Outspoken refugees are on a writing spree. Many of Vision First’s recent blogs featured our members sharing experiences of deprivation and destitution in Hong Kong, the latter remarkably a condition that the HK government supposedly aims to prevent by providing ‘in-kind’ humanitarian assistance.
The latest of these blogs, Rashid’s testimony of suffering at the hands of ‘the law system force refugees to do crime’, shines a spotlight on a problem that few ever raise despite it being well known.
Several questions spring to mind. Is the government hiding behind a humanitarianism smokescreen to undermine refugees’ civil rights and effectively force deprivation upon them? Is there a covert goal to raise their visibility in the criminal justice system? Do welfare strategies cunningly reinforce propaganda depicting refugees as undesirable illegal economic migrants and criminal abusers?
Rashid’s story raises a number of problems that we believe ought to be urgently addressed by the authorities.
First, upon release from detention ‘humanitarian’ assistance isn’t available for several months, which increases the vulnerability of newly arrived refugees to economic abuse and exploitation. “A middle-class dog is treated better”, Rashid astutely observes. For weeks he slept rough in a public park, deprived of basic accommodation he could not afford on his own after agreeing with Immigration he would not work.
Second, talented refugees are turned into beggars and ‘terrorist-looking’ individuals, a dehumanizing process that arguably raises their categorization into a homogeneous group enclosed by clearly defined boundaries that set them as extraneous bodies in a wealthy global city where rightful residents are expected to be self-reliant.
Third, excluded from society, refugees are mentally tortures, deprofessionalized and deprived of their liberty. They are unlawfully detained in a “walking prison”, Rashid plaintively laments. Government control capacity has expanded in late modernity to a point that it need not lock people up anymore. Instead, states may exclude undesirable behaviour by creating labels that immediately cast bearers as outcasts, forcing their marginalization and surveillance.
Fourth, Rashid’s story is exemplar in that he perceptively understands the causation of the resultant problems. “Is the law fair?” he ponders distrustfully. While he certainly wants to believe so, he mournfully notices that it is indeed the law and its implementation that force refugees to find their way out of an untenable situation by seeking personal survival through legal or illegal ways.
Shackled by the twin chains of inadequate welfare and work ban, refugees speak of an ugly reality nobody dares to cast in the spotlight. Such an inconsistency cannot be ingenuously unplanned. Meanwhile an entire generation of people is lost to crime, crushed by the wheel of a repressive justice system. Why is this happening?
On 3 December Vision First sought SWD clarification on the following points after we were invited to the tender. Vision First finds these replies largely unsatisfactory.
Comment to A.1
We question whether SWD is mistaken by operating on the assumption that refugees seek their own accommodation. SWD echoes the views previously heard from ISS-HK that the majority of refugees living in slums choose to live there and don’t want to move out. While it is true that nobody is coerced to make a home in the slums, huts were and continue to be the only locations rentable at the price point offered to refugees (currently 1500$ a month). Further, Vision First reported that the February 2014 rental increase from 1200$ to 1500$ caused ‘slum inflation’ evidenced by slum lords demanding rental increases to this day.
It is painfully obvious that the ‘persuasion process’ has limited to no effect if the rental parameters remain unchanged. In the urban areas, ISS-HK case workers frequently visit rooms, often before payments are confirmed or released. However, in agricultural-use compounds it appears, from evidence collected from refugee tenants, that slum lords and caretaker can swiftly complete transactions and have contracts approved in one visit to the ISS-HK Tsuen Wan branch.
Unlike in the urban area, security deposits and property agent fees are not required, which is a considerable financial advantage. Urban dwelling refugees report endless negotiations between reluctant landlords (refugee tenants are undesirable), property agents and case workers before any deal is completed. Why are basic legal rooms harder to rent than dodgy ones in illegal structures?
As a result large clusters of co-national refugees end up over the years in the same area. Do these men, women and children volunteer to live in dumps, or were they deprived of better alternatives?
Slum refugees are decent human beings who are not so foolish as to PREFER slums for themselves and family, if better and affordable alternatives are available.
