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No information for NGOs on new system for asylum seekers

Nov 3rd, 2013 | Media | Comment

Jennifer Ngo writes for the South China Morning Post on 3 November 2013

A unified screening system for asylum seekers that is due to be up and running by the end of this year remains a mystery, with NGOs saying that the government’s continued silence was “extremely disconcerting”. Proposed by the government and approved by a Legislative Council panel in July, the new unified screening mechanism (USM) would monitor torture claimants as well as those seeking asylum on the grounds of persecution or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – “in one go”.

A government spokesman confirmed in a statement that it had set a deadline for the USM of the end of this year. “But since [July], we haven’t heard anything,” said Victoria Wisniewski Otero from the Refugee Advice Centre, at a seminar on the topic yesterday. “It’s worrying for the asylum seeker community here in Hong Kong and it’s creating a lot of anxiety.”

As Hong Kong is not subject to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the government currently screens torture claims only, meaning the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) has had to take on the task of screening those seeking asylum who are not necessarily doing so on the grounds of having been tortured.

However, the city has been a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture since 1992, and it cannot expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being tortured. Two Court of Final Appeal decisions that said the government could not rely on the UNHCR to screen asylum seekers prompted the government to push out the unified process.

Otero said the government had made an open invitation for suggestions from stakeholders in July, but none had heard back since submitting their opinions. “There is a lot of uncertainty on how the USM will run. There are no details about how the system will be set up,” she said. Ambrose Chiu Chun-ki, the assistant resettlement officer at the UNHCR, said the agency had been having negotiations with the government since July.

Crashing through the poverty line

Nov 2nd, 2013 | Food, Housing, VF Report, Welfare | Comment

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?

Crashing through the poverty line

Crashing through the poverty line

Nov 2nd, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

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?

Link to blog:  http://visionfirstnow.org/2013/11/02/crashing-through-the-poverty-line/

 

Digging beneath the issue of food value

The broken window trap

Nov 1st, 2013 | Crime, Legal, VF Opinion, Welfare | Comment

Recent news of South Asians, supposedly torture claimants, robbing a mother and daughter understandably sparked distrust of and reprobation towards refugees in general, whose poverty and lack of integration mark exclusion from society.

While the violent crime must be condemned and punished, one should be reminded that poverty is inflicted on asylum seekers by unjust policies aimed at preventing social inclusion. The consequences are alienation and detachment from a community that rejected from the start.

Further, it is well known that when people are institutionally prevented from achieving a normal life, depending on their will to escape their circumstances and available opportunities, they may resort to crimes to survive. This direct, causal connection is always worthy of attention.

There is a hint of deception when access to asylum is offered without access to adequate support. Weaker individuals will be tempted by crime, when alternative and realistic means of survival are denied by a failed support system that is less than humanitarian.

It is now recognized that rent allowance and food provisions by SWD-ISS are insufficient. It is outrageous that refugees are plunged into destitution by the very program that aimed to prevent it. From rent to groceries, from electricity bills to cooking gas, from travel cost to phone bills … nothing has changed. Are the covert objectives sinister?

Refugees face dire circumstances that endanger their survival. It is shameful that they are left in destitution only to be condemned when falling to crime – and it should be noted that engaging in unlawful work is a crime. Whether refugees work, steal or sell drugs, they become criminals. Paradoxically, they received lighter sentences selling drugs and stealing, than taking up jobs!

Could this be asylum rejection by entrapment? The situation is not unlike parking expensive cars in ghettos to lure opportunistic thieves. In the “Broken Window Trap”, police place a mobile phone inside a smashed window to make an easy arrest. It’s an effective, but highly questionable sting.

When policies drive persons to commit offenses that they would otherwise have been unlikely to commit – entrapment becomes a possible defense against criminal liability. There is no mitigation for robbing a mother and daughter, yet Hong Kong’s asylum policy is wrought with ethical concerns.

A refugee slum in Lam Tei, Tuen Mun,  home to several dozen vulnerable and destitute claimants

For a Twelve Day Work Pass

Oct 31st, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Shatin Magistracy court yesterday sentenced Pakistani Waqir to eighteen months imprisonment for breach of condition of stay. He was arrested while trying to earn some badly needed cash. The Immigration Ordinance (Section 38AA) condemns torture claimants to a life of failed welfare and unreliable begging. In reality, these two strategies come up disappointingly short.

