On 24 September 2013, Vision First assisted 80 refugees in a demonstration outside the ISS office in Tsuen Wan. The police took the event seriously and outnumbered protesters two-to-one, as if they expected trouble. This was not the first time the government belatedly confronted a social problem that could have been easily avoided. Read the blog, “Refugees protest food abuse at ISS-HK Tsuen Wan“
It was discontent with food provisions that drove refugees to complaint. The trigger point was not the quantity or quality of food – issues they have put up with for years – but the alteration of collections from 3 to 6 times a month. In itself that wasn’t a drama. The problem was that ISS claimed the change was necessary to supply fresher fruit and vegetables, which turned out to be untrue.
Instead, refugees realized they were being cheated: the bags of groceries were significantly lighter than before. People became suspicious. They made lists and took photos. Angry refugees refused to be treated like beggars. Not only were the grocery packages smaller, but the diminished amounts left them hungry. There was growing evidence of a sinister manipulation of food supplies. What was really going on?
It was crystal clear ISS had engineered the change to conceal a reduction. Vision First denounced this senseless harassment of refugees who – not being allowed to work – risked jail for working to buy food. We urged authorities to investigate the quantity, quality and distribution system as organized by ISS through seven dedicated shops. More analysis on the 53 million dollar food contract and the ‘Vanish Food Magic Trick’ is available here.
The South China Morning Post reported that, “Each claimant will be entitled to HK$1,200 worth of food a month, up by HK$140. And the allowance for basic utilities will rise by HK$30 to HK$300 per head.” Hold on a moment. The current utility allowance is 190$, so clarifications are in order. As for the food value, it matters not what the SWD pays ISS, but what ISS supplies to refugees!
The enhancement will only be trusted if refugees collect 1200$ of groceries a month – at wholesale prices – without shifty cuts, reductions or losses. Anything less points to fraudulent practices in the distribution chain and should be of grave concern to authorities. Vision First will keep vigilant: we will count and value and monitor the system to ensure transparency.
On 24 September 2013, we had no illusions of changing the system. Any fight for social justice is an arduous one, particularly on behalf of non-citizens. It is with great satisfaction that we received, unconfirmed, news that ISS will revert to 3 times food distribution in February. Staff in the seven shops have already informed many refugees. It has taken four months for that protest action – and several blogs – to bear fruit, but it is mission accomplished.
Refugees are learning that public demonstrations have the power to change their destiny.
A new study reveals that 1.5 million Hongkongers live a poor and deprived life. This bleak picture takes into account not only income but deprivation, but how some in the city are forced to forgo items and social activities that most people consider customary. Poverty is not more than financial. It is defined as having insufficient resources over time, as a deprivation that excludes from participation in society.
The government is brainstorming poverty alleviation for 1.5 million citizens, who do have access to the labor market, welfare system and social network. Falling through the cracks is the comparatively smaller group of 6000 refugees who were not included in the above study due to irregular status. And yet this minority lives at the outer fringe of poverty and is more marginalized, deprived and excluded from society.
Revealing the official poverty statistics, the government acknowledged that “being poor in Hong Kong” means earning less than 3600$ for a single person, less than 7700$ for a couple and less than 11,500$ for a family of three. How do refugees fare in comparison? A single person’s allowance is 2,260$ (1200 for rent plus 1060 in food), which condemns refugees to struggling 37% below the poverty line.
The High Court found that a refugee “deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status … The provision of assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim”. Vision First tirelessly reiterates and emphasizes that this is not happening. The government is in breach of this judgment.
There are many issues plaguing refugee welfare besides segregation in government-run ghettos. Vision First is also gravely concerned about the distribution of 53,424,000 HK$ in food assistance. This annual figure is calculated by multiplying 4200 service users (recent ISS-HK quote), by the stated 1060$ in groceries, by twelve months. But what is the total value of food that reaches the plates of refugees?
We will reveal the results of a month-long research next week. There are serious doubts whether fraud and collusion are absent from the distribution of 53 million dollars through 7 shops owned by 5 companies. Is it possible that five different businessmen provide equivalent poor quality and low quantity in different districts without price fixing? Who is responsible for monitoring food value, food quality and adherence to the rule of law? Is somebody turning a blind eye? Is it not a level playing field?
Vision First assisted refugees to apply for a police notice to protest outside the ISS Tsuen Wan office on 24 September 2013.
Changes to food distribution were the trigger point, though widespread dissatisfaction with welfare assistance has mobilized the community over the summer. Demonstrations appear to be building up towards a meeting with the Legislative Council Complaint Section on 15 October and the second session with the Legislative Council Panel on Welfare. Refugees are keeping up the pressure.
Public meetings attended by more than 50 persons require a police notification. This removes the element of surprise and much spontaneity from any manifestation. There was also the certainty that nobody would be allowed into the building, let alone the ISS office, a disappointing though inevitable drawback. Refugees were frustrated, but abided the law.
On the street, 80 protesters were matched one-for-one by the police, including a dozen CID officers who paced nervously, keeping refugees under vigilant watch. The authorities designated an acceptable protest zone by the building entrance. Most demonstrators obliged, though many roamed the streets displeased with the overwhelming police presence. And backup vans were around the corner.
Several refugees had made appointment with caseworkers before the protest was announced. Those appointments were duly cancelled. Others phoned in to visit and were told staff was away. ISS was determined to neither negotiate, nor acknowledge any complaints. That was final! Previous experiences made ISS intransigence clear. The demonstrators had no illusions today would be different.
With police mediation, attempts were made to set up a meeting with ISS bunkered down in state of fear. Assurances were made that refugees came in peace. Besides, it seemed that all the Tsuen Wan police revolvers were on Chuen Long Street! At 4pm a delegation of a Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Srilankan and two Africans ventured upstairs with a police escort. The aim was to express these points:
- Refugees are not allowed to work
- They depend entirely on ISS assistance to survive
- The receive insufficient rations of poor quality food
- They oppose the change from 3x to 6x a month food collection
Not a big deal by any account. The delegation was not impressed by the door ISS bolted before them. It was a repeat of the Prince Edward stonewalling treatment. Such tactics were disappointing to everyone and infuriating to some. The obstruction to talks was absolute. ISS staff were instructed to bunker down. Alas, an opportunity to sit down and talk was missed. ISS, the agent of social oppression, stood proud!
To avoid escalation, refugees informed the police the stalemate had to be broken. It was suggested that ISS send down ONE delegate – somebody to hide behind police shields, if need by – to listen to the pleas of those they serve. That was the absolute minimum the demonstrators would accept to call it a day and keep frayed emotions from swelling.
Thankfully ISS leadership realized it was a reasonable demand and Mr. Ben Hon, Security Manager, was delegated to descend to the street and hear it straight from the crowd. The protesters were seriously disappointed at his sight and asked for the manager or a case worker instead. Regrettably, for reasons other than diplomacy nobody else would give respect to highly vulnerable refugees. Another sad day for ISS.
Caught between a rock (no work permits) and a hard place (insufficient food), refugees are degraded and forced to beg. The Culture of Rejection is strong. Immigration has rejected 3,644 torture claimants since December. The 1200$ rent assistance hardly secures a hut in the slums. The food supplied is insufficient and often spoiled. The cost of schooling and medical care are not fully covered. There are no provisions for clothes, shoes and other daily necessities.
However, 15-22 month incarceration are guaranteed for those who risking part-time work. Does any resident wish to experience this struggle just for one month? It is apparent that only a HUNGER STRIKE will draw adequate attention to the hardship that is exasperating refugees by intent and by design.