2014 has been a year of notable changes. This momentous year started with the government introducing an enhanced welfare package that anyone with a fair economic sense found insulting: rent assistance was limited to 1500$ (cage homes cost 2400$) and refugees remained exploited in slums. Meanwhile emergency food rations continued to suffer a mysterious 40% reduction in value.
The refugee community was unwilling to accept such dire conditions and established the Refugee Union to gain collective power and counter a state of oppression. In July 2014 the Hong Kong public, as well as local and international media, are increasingly aware of the social injustice that affects 6000 protection claimants. It is hoped that the authorities will formulate policy changes to meet legitimate demands.
Vision First was dissatisfied with palliative welfare enhancements that other observers described as welcome changes without calculating the economic impossibility cast upon refugees who are neither adequately supported, nor allowed employment. In our view, nothing less than sweeping policy changes will blot out the shame Hong Kong Government has brought upon itself in this field.
Taking a big picture approach, Vision First evaluates its programs and activities not for their benefits to a few hundred refugees who can afford bus fares to our centre, but for their impact on the whole refugee community. In this respect, it is increasingly less relevant, and certainly less gratifying, to provide limited assistance to a minority when the majority face agonizing hardship alone, beyond the reach of the NGO network.
This strategy led to the suspension of a 200$ cash program that was replaced by ISS-HK providing upfront travelling cash to all refugees; it prompted the closure of our shelter that compelled ISS-HK to settle scores of claimants in guesthouses; it organized slum-living refugees to request security deposits to rent basic legal housing; and it mobilized refugees to take directly to the SWD head-quarters as ISS-HK had no credible complaint mechanism.
In July 2014 Vision First suspended classes and programs that do not meet the strategic objective of transforming the asylum experience for the entire refugee population. To illustrate, we stopped fundraising for kindergarten fees, but obtained assurance the Education Department would waive fees for all preschoolers. Rather than closing glaring gaps in welfare provision, we aim to empower refugees towards self-reliance on the principle that nobody should be reduced to begging in Asia’s World City.
By walking a mile in their shoes, we evaluate refugee services according their real-world impact within the harsh environment of scarce assistance, punitive sentences for working illegally and the general impotence of charities on which the government expects refugees to rely upon. In this respect, we estimate that 150 million HKD in essential services are lacking, or 2000$ a month per claimant.
This questions the significance of Vision First raising one-percent of such a shortfall to fractionally meet the daily needs of a small minority, when thousands of men, women and children wallow in abject destitution. If meaning is to be found in our work, it must take a broad outlook and we call this new strategy TRIPLE A – Advocacy, Activism and Advice.
Advocacy has been our focus for two years as we merge deep relationships within the refugee community with a determination to become together a force for change. Activism was strengthened by occupation movements as well as the logistical support to the Refugee Union. Advice is emerging as a third vital lactivity as Vision First mediates refugees’ troubles with government departments, while empowering individuals to speak for themselves and remove ineffective NGO filtering.
2014 already witnessed a shift in consciousness within the refugee population. By developing advocacy, activism and advice, Vision First is confident of releasing the inherent potential of assertive refugees who will in turn motivate and mobilized the broader community to push for long overdue policy, welfare and ethical changes.