On dangerous ground

Post Date: Nov 17th, 2013 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Increasing refugees’ rent assistance by 300$, the government presumably added about 15,000,000 to the 203,000,000$ allocated a group that realistically requires much more to be lifted from destitution – until it is afforded work rights. With this stingy concession, refugees are entitled to 2,560$ a month (1500 rent + 1060 food) and remain repressively 30% below the official poverty line. The government set the income at 3600$ for a family of one. Shouldn’t it ensure that who depend entirely on its support lives above it?

First, it is nonsense to justify oppressing people because some might abuse the system. This should be as self-evident as assisting all underprivileged citizens, even if some might be cheating. Further, the 5000 refugees in town have, for the most part, not exhausted the screening process and must not be presumed “fake” until their claims are fully evaluated by a credible system.

Vision First strongly emphasizes and reiterates that they are human beings who deserve shelter, food and water while they wait for the government to make a decision on their life.

As long as human beings breathe and walk in our city, it is the community’s duty to ensure everyone’s needs are met without exception. One cannot raise the lame excuse that some are abusing the system, to accept, condone or acquiesce to an asylum policy that causes physical suffering to the entire refugee community. That’s equivalent to dumping a box of apples because a few a rotten. To do so is a sign that motivations other than rights-based and humanitarian are formulating the asylum policy.

Credit for the belated increase undoubtedly goes to Vision First refugee members who rose against an oppressive housing practice since February 2013 when they first signed ISS-HK Agreements ‘in protest’. That being said, adding 300$ to their rent assistance is decidedly too little, too late. Let’s analyze why.

This Spring four-square-meter subdivided rooms rented for 1700$. Today they cost over 2000$. It is bewildering that anyone should suggest that 1500$ can rent anything legal, even with a deposit. The increase is laughable in the light of definite rental hikes in the coming twelve months. 1500 today is just as unrealistic as 1200 was a year ago. This palliative remedy is truly unreasonable in the face of real-life economic pressures that besiege every strata of our society.

That the rent increase is a sizable 25% justifies accusations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDTP) against those whom the High Court said ‘deserve sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state’. Why did it take so long? Were earlier enhancements purposefully denied? Shouldn’t refugees jailed for working be now released following an official admission that rents were 25% below acceptable levels?

Vision First is most troubled that the Social Welfare Department hasn’t officially spoken against ISS-HK strategy to segregate refugees in ghettos. After exposing over 50 slums, we are deeply concerned that the government is supporting and subventing this practice by failing to provide sufficient assistance for slum dwellers to relocate into legal housing. Why hasn’t the government issued any statement against refugee ghettos? Are they officially condoned? Is it hoped that refugees will find 1500$ rooms?

It is alarming that slum lords have already increased rents over 1200$ in most of the ghettos exposed by Vision First. And that is exclusive of extortionary electricity charges. The myopic and unrealistic 300$ increase plays exquisitely into the hands of the criminals who exploit refugees the most. When slum lords learn that refugees receive 1500$, they will demand it without fail. It is likely that new ghettos will open to profit from this bonanza. Ten illegal room now generate 15,000$ a month without penalty!

The one sure outcome of this misguided increase is inflationary pressure in refugee ghettos. Nobody will escape upcoming rent hikes. The government might have considered this increase would benefit small landlords in Kowloon and in New Territory villages, but their 2000$ rooms remain unaffordable to destitute refugees. Again welfare remains markedly behind the curve and on dangerous ground.

There were only two reasonable, rights-bases solutions the government could have chosen. Either pay the cheapest rents in legal buildings in full, or allow refugees temporary work visas for as long as it takes the Immigration Department to assess protection claims.

If the current solution is the best the government could devise in four months, since the July LegCo meeting, one has to wonder whether the decision was left for summer interns to make.

If this is the “Enhanced Welfare Assistance”, then it’s too little, too late and hardly impressive.

Only Slum Lords will profit from the 300$ rent increase