful treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers was captured by an expert lens for the world to witness. Over a day we visited five notorious slums and met refugees who on average waited already five years for a decision on their claims without receiving a reply. They wait patiently in total destitution as those responsible turn a blind eye to their plight.
The material used to partition slum rooms are advertising billboards that might have been discarded after some fancy show at luxury shopping mall. It is striking that amid the city’s unbridled affluence there are human beings suffering under government care without proper accommodation. These living conditions tarnish the reputation of Hong Kong as an international financial centre where every person ought to be treated with respect, irrespective of immigration status.
The refugees welcomed us inside their shacks where, they explained, every item was recovered from garbage pits including electric stoves and flat-panel TVs. They spoke about the dynamics of survival in a metropolis, where coping without work is harsher than most people imagine. Despite such odds, refugees preserve great dignity which was masterfully captured by the photographer.
From all accounts, it might be the twilight of refugee slums in Hong Kong and the Refugee Union was grateful for the coverage this reprehensible policy is getting. “Show the world how they treat us,” exclaimed Afzaal from Pakistan, “We are not animals to lock in a farm shed. One night a snake bit my leg inside my hut. I had no idea if it was poisoned. We are scared of electricity, flooding, fires and the police banging our doors in the middle of the night. We are refugees, not criminals.”
The LegCo “Panel on Housing” of 2 November 1998 states “Any illegal structures or extensions built after 1 June 1982 on … leased agricultural land without the approval from the Lands Department, are classified as squatters and are subject to demolition as and when they are discovered. Structures registered in the 1982 Squatter Control Survey are tolerated until such time when their removal is required for public development, environmental improvement or safety reasons.”
On 11 February 2015, the Lands Department affixed this notice at the Slum on Two Storey, the site of the fatal fire. The registered owner is notified that three metal and wood structures of specific measurements had been tolerated. However such structures had been previously demolished and replaced with the current unauthorized structures, thus cancelling the squatter license. In other words, the entire compound is found to be illegal and must be returned to agricultural use.
A quintessential expression captures the moment – closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted. Since May 2013 Vision First has advocated tirelessly for safe and proper housing for slum refugees by reporting our findings to departments including the land authority. Two weeks after the death of a refugee squatter, lease enforcement commenced against an unscrupulous slum lord.
It appears that not all government departments are reading from the same page. On the one hand Lands Department publicly stated that several refugee slums are illegal and posted notices at certain location. On the other, the Social Welfare Department did not concede that rules and regulations were broken by settling refugees in slums since 2006. Truth would go a long way in resolving the issue.
Meanwhile the Hong Kong Police is apparently attempting to maintain order in a familiar way, namely gagging refugees from voicing grievances. Whether coordinated or the result of individual opinion, a Refugee Union leader affirms he was visited by four police officers in his tin shed at night and warned that he should not join an upcoming protest. Another refugee in a different slum was told by a policeman, “Why you complain? You have a good room”. The officers were met with silence as pajamas were not the right attire for a debate.
At this juncture, the government should be coordinating and implementing a rational clearance of dangerous slums. Priority should be given to locations with high fire hazard from which refugees ought to be urgently moved to guesthouses while permanent solutions are identified. It is meaningless for caseworkers to instruct refugees to immediately secure proper accommodation for 1500$ a month!
Refugees were victimized when they were first settled in slums years ago. Today they are victimizes again by sudden evictions. It is a no-brainer that 1500$ legal rooms do not exist and refugees have no resources to pay for rent surplus, since they are not allowed to work. Something is amiss in the government’s strategy to resolving this housing crisis in which everyone is responsible, and not only the refugees as pro-government propaganda states.
The above mentioned paper concludes, “It is the Government’s policy that no one would be rendered homeless as a result of the clearance programmes. When clearance is to be conducted in a squatter area, all persons … will be rehoused to public rental housing or interim housing units according to their eligibility.” Current practices again shamefully belittle the dignity and humanity of refugees.
“The civil war ended in 2009 but Tamil people are still dying. My second brother was kidnapped and disappeared in Sri Lanka. Yesterday I saw [Lucky’s] body in a morgue after he burned to death while in exile in Hong Kong. I hadn’t seen him since I fled to England 16 years ago,” said Sivaharan who arrived from London on Sunday as a British citizen to see his brother Lucky, who tragically died in a slum fire days ago.
The resemblance with his brother Lucky is striking. And yet their fates are irreversibly worlds apart: one is a holder of a United Kingdom Passport, the other of a Death Certificate courtesy of the Hong Kong Government that failed to protect Lucky and was unwilling to support him in a dignified manner. Such a regrettable treatment by the Hong Kong government sealed his tragic fate.
Sivaharan’s gentle smile hides a broken heart. He deleted Lucky’s photo from his mobile phone as they were too painful to see. Having to identify the charred remains of his beloved brother will only worsen his nightmares. “My mother hasn’t stopped crying,” he sighs, “She thought Lucky was safe here and cannot believe she has now lost two of three sons. How can Hong Kong treat victims of war like this?”
There is no point explaining to him that Hong Kong appears to have a well-established practice of delaying the assessment of asylum case, especially when allegedly strong, to avoid acknowledging them. That would be too crass a justification for anyone to understand, particularly the relative of a victim abandoned without adequate welfare assistance to years of living dangerously in a slum. The unfairness of such a process drags it deep and swiftly into the abyss of injustice.
Nothing can bring him back to life, but the government and rule of law that failed to protect Lucky might be redeemed by bringing to justice those who participated – directly and indirectly – in his horrific death. To this end, Lucky’s brother will bring civil proceedings against the landlord of the slum, International Social Services Hong Kong (ISS-HK) for approving and renting the tin hut, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) that failed to monitor its contracted agent ISS-HK, and the Lands Department that failed to purge known slums in a timely fashion.
A successful damage claim is virtually cast-iron as Lucky was a non-refoulement claimant whose safety and well-being was entrusted entirely with the intended Defendants being the Hong Kong Government and its agents. Regrettably the government and its agents settled Lucky in an illegal and inherently dangerous slum from September 2008 to January 2015, and thus the Defendants are all responsible for his tragic death.
“I visited other slums and I am shocked,” relates Sivaharan, “Electric wires dangle by the sink and shower. It is so scary. They look nicely decorated inside, but these are death traps. The huts are tin sheets offering little protection. I feel sorry for refugees who live in such misery for years. We don’t hear about it [HK treatment of refugees] in the UK. The lives of refugees should not be endangered by a government that ought to protect them.”
An order for specific discovery is likely to reveal the extent of negligence, malfeasance and nonfeasance of each Defendant. Let’s only hope that Lucky’s dead wasn’t in vain.