Anyone accusing refugees of CHOOSING TO LIVE IN THE SLUMS is politically motivated and could not justify such a preposterous position in a public forum of hundreds of deprived refugees forced to live in slums, many for over 5 years. If SWD truly believes what they are saying, Vision First challenges the SWD to a public debate to support such argument before the media.
It is manifestly obvious that if refugees were provided alternative housing arrangements in legal structures in the area where they live, or in other areas close to friends and co-nationals, they would certainly move out of the slums. We have witnessed this happen on many occasions.
Comment to A.2
Thankfully the in-kind food program that exposed thousands of refugees yearly to exploitation by the operators of the food distribution chain is coming to an end. While doubting the coupon system will mark any significant improvement, Vision First cannot but interpreter SWD decision to suddenly close down the in-kind food mechanism as to be a significant statement, tantamount of an admission that not all was well in previous arrangements. It remains to be seen if law enforcement agents will take action against perpetrators of illegal activities as exposed and reported by Vision First over the last two years. Sun Tsu said: “The wheels of justice grind slow but grind fine”.
Comments to A.3
Outsourcing by its own nature creates numerous monitoring problems. Contractors worldwide cannot generally be trusted to deliver top services without strong and independent supervision. In this respect SWD’s reply is unsatisfactory. Vision First respectfully advises SWD to appoint a full-time inspection team that operates in the field all day taking leads and invitations from the refugee community quite independently from its contractors.
Many doubts come to mind. How is SWD going to implement “service inspection and performance evaluation”? How often and who will be doing this? Does this include visiting refugees at their homes, to make sure they effectively live in safe and hygienic conditions, contrary to what SWD might be told by its contractor?
Vision First will increase its watchdog role to protect the interests of refugees and report service failures. We will monitor service delivery in the three regions to ensure that demonstrable errors of the past are not repeated and do not again become systemic problems.
On 28 November 2014, the Social Welfare Department (“SWD”) issued a new tender invitation for the provision of in-kind humanitarian assistance to ensure that refugees will not – (a) be left to sleep in the street; (b) be seriously hungry; or (c) be unable to satisfy the most basic requirements of hygiene. The number of those “deprived of basic needs during their presence in Hong Kong” is now estimated to be around 6700.
Vision First disagrees with the government view of this project as “humanitarian assistance, not welfare”, because the authorities are bound by legal obligations towards refugees, who are prohibited from working, that extend beyond fractional and inadequate charitable assistance. It is highly unattractive for the government to abdicate responsibility for providing social welfare to indigent people or delegate such duties to underfunded local charities. (FACV 2/2013)
This fundamental difference in opinion places Vision First against the ‘thinking inside the box’ that characterizes a tender that, despite an estimate 400 million HKD value, is bound to fail to lift thousands of refugees from ‘destitution’, but will in fact continue to coerce them into begging for handouts and risking jail by working illegally to make ends meet. In practice, little will change.
Vision First strongly condemns the authorities’ failure to take into account the economic reality of seeking asylum in Hong Kong where it is impossible for anyone to subsist on the maximum monetary monthly values set by the tender, namely, 1500$ for accommodation; 1200$ for food; 300$ for utilities and 200-420$ for transportation depending on location of residence.
Such restrictive limitations fall disappointingly short of the High Court judgment requiring that refugees’ “basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government … The provision of that assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim.” (HCMA 70/2010)
As Vision First was informally told by sources within SWD, the aim of this tender is to add competition in the provision of service so that new ideas are introduced to improve services and increase benefits. Food coupons and the establishment of three service regions were announced. While these were suggestions raised by civil society, the way they are formulated raises numerable questions concerning the labelling of refugees as abusers.
For example, Vision First invites prospective tenders to question whether this humanitarian assistance might be manipulated by a hypocrite government strategy that aims to marginalize the weak while purportedly protecting the wealth of a limited circle of power that ultimately pulls the strings of command. Are contractors willing to participate in unjust oppression like mercenaries?
