Amir’s lifeless body lay three days in sweltering heat in the refugee slum he called home for several years. His unremarkable existence was diminished by destitution, indifference and isolation until a friend noticed that he hadn’t been seen around and wasn’t answering the phone. This Bangladeshi father of three would become better known to the refugee community in death than he was in life.
Refugees who die in Hong Kong do not fall victims of treacherous waters, or of violent outbreaks in camps, but are snuffed out by immiseration and depression that chokes them progressively day after day, year after year. While they are rare, and statistics are unavailable, the deaths and suicides reported suggest crimes of omission by those responsible for the health and safety of refugees.
By denying a ray of hope to individuals seeking international protection, Hong Kong Government has elevated passive rejection allegedly to a cruel policy. Instead of shooting rubber bullets across borders, towing boats out to sea, or segregating asylum seekers in camps (activities understood to be illegal), the authorities promote a policy that makes waiting indefinite and unbearable.
Hope keeps people alive and despair robs refugees of mental health first and of physical strength later. While Amir cannot speak for himself, his suffering was witnessed by those who shared his fate and experienced the cruelty of an asylum sphere that offers anything but protection. At the tragic news, his friends united in solidarity to recapture in death the humanity Amir didn’t enjoy in life.
The Refugee Union mobilized on an unprecedented scale to spread the news and fundraise to repatriate the body, as is customary in South Asian cultures. The task was formidable as funeral rites and airfreight to Dhaka required raising 50,000 HKD in a few days. Compassionate members canvassed tirelessly the Muslim community and the figure was doubled with heartfelt condolence for Amir’s family.
It isn’t hard to imagine the desperate solitude of Amir’s final moments. He probably contemplated his failure, interment in inhospitable foreign land, the tragedy befalling his helpless family, the cruelty of circumstances he couldn’t overcome, the injustice of a world wounded by moral blindness. Amir couldn’t have imagined the love and compassion his death would arise.
All life is sacred. Human life especially so, and the inevitability of death is a reminder of the common thread that unites transiently every human being. Together we must resist the globalized indifference towards undesirable social groups to celebrate the dignity and humanity we share.
Amir’s existence was snuffed out by a culture of rejection that mercilessly diminished the lives of 14,000 refugees who sought sanctuary in Hong Kong. It is reassuring that the indignity Amir suffered in life was vindicated by brothers and sisters who finally recaptured his humanity in death.
On 28 January 2014 Vision First wrote to the Security Bureau urging Hong Kong Government to provide full assistance for kindergarten children because refugees cannot work or engage in other income generating activities. We questioned the paradoxical situation in which the authorities oddly waved school fees without providing transportation for children and accompanying parents.
The orthodox NGO approach was fundraising to fill this welfare gaps, year after year pleading for donors to have pity on and support little boys and girls missing out on an early education for lack money. The Vision First approach instead was to press the authorities to live up to obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“UNCRC”), thereby ensuring that all children went to school, not just a few lucky ones favoured by NGO workers.
It is noteworthy that such solutions take considerably more time and effort than passing round hats, but the outcome is significantly more satisfactory when a level playing field is establish that stops disadvantaging families with weaker NGO ties, Muslims who do not attend church and parents whose dignity is affected by begging. Refugees should not have to humiliate themselves to receive what they are entitled to.
Despite its abundant wealth, Hong Kong Government has shown not just a flagrant disregard for the plight of refugees, but a complete disrespect for domestic and international law by avoiding its constitutional obligations. Vision First reiterates that as long as refugees are legally banned from working, the government has the duty to meet this population’s basic needs – including kindergarten education.
There is good news for distressed refugee families at last. Refugee Union parents report that ISS-HK started to refund transportation for children and accompany parents, not only for last month, but from February 2014 when the Security Bureau copied this letter to the Secretary for Education, the Director of Social Welfare and the Controller of the Student Financial Assistance Agency.
Vision First strongly encourages parents to request full refunds from ISS-HK and not be discouraged by unjustified excuses that such assistance is provided on a “case by case basis”. Refugees are becoming increasingly aware that if all refugees are banned from working, then all refugees qualify for full government assistance that must not make a beggar of anyone!
Refugees are reminded of these steps to achieve welfare goals and break NGO dependency:
- Write politely to ISS-HK case workers demanding assistance (this relates to all basic need);
- Write firmly to ISS-HK supervisors and managers, making copies of letters;
- Complain in person at the SWD Head-office at 8/F, 213 Queen’s Road East, Wanchai;
- Request advice and support from the Refugee Union at email@example.com.
The refugee protest against International Social Service (ISS-HK) started on 11 February 2014 triggered by deep dissatisfaction with the food distribution system. Members of the Refugee Union made public complaints that emergency rations were of exceptionally poor quality and worth far less than the official 1200$. Refugees demanded itemized prices to stop questionable practices and on 17 February 2014 called on the ICAC to investigate the SWD contractor. No statement has yet been released by the graft-busters.
Six months later the process is as rotten as it is unbearable for refugees. ISS-HK case workers are unable to ensure that food items selected by refugees are actually delivered by the seven ISS-appointed shops. The discrepancies between food items selected and delivered cannot be explained by clerical errors alone. Most alarmingly, collections continue to be generally reduced by one third and are nowhere near the full value promised to refugees by the SWD. Why?
Complaints are endless: pork is distributed to Muslims; rotten vegetables and eggs are the norm; labelled food is frequently passed expiration date – regrettably even baby formula; insects contaminate rice and feces spoil flour; fish so rotten it sparks indignation; food quality is so substandard that desperate refugees sell it for a fraction of its value than eat it. Vision First understands that the trading of rations by unscrupulous middlemen is being investigated by the police.