The law is clear. Section 38AA states that “a person in respect of whom a removal order is in force, must not take any employment, whether paid or unpaid.” In other jurisdictions working without a visa would be an administrative offence, punished by a fine. In Hong Kong it is a serious crime punishable by three years in jail and a 50,000$ fine. Are such sentences just in a failed welfare environment?

How often must refugees work part-time for 300$ a day to meet their most basic needs?
Let’s put ourselves in their shoes to calculate a subsistence budget:

  1. My rent costs 600$ over 1200$ paid by ISS = 2 days’ work
  2. My electricity cost 300$ over 190$ paid by ISS = 1 day’s work
  3. My food is worth 500$ of 1060$ ISS valuation = 2 day’s work
  4. My groceries cost an extra 600$ a month = 2 days’ work
  5. ISS toiletries lack essentials like shaving creams, etc. = 1 day’s work
  6. ISS does not pay for my cooking gas, cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
  7. ISS doesn’t pay for phone and other costs of 300$ = 1 day’s work
  8. ISS does not pay for my travelling costs of 300$ = 1 days’ work
  9. ISS does not provide cloths that cost 300$ = 1 day’s work
  10. If I had children this would be a much longer list!

We submit that refugees in Hong Kong should be allowed to work 12 days a month just to make up for what a failed welfare system effectively denies them. Until basic financial and material needs are objectively and fairly met, it is a miscarriage of justice to jail refugees who have no viable survival option. Anyone who disagrees is warmly invited to spend a week in a refugee ghetto without cash.

Hong Kong government should consider issuing “Twelve day Working Passes” to single refugees (families would need more) until the assistance package offered by ISS is enhanced to genuinely reflect realistic cost and actual needs. Offering half of a subsistence budget is shameful to all involved!

No. 43 – The slum with white blocks

No. 41 – The slum in the fish farm

Oct 28th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

A half-hour minibus ride from Yuen Long are the Mai Po marshlands. With proper foundations great estates have been developed, such as Fairview Park and Pam Springs. It’s quite a different story when landlord fail to drain the land and build on waterlogged soil. The environment might be good for fish farms, but not for humans.

In fragrant violation of land use, an exploitative landlord found a new source of income when raising gold fish became unprofitable. With the conniving assistance of ISS-HK, the Slum Lord turned this property around. It is no longer an abandoned structure, but a ghetto earning 35,000 HK$ in illicit profit from government rental assistance to refugees.

At first glance on a beautiful sunny day, one could easily be mistaken. A grand metal gate ushers visitors into a spacious, tidy courtyard where children love to play. If you venture any further, however, the underbelly of the beast reveals its dark secrets. The stench is unbearable. Insects sting viciously. Toilets don’t flush and every sink is as blocked as the drains they connect to.

It is heart-wrenching to witness the conditions that 31 refugees – including a dozen young children – endure due to ISS-HK’s connivance with an unscrupulous slum lord. Rooms cost the full allowance, but since deposits are not required, this compound is full. It is an absolute certainty that this refugee ghetto would fail the inspection of any agency – except the Social Welfare Department, it appears.

No. 41 – The slum in the fish farm

Peter’s trial will expose the rot

Oct 26th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Peter was released on 500$ bail at Kowloon City Court. Since legal proceedings have commenced, Vision First is no longer at liberty to comment on the case. Suffice it to say that Peter pleaded “Not Guilty” and a trial day was set for 4 December 2013. On that day the long relationship between Peter and ISS-HK – going back to June 2006 – will be exposed in meticulous detail.

Before trial, it might dawn on ISS-HK that having protesters arrested is one matter, while sending them before a judge is quite another. Why? From a close working relationship with UNHCR, ISS-HK might have learnt that they always dropped charges to avoid refugees testifying in court about failed services for the press to report exhaustively. The wise UNHCR fox knew better than becoming a prosecution witness. That foresight appears to be missing.

There is much to say about what happened to Peter’s family. Alas, owing to the upcoming trial we are advised to give no hints to the prosecution. Yesterday, Vision First released Peter from detention and secured a seasoned legal team for the defense. Today, we assure his family that the darkest hour is over. The trial will deal a blow to the arrogance that alienated ISS-HK from the refugee community at large. This promises to be interesting stuff!