While Vision First rejects any solution that falls short of affording refugees the right to provide for themselves, food coupons remain highly unsatisfactory when restricted to the 1200$ ceiling for groceries (or 40$ a day). Further, although coupons will put a stop to the widespread pilfering of rations (including the Revolving Door and Food-for-Cash cams), we are concerned refugees will be blamed in the public eye for selling coupons and seemingly taking advantage of benefits by moving between regions.
This might be the case if coupons are not implemented in the three regions in which the SWD will divide the contract (Hong Kong and Islands, Kowloon and New Territories), which could theoretically be managed by three different NGOs. The three regions are designed to introduce competition between agency and service models, but could disadvantage refugees managed by a less agreeable contractor. Competition in welfare services will certainly put at risk vulnerable beneficiaries.
Within these parameters, SWD should have implemented refugee welfare directly. Alternatively, refugees should be granted the right to work for the time they need to level differences in service provision, and gather the resources SWD ingeniously expects civil society to raise. Overall the new tender only serves to perpetuate the same hardship in a different package.
On outreach in the Nai Wai area in November 2014, Vision First visited several refugee slums with Ibrahim, an office-bearer of the Refugee Union who wish to see for himself the appalling living conditions in these isolated ghettos. Ibrahim’s experience with rural conditions in Africa did not prepared him for what he witnessed as third-world conditions might be better.
Towards the end of the day, Ibrahim suddenly said he recognized a secluded area we entered. “I have been here before!” he exclaimed. “I recognize this place. It’s where Rachel Li [then an ISS-HK case worker, today ISS-HK Mongkok branch manager] sent me to find a room in the summer of 2010. I often wondered where this place was. I want to testify in court how she pushed my family to live in the slums after our contract expired in Cheung Sha Wan.”
Ibrahim explained, “I remember well because it was after my son was born in June 2010 and our family needed to move house. The contract ended and I asked Rachel Li to help get another place. The (rent assistance) budget for our family was 2800$ but we couldn’t find a suitable place in Kowloon. Rachel Li asked the ISS accommodation officer to give me a list of mobile numbers. I still have that list. I called some numbers and then met a Chinese lady who took me to this place.”
Over the years, Vision First gathered evidence contradicting claims by ISS-HK that refugees choose to live in the slums of their own accord and case workers play no part in the lucrative business generated by unscrupulous slum lords. Ibrahim is a credible witness to what happened. Since he arrived in October 2005 he had never visited a refugee slum until his case worker sent him there.
In the summer of 2010, his ISS-HK case worker Ms. Rachel Li proactively introduced him to slum lords by providing a list of contact numbers. She encouraged him to relocate his family out of Kowloon into illegal structures in the rural area. Ibrahim was not impressed. Despite being destitute and desperately seeking a home for his family, he turned down the hut offered at 2800$ a month.
Four years later, Ibrahim returned to the location that shocked his conscience and raised questions about ISS-HK methodology in housing vulnerable refugees. It isn’t unlikely that ISS-HK case workers were instructed to promote a “Slum Solution” to urban refugees with the aim of isolating them in ghettos to reduce welfare costs and minimize social participation.
Vision First exposed this compound in October 2013 as “No. 36 – The Slum Along The Ditch”, estimating that the purported slum lady pocketed 1,400,000 HKD in payments from ISS-HK, allegedly without submitting adequate proof of ownership and title deeds approving the compound as tenantable premises under Hong Kong law.
Will the Social Welfare Department continue to turn a blind eye to such questionable practices?
Vision First has one question for the Social Welfare Department as it invites tenders for the “Provision of Assistance for Non-refoulement Claimants” for almost 7000 refugees caught between a rock and a hard place, namely, a 1500$ rent ceiling and a prohibition to working.
Question: Is it acceptable for contractors to settle service users in illegal structures (unauthorized works generally investigated and purged by the Lands Department), and if so will SWD provide an indemnification letter to the contractors?
If the answer is NO, then SWD should explain why the present contractor systematically and over many years housed vulnerable refugees, including infants and children in at least 69 slums exposed by Vision First in 2013 and 2014.
If the answer is YES, then SWD should explain on which basis and by what means it will indemnify contractors from responsibility and damage claims for subjecting refugees to punitive, dehumanizing and exploitative living conditions in the 69 refugee slums we exposed.