Although shops should deal with exchanges, items are replaced only for the most vocal of refugees and after warnings are made to expose the cheating. It appears that media exposure is the only deterrent, where honesty is in short supply. Complaints should also be professionally handled, but invariably the answers are the same, “Take it or leave it! You don’t have to pay for this food. If you have a problem call your ISS case worker! That usually proves to be a frustrating waste of time.
On the other hand, many refugees are still reluctant to speak out about the food crisis because of concerns that citizens will think they came to Hong Kong to fill their stomachs, not for protection. “I don’t want my friends to see me complain about welfare” explained a seasoned refugee “I told them that I came to seek asylum and they would not understand why I am complaining about free food.” Regrettably, civil society and the press are showing little concern for such widespread abuse.
In fact, food and water are vitally important on the scale of human needs for 6000 refugees who depend entirely on government assistance to meet basic requirements, irrespective of NGO efforts that cannot be expected to fill such massive gaps. A refugee put it plainly, “I collected a chicken, a bag of rice, a can of tuna and some vegetables for a ten day period. That is enough for two days. What am I expected to eat for the next eight? ISS is cheating refugees every day.”
Six months of protest haven’t improved the system. While outspoken refugees receive better assistant, the silent majority continue to suffer abuse in a failed system. Meanwhile the government appears to be indifferent to such human suffering.
Refugees have learnt through experience that relief comes only to those who complain directly at the Social Welfare Department head-quarters, where social workers are compelled to put pressure on their colleagues at ISS-HK. In the words of a savvy refugee, “My suffering taught me that I can only trust myself. There is no cash falling from the sky and only I can support my family. If I want change in these conditions, I need to fight for my rights. That is why I joined the Refugee Union.”
Vision First urges refugees with complaints and problems to approach the SWD office in person:
“In the morning we hugged our family like we might never see them again because every day in Mogadishu journalists may be killed in the crossfire, or murdered by Al-Shabaab” says Ibrahim as he enjoys a meal at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong. He continues, “For a big story we would bring two or three cameramen to record the scene together in case one was wounded or shot dead.”
The Somali government persecutes journalist who don’t report the propaganda, but Al-Shabaab is a clear threat. In 2009 Ibrahim was kidnapped by the group and never expected to see his wife and five children until he was ransomed by his employer, Universal TV. Undeterred he continued to work from Kenya until mounting death threats posed an imminent danger. In August 2013 he fled to Hong Kong where his colleague Shafi had sought asylum eight months earlier.
“My first encounter with Vision First” Shafi says “was during a demonstration at the Legislative Council when dozens of refugees were invited to a conference room to discuss welfare shortcomings with lawmaker Fernando Cheung. It was a year before other groups also took this advocacy path. The following week Vision First introduced me to the FCC which regrettably turned down my application and made me feel very unwelcome.”
For reasons unclear, the Foreign Correspondent Club was reluctant to accept as members first Shafi and later Ibrahim, despite their credentials and, most vitally, having lost everything to pursue their profession with outstanding courage and integrity. Reporting the reality of the factional Somali civil war, with multiple interests vying for supremacy, can get anyone killed, but exposing the intrigues of Al-Shabaab is a death sentence. “We reported what we investigate. We could not keep quiet. This is our job” Ibrahim explains.
Vision First is dedicated to empowering refugees by strengthening self-reliance within a system constrained by a culture of rejection. In June 2014, non-executive director Robert Tibbo and solicitor Jonathan Man escorted the two Somali journalists to the Foreign Correspondent Club on a mission. They were determined that the prestigious club, established in 1917, admit two foreign correspondents that sacrificed more than most to uphold the highest code of practice of their profession. Respect was due and respect was granted.
“After a year struggling like a beggar, for the first time I feel that I am a journalist again” Shafi rejoices “Refugees are often kept out of sight and denied even the dignity of being human beings. As a member of the FCC now I feel that I am alive again and I am part of the community, even if I cannot work. I want to devote my time and energy to developing the Refugee Union and help other refugees achieve their potential too.”
It is likely unprecedented that refugees on Immigration recognizance were admitted to a private club in Hong Kong. Vision First celebrates this success with the wish that other clubs and societies will value individuals seeking membership for who they are, without tripping over meaningless rules to produce ID cards or passports. Meantime Ibrahim and Shafi are possibly the happiest journalists in town. Congratulations! You deserve it!
On 26 May 2014, Vision First had a meeting with the Hong Kong Bar Association to discuss concerns relating to refugees that appear to have been overlooked in the deployment of the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM). The Bar Association was informed that some failed torture claimants are detained in Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) without knowledge of, or opportunity to apply for USM protection in violation of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights (Art. 3) and Refugee Convention (Art. 33). Refugees are entitled to launch a USM claim even when detained pending removal or deportation after their torture claims were rejected.
An absence of information and application procedures inside CIC puts protection claimants at a considerable disadvantage when resisting pressure from Immigration officers to ‘voluntarily depart’ Hong Kong. In such a questionable legal black hole and in the absence of legal representation, it is suspected that unlawful administrative detention might adversely impact the rights and freedom of detained refugees, who should be released on recognizance pending determination of their USM claims.
Further, Vision First drew the Bar Association’s attention to other problems including, bail applications for refugees on remand, applications for judicial reviews of failed USM cases, jailing of refugees in prisons instead of CIC, unlawful administrative detention, magistracy bias against recognizance form holders, fair representation by duty lawyers, duty lawyers’ concerns to perform according to DLS expectations and the overall shortage of pro bono legal service.
Christy Choi writes for the South China Morning Post on 31 July 2014
Christian Action and Vision First agree to work together for asylum seekers after settlement