Poverty and destitution in Hong Kong

Post Date: Nov 21st, 2013 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Destitution is generally understood as a deprivation or lack of something – an extreme want of resources the lack of which may jeopardize survival itself.  It is worth repeating here that ISS-HK is contracted by the government to provide services to refugees in a form that “prevents destitution.”

But what exactly determines destitution? This new article helps to clarify the concept by analyzing what deprivation is in Hong Kong. After researching community views, a list was compiled of the items that Hong Kong people consider a necessity. It flows that a lack of such items directly undermines an acceptable minimum living standard. The results define poverty in real terms and more specifically than by measuring income alone, which is the government preferred method.

Poverty is much more than lack of income and one doesn’t have to lose one’s job to appreciate it.

Interestingly, out of the 35 items that emerged from this study as to be a must for Hongkongers – divided in the categories of  “accommodation and food and clothing”, “medical care”, “social connections”, “training and education” and “basic amenities” – the great majority of ISS refugee clients we know possess very few.

It’s a no brainer, for most people, to conclude from our many ghetto reports, that refugees definitely do not have a “safe environment without structural dangers”, “sufficient living space at home, with no need to stay in bed all day”, “bathroom inside a self-contained apartment, with no need to share” … “a window”.

Yes, a simple window! An opening most residents take for granted, even if it opens on an adjacent building. To be able to look out of one’s home has a huge psychological effect anyone can appreciate. The opposite – being trapped in a coffin-room – produces a feeling of imprisonment that many readers would find hard to grasp, but is the structural oppression most refugees suffer and not only in the slums.

Further, refugees can hardly “go to a tea-house sometimes”, “have hot shower in winter”, “take transport to visit friends and relatives”. The list of NO boxes they would tick in this survey is unbearably and painfully long. Of course one leaves aside training opportunities that are denied adult refugees, unless they pay for them, which is rather difficult when they are prevented from earning an income.

The debasing tyranny of ‘in kind assistance’ not only denies freedom and flexibility, but robs recipients of dignity and respect. It is essentially a way to control the underprivileged by stating indirectly, “I don’t trust you are not an alcoholic. I don’t trust you are not a druggy. I don’t trust you with cash, so take your bag of rice … as my heart goes out to you”.

The ‘in kind’ provision prevents refugees from developing  broad “social connections”, “travel to their hometown”, have “dental check-up” and “purchase medicines prescribed by the doctor” – if they can even “consult a private doctor” that is.

The life of a refugee is a deprived life. And by this standard ISS has clearly failed in its contractual obligations.

Some people cannot fulfill their basic needs because of social exclusion rather than lack of money, for example ethnic minorities who face discrimination in the labour market, or who cannot access public services or financial instruments … These limitations can distort estimates of who is most at risk of poverty … The deprivation approach focuses on directly studying people’s actual ability to acquire the items required to meet basic needs.

“Deprivation and Poverty in Hong Kong” by Peter Saundersa, Hung Wongb and Wo Ping Wong

The remains of a refugee shack after a storm (photo by BillyHCKwok)