We have no secrets: asylum aid chief

Post Date: Aug 28th, 2013 | Categories: Advocacy, Media | COMMENT

Danny Lee writes for South China Morning Post on 28 August 2013

Head of Swiss-based group says it will help police probe into why clients have been living in illegally converted pigeon coop in Tuen Mun

The head of a Swiss-based international aid network has promised his organisation will not block a police probe into why asylum seekers have been housed in a converted pigeon farm. Jean Ayoub, secretary general of International Social Service, was responding to claims that ISS-HK, which looks after the welfare of asylum seekers, had been using taxpayers’ money to provide “inappropriate accommodation”. “In no way will we hide any information if it becomes real evidence,” Ayoub said from Geneva.

He said everyone had a right to give their side of the story, including ISS-HK. If any form of mismanagement came to light it “would be very serious”. But the organisation had never had “this kind of bother” in its 90-year history. ISS-HK is commissioned by the Social Welfare Department to help asylum seekers with housing, food, transport, clothing and other provisions. Last year it received HK$203 million from the government, which caps the monthly rent available for each recipient at HK$1,200.

In recent months, ISS-HK has faced heavy scrutiny from the Vision First rights group, which accuses it of forcing asylum seekers to live in the illegally converted pigeon farm in Tuen Mun that is a “degrading slum unfit for human habitation”. The owner charges HK$1,300 per person. The shed is patched up with tin, chicken wire and wood and has been subdivided into makeshift cubicles. The residents depend on bottled water for drinking and have only cold showers.

One of the eight residents was taken to hospital recently after drinking boiled tap water. Ayoub said it was up to independent directors overseeing ISS-HK to decide whether to suspend any personnel in the wake of the police investigation. “Depending on the seriousness of the allegations, the international board might step in to talk to the national board and seek ways to correct the situation,” he said. Ayoub said the ISS had a comprehensive set of rules and guidelines for its global network of offices to follow.

The inadequate treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and torture claimants was not a problem confined to Hong Kong, he said. “I would understand from a purely political or practical point of view that governments would want to restrict people coming to these countries,” he said. “What we’re saying is when someone is inside, they should be treated with dignity and not be limited by hundreds of Hong Kong dollars.”

SCMP Danny Lee interviews lawmaker Fernando Cheung in the slums