Rose is a refugee mother living in the slums. She was distressed speaking to us, “My officer no give money to the landlord from 1 February. The officer said ‘Danger the place. You find another room. Rent money stopped paying already.’ Room outside very expensive. I must find another room, but I don’t have money. What can I do?”
Rose lamented, “If I leave and stay in ISS shelter where I put my property? I have double-bed, full kitchen and many bags of clothes for me, my husband and son. Landlord said we must pay cash for February rent or we cannot leave. [In her slum] landlord is asking 30 refugees to pay cash this month. He threaten everyone to pay before we leave.”
In September 2006 a South Asian refugee was settled in a pig farm by ISS-HK. His caseworker approved the arrangement with the landlord without inspecting the shack as Vision First reported in August 2013. A few months later ISS-HK relocated him to a guesthouse. Yesterday he was alarmed, “ISS said I must leave by Thursday. The cheapest room is 3000$ so where I find a room for 1500$. Where do I go? I am very afraid.”
Aziz is a vocal campaigner for better housing assistance for refugees evicted from the slums. He is unable to find a cheap enough room for himself and his wife. He reports, “ISS didn’t pay our rent in January and February. But ISS continue to pay for electricity and water. Why they don’t give more money to rent [better accommodation] than give it to the landlord? Officers from Lands Department tell to me this lot must all be demolished and turned into farmland.”
Richard is an African refugee settled by ISS-HK in a guesthouse 14 months ago when he was unable to secure a 1500$ room. He reports, “My caseworker said I must leave on Monday, but I refuse. Where I go? Do they want me to live in the street? ISS put me in a guesthouse when I was homeless a year ago. Today house prices are much higher and they still want me to find a room for the old price. What are they thinking? Refugees are not animals to kick outside …”
An SWD spokesperson responded to our bog “Housing crisis expanding to guesthouses” with this comment, “Thank you for your email of 6 February 2015 regarding the claimants living in guest houses arranged by ISS. We are looking into the matter and ISS has been alerted about it.” Something is not right. Isn’t the contractor implementing policies dictated by the government? Isn’t shifting responsibility to underlings cowardly incompetent to say the least?
Facts lead us to believe that the authorities caused the present housing crisis by a combination of (un)foreseen ramifications and unforgiving market forces. The time has come for the government to rethink their approach and the following constraints should be evaluated:
- refugees are not a temporary ‘problem’ to be fixed with residual humanitarian assistance;
- a work ban disempowers refugees from actively participating in problem solving;
- unrealistic rent assistance prices refugees out of basic rooms, exposes them to incarceration for working illegally while enriching unscrupulous citizens;
- after years of negligence the refugee slums are targeted for closure following Lucky’s death;
- lodging refugees in guesthouses for about 7000$ a month was ill-advised;
- the escalating housing crisis is a threat to social stability and public security that demands longterm, sustainable and reality-based solutions.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of newly arrived homeless refugees, presumably desperate to get off the street and secure a roof over theirs and possibly their family’s head. Refugees are generally informed by either the authorities or their peers of the bleak life they are going to live in Hong Kong.
New-arrivals will eventually be directed to immigration authorities, if not first arrested, and upon release register at one of the SWD Integrated Family Centers around Hong Kong upon. After a means assessment and a 3 to 4 month wait, they are referred to ISS-HK, the government contractor for the provision of welfare to asylum seekers and refugees.
Newcomers learn of further restrictions on their livelihood: not only are they banned from working and will be jailed 15 to 22 months for doing so, but the rent assistance provided is arguably half of market prices for the cheapest subdivided rooms in the most rundown buildings. The present rate is 1500$, but it was 1200$ at the time ISS-HK circulated the document below.
It is at that time that refugees end up either following their peers wherever they live, to tap into similar cheap housing, or they are provided by their caseworker with addresses where they may find accommodation. In this case, one caseworker briefed a desperate homeless refugee on the rigid 1200$ rent ceiling (at the time offering neither security deposit or agency fee) and proactively encouraged him to contact the purported landlords of item 5 and item 6, which were duly marked for attention.
Several critical observations leap forward:
- The rooms in slums are often conveniently priced around the level of rent assistance;
- Other rooms seem to be priced far beyond the reach of destitute refugees;
- “No proof of ownership” evinces knowledge of unauthorized structures and land use;
- Item 6 is annotated with “6 to 7 rooms” that the caseworker keenly promoted;
- Item 6 is annotated with “house owner rent the land” indicative of a middleman/facilitator;
- Item 6 is annotated with “new address not in accommodation master list”;
(The authorities ought to forensically analyses such master lists)
- Items 3, 4, 5, 6 are identifiable by Vision First as known slums in those areas;
- Items 4, 5 and 6 indicate “washrooms” which are known to be water buckets;
- Items 4, 5 and 6 indicate “kitchen”, sample photos of which are displayed here;
- Destitute homeless refugees are cunningly forced towards the slums!
Vision First researched extensively the conditions and dynamics that pushed refugees into the 69 slums we identified. We were told by several purported landlords that the joint enterprise started with a connection at ISS-HK, details will be produced in due course. We believe that the documents with the contact numbers of 8 slum lords and the one below with the details of rooms at 4 slums, manifestly give the lie to any claim that ISS-HK had no part in a joint enterprise to settle refugees in slums. Some observers might go as far as calling these smoking guns.
Besides, whether it is admitted or not, nothing changes the fact that these slums are unauthorized structures never listed by the Lands Department for human habitation and as such should be promptly dismantled when those responsible wake up from a deep slumber.
According to Wikipedia, Mr. Tam Yiu Chung is the Legislative Council (LegCo) representative for New Territories West from 1998 till present.
Mr. Tam Yiu Chung was appointed member of the board of directors of International Social Service (ISS-HK) on 23 November 1999.
According to our list of 69 slums, 64 are located in New Territories West, while 5 were established near Ping Che (NT East) by an operator from Kam Tin.
ISS-HK published and distributed to refugees a document that provided slum lords’ names, mobile numbers and locations, with specific directions for public transport to arrive at such slums. This document was issued by ISS-HK and provided to refugees with instructions to reach Kam Sheung Road MTR station, board bus 64K in the direction of Tai Po and get off at Kam Tsin Wai bus stop (3rd stop). At this location there are no houses along the tree lined road. There are farms, car traders, scrap yards and, most importantly, the Slum on Two Storeys (the site of the deadly fire; 3 minute walk from the bus stop) and the Slum with The Price List (8 minute walk from that bus stop). Vision First has collected several testimonies from ISS-HK case workers directing service users to these slums. How does this evidence correlate with ISS-HK statement that refugees want to live in slums?