The trial will dramatically expose the policies and attitude of a so-called-charity that consistently fails refugees in a colossal way. ISS-HK deliberately fails to take action to ease the plight of thousands, despite a HK$ 396,877,881 budget. It is troubling that last year ISS-HK returned HK$ 60,000,000 to SWD, while denying Peter HK$ 2000 a month to keep a roof over his young children. There is no wonder refugees are pounding doors in desperation! Where else can they turn?

ISS-HK’s priority clearly is not to assist refugees and prevent them from becoming destitute. Instead it is to limit and reduce assistance to the most vulnerable and under-privileged human beings in Hong Kong.

Vision First will ensure that Peter’s trial exposes the rot and brings justice to the real victims.

Will ISS-HK survive the fire?

Oct 26th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

It is reported that slum lords in Ping Che and Sheung Shui have stopped signing new contracts. Refugees have been notified that current tenancy agreements will not be renewed. Apparently ISS-HK is gradually closing down refugee ghettos. What’s the rush? Feeling the heat? Why would ISS-HK do this if no offence was committed by segregating refugees in ghettos?

Has ISS taken advice about fraud?

Section 16A of the Theft Ordinance was enacted to provide the prosecutions in Hong Kong with a straightforward means of prosecution fraudulent schemes resulting in financial or proprietary benefit to the fraudster, while putting the victim’s financial or proprietary interests at risk. ISS-HK might have learnt this offence is punishable by 14 years imprisonment.

Has ISS taken advice about deception?

Section 16A(3) of the Theft Ordinance defines deceit, whether deliberate or reckless, by words or conduct, whether by any act or omission, as to fact or as to law, including a deceit relating to the past, the present or the future and a deceit as to the intentions of the person practising the deceit or of any other person.

Has ISS taken advice about conspiracy to defraud?

An agreement to commit the statutory offence of fraud may still be prosecuted as a conspiracy to defraud at common law. It has been noted that a conspiracy to defraud is an agreement to practice a fraud on somebody based on either dishonestly imperiling the economic interest of another or dishonestly acting to the prejudice of another’s rights. It may be directed against both private and public victims (HKSAR?)

If slum lords are worried, should ISS-HK be concerned about its involvement?

For an answer, let’s examine another refugee ghetto … burn, baby, burn!!!

No. 40 – The slum with fire extinguishers

ISS locks the door and calls police

Oct 25th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

ISS-HK deals with complaints by locking its doors

Understanding the pig farm connection

Oct 23rd, 2013 | Housing, VF Report, Welfare | Comment

In April 2006 the Social Welfare Department signed the first service contract with International Social Service (ISS-HK) to ensure, among other objectives, that refugees during their stay in Hong Kong, “would not be left to sleep in the street”.

[Note: HKSAR refuses to make public contracts between SWD and ISS. From 2006 to 2013 SWD subvented ISS-HK with hundreds of millions of dollars. Details for 2012 are available in these SWD-ISS Service Specifications. On 28 Sep 2012 ISS-HK signed a contract worth HK$ 396,877,881 – including HK$ 40,000,000 in salaries, to be explored in an upcoming blog]

In April 2006 the Government announced the “Voluntary surrender of pig farm licenses”. This incentive scheme encouraged pig famers to surrender their licenses voluntarily and cease pig farming to reduce associated public health and environmental pollution problems. At that time local farms supplied markets with 20% of fresh pork, a quantity later replaced by imports from the Mainland.

The ex-gratia payment to the pig industry was budgeted at HK$ 941,700,000 (min. HK$ 450,000 and max. HK$ 25,450,000) to close down pig sheds and surrendered licenses. As a corollary the Government introduced legislation to stop the issue of new licenses and froze the rearing capacity of those not joining the scheme. In brief, pig farming stopped and sheds lay empty.

For a while the farmers were content with the pay-outs, but they soon looked upon empty sheds and wondered how to redevelop them profitably. Most remain abandoned to this day, though a few unscrupulous landlords turned animal farms into refugee ghettos. It is unclear how the conspiracy started, though there is evidence that ISS pushed refugees to the farmers in 2007.

Vision First is investigating numerous violations of several ordinances. Chief among our concerns are violations of Section 25 of the Building Ordinance which specifies land use. With regard to breaches of Section 25, the penalties are defined in Section 40 as a level 5 fine (50,000$ per offence) and imprisonment for one year. More critically, the Government may impose an encumbrance, impairing the transfer and lessening the value of the land.

There is no excuse for conspiring with pig farmers to settle refugees illegally.

No. 38 – The slum in the white pig farm

The slum in the white pig farm

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