For the avoidance of any doubt, present and future contractors should be aware that several government departments and agencies (SWD excluded) are keenly interested in the practice and consequence of establishing refugee slums since 2006 and paying rent therein with funds from the public purse.
Slum No. 69 in Hung Shui Kiu is a maze of illegal structures, unauthorized electrical, water and sewerage works that housed dozens of refugees for several years. It is estimated that the present SWD contractor pays the purported landlord in excess of 400,000 HKD yearly in rent and utilities, despite the apparent lack of rentable premises.
Refugees pay more than 2000$ for spaces defined haphazardly in tight corners, some roughly bordered by plywood boards erected around mattresses. The cooking and washing facilities are rudimentary at best, and certainly less than sanitary, with faulty plumbing and defective drains. Rodents, cockroaches and a variety of insects plague the compound and make tenants sick.
As in the other slums, it is noteworthy that every refugee holds a signed Agreement issued by ISS-HK. Further, refugees confirm that generally ISS-HK case workers inspected and approved these rooms under the existing SWD contract for “Provision of Assistance for Non-refoulement Claimants”.
One could be mistaken to believe that the Social Welfare Department tacitly approved the 69 refugee slums, despite its clear and binding duty to monitor the performance of its chosen contractor, in particular with regard to the condition of accommodation, including legality, safety and hygiene.
It appears that not everything is sound in the current welfare provision to refugee. Why?
At a time when the Social Welfare Department launches a new tender process for welfare services to the refugee community, Vision First emphasizes that sound structures requires sound foundations. If the underlying parameters remain unchanged, it is doubtful the new contract will produce better results.
Policymakers should carefully consider “Temporary Work Permits” as a realistic option for 10,000 refugees in Hong Kong to effectively house, feed and support themselves without straining public funds. An inadequate welfare package (1500$ in rent and 1200$ in rations monthly) forces claimants to work and breach the law – whether that is an intentional result or not.
The ugly side of the current tender is plain to see for any refugee worker who steps out of her comfortable office to investigate the asylum scourge in the countryside. Fraudulent slum lords pocket up to half-a-million dollars a year (tax free?) from illegal structures rented to refugees, but paid by the present contractor with public funds. Will the new tender prohibit housing in unauthorized works?
Trapped between insufficient welfare and a prohibition to work, refugees are drowning in a bottomless lake. On top of rentals, there is a constant struggle to pay electricity bills that frequently exceed utility allowances for refugees battling heat in the summer and cold in the winter with damaged, discarded appliances. Will the new tender require legally compliant living conditions?
Since Vision First started visiting the slums in 2010, little has changed. Disappointingly hundreds of refugees still endure third world-like conditions. Wooden walls and metal rooftops pack human beings indecently into confined spaces far from urban residents’ sight. Dreadful cooking facilities comprises old fridges and damaged stoves which refugees are expected to buy without working. Will legally complaint facilities be required?
The Social Welfare Department cannot appraise tender performance only from carefully angled photographs of beds against tapestry walls. Independent field visits are essential and ought to be conducted without the contractor’s knowledge. Vision First is the only NGO to lead government officials to witness firsthand the failures of the current tender. Will the new tender be independently monitored?
It is obvious by looking at the photo below that questions may be raised at how such facilities were approved for human beings under the care of case workers under a government tender. None of the 69 slums exposed by Vision First have adequate cooking or bathing facilities. Some don’t even have hot water. Since 2010 the slum lady pictured below boiled on a fire cauldrons of water for refugees to mix in buckets to shower. Will the new tender prohibit such outrages?
Further, we can only speculate about the health risks such practice produces. Access to clean drinking water, which in this slum is pumped from an underground well, is denied in contravention of health regulations. Health issues can ensue when refugees are forced to drink, cook and bathe in untreated water drawn from the proximity of unauthorized drains and sewers. Will water works be monitored?
Vision First condemn the exploitation of refugees housed as cattle waiting for a one-way trip to the slaughter house. Will the new tender protect refugees if the old parameters remain unchanged?