Danny Lee writes for South China Morning Post on 23 September 2013
Welfare department says asylum seekers are housed in non-residential accommodation. But police drop investigation into slum scandal
The Social Welfare Department has admitted its contractor in charge of asylum seekers’ welfare is housing clients in homes not fit to live in. However, police have dropped their investigation into how some asylum seekers came to be living in squalor due to a lack of evidence. A spokeswoman for the department said the contractor, the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISS-HK), had asked more than 110 asylum seekers to move out of accommodation not fit for residential use. The result is a stand-off as clients are refusing to move.
“The ISS-HK has contacted more than 110 asylum seekers and refugees who are living in areas not meant for residential purposes and has been discussing alternative accommodation with them,” the spokeswoman said. “But they all prefer to stay in their current abodes, which they secured themselves. ISS-HK will continue to encourage them to move out and will mobilise the necessary resources to help them.”
It is believed the asylum seekers are reluctant to move because their homes – which would have been subject to ISS-HK approval – are relatively cheap. Even so, they often cost more than the ISS-HK housing allowance, and many of the asylum seekers have found jobs locally, albeit illegally, to help pay the extra cost.
News that police were dropping the investigation into asylum seekers’ living conditions delivered a blow to human rights advocates seeking to overhaul the city’s welfare system for these people. The degrading conditions in which some are living came to light when a man was rushed to hospital after drinking contaminated water. His home was then found to be a stinking old pigeon shed with no drinking water.
A police spokesman said: “The evidence obtained during the investigation has been seriously considered. As there is insufficient evidence to support the commission of any offence by any person, there will be no further investigation at this stage.” Adrielle Panares, ISS-HK’s migrants programme director, insisted no asylum seeker was living in inappropriate housing. “We are continuously monitoring the conditions of the clients, as per our practice. This means that we review each service user’s assistance every month, conduct home visits, and, with the service users, look into addressing their concerns and needs,” she said.
Robert Tibbo, a barrister specialising in human rights cases and a non-executive director of rights group Vision First, said ISS-HK was not taking responsibility. “This effort to move the asylum seekers out of a few identified slums was apparently an ad hoc attempt to make the issue of slums disappear,” he said. “Over many years, ISS has systematically placed asylum seekers into many slums located across Hong Kong.”
The welfare department declined to say how long the practice of accommodating asylum seekers in the makeshift rooms had been going on. A previous investigation by the South China Morning Post found hundreds of asylum seekers living in squalor in outlying areas of the New Territories. Rooms had no toilets or fresh drinking water but were paid for and approved by the ISS-HK.
The ISS-HK receives HK$203 million from the government to pay for asylum seekers’ welfare. The money, which is not given to them directly, covers rent, a pack of groceries every five days and other basic necessities. The budget increased more than 30 per cent this year because of the number of new ISS-HK clients requiring assistance.
Indian asylum seeker Gupta Raja’s makeshift home at a slum at Nai Wai, Tuen Mun. Photo: Sam Tsang