John Carney writes on Feb 26, 2012 for the Sunday Morning Post (circulation 80,000)
The lives of refugees residing in Hong Kong have been thrown into further turmoil after the UN abruptly slashed the monthly allowance they receive to HK$300 – an 80 per cent cut. Despite receiving generous financial support from donors in Hong Kong, the cash-strapped United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees decided last month it could no longer afford to pay the HK$1,500 that 180 refugees living in the city were getting to help pay expenses. The Hong Kong government has stepped in to provide the recipients with HK$1,200 worth of food each, but refugees say the remaining cash payment falls far short of what they need to pay for rent, clothes, utilities and other essentials. Refugees, who spoke to the Sunday Morning Post on the condition that their names or countries were not identified, say the allowance cut has left them in a struggle to survive.
“I’m a recognised refugee and I will lose my room this week,” said one man from North Africa. “What can I do? Who can help me? I’m not a beggar.” Another refugee from central Asia said he was unable to pay his electricity and water bills and was “very, very desperate”. Activists’ anger over the cuts has been stirred by the fact that the UNHCR’s own website shows it received private contributions of HK$20 million from Hongkongers in 2010 and HK$16 million as of September 19 last year. “What matters for refugee families is `dollars in hand’ – nothing else,” said Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, a non-governmental organisation working with local refugees. “The problem is not fund-raising, but the allocation of money trustingly donated by our fellow citizens. The big picture remains disingenuous.”
The UNHCR said funds raised in Hong Kong were used to support its humanitarian work around the world, which have stretched the body’s financial resources to the limit. It was therefore unable to continue its “material assistance” for refugees. “My office had to secure an alternative source of support to refugees and approached the government for assistance,” said Choosin Ngaotheppitak, head of the UNHCR’s Hong Kong office. “This [humanitarian assistance] programme is in line with the standards set by the government.” He said the government programme would also give refugees access to allowances for rental, utilities and clothing. These welfare services, however, were already available to refugees when the UNHCR was still paying them the full allowance.
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly believes the UNHCR is not doing enough. “They’re effectively caving in to a government programme here that doesn’t meet the standards that the UNHCR themselves think other countries should be meeting elsewhere,” he said. “You have to ask: what are they thinking?” The UNHCR’s global budget for this year will be a record US$3.59 billion and 93 per cent of its funding comes from government sources. It serves some 10.5 million refugees, half of them in Asia.
Who gets what
- Number of recognised refugees in Hong Kong - 180
- Number of (UNHCR) asylum seekers in Hong Kong - 486
- Amount donated to the UNHCR in Hong Kong in 2010 - HK$20 million
- Largest private donor – the Hong Kong Buddhist Association with US$271,337
- Cut to refugee’s HK$1,500 monthly payments - 80 per cent
- Saving to the UNHCR – HK$2,592,000 (paid by HKSAR for food rations)