The refugee protest against International Social Service (ISS-HK) started on 11 February 2014 triggered by deep dissatisfaction with the food distribution system. Members of the Refugee Union made public complaints that emergency rations were of exceptionally poor quality and worth far less than the official 1200$. Refugees demanded itemized prices to stop questionable practices and on 17 February 2014 called on the ICAC to investigate the SWD contractor. No statement has yet been released by the graft-busters.
Six months later the process is as rotten as it is unbearable for refugees. ISS-HK case workers are unable to ensure that food items selected by refugees are actually delivered by the seven ISS-appointed shops. The discrepancies between food items selected and delivered cannot be explained by clerical errors alone. Most alarmingly, collections continue to be generally reduced by one third and are nowhere near the full value promised to refugees by the SWD. Why?
Complaints are endless: pork is distributed to Muslims; rotten vegetables and eggs are the norm; labelled food is frequently passed expiration date – regrettably even baby formula; insects contaminate rice and feces spoil flour; fish so rotten it sparks indignation; food quality is so substandard that desperate refugees sell it for a fraction of its value than eat it. Vision First understands that the trading of rations by unscrupulous middlemen is being investigated by the police.
Although shops should deal with exchanges, items are replaced only for the most vocal of refugees and after warnings are made to expose the cheating. It appears that media exposure is the only deterrent, where honesty is in short supply. Complaints should also be professionally handled, but invariably the answers are the same, “Take it or leave it! You don’t have to pay for this food. If you have a problem call your ISS case worker! That usually proves to be a frustrating waste of time.
On the other hand, many refugees are still reluctant to speak out about the food crisis because of concerns that citizens will think they came to Hong Kong to fill their stomachs, not for protection. “I don’t want my friends to see me complain about welfare” explained a seasoned refugee “I told them that I came to seek asylum and they would not understand why I am complaining about free food.” Regrettably, civil society and the press are showing little concern for such widespread abuse.
In fact, food and water are vitally important on the scale of human needs for 6000 refugees who depend entirely on government assistance to meet basic requirements, irrespective of NGO efforts that cannot be expected to fill such massive gaps. A refugee put it plainly, “I collected a chicken, a bag of rice, a can of tuna and some vegetables for a ten day period. That is enough for two days. What am I expected to eat for the next eight? ISS is cheating refugees every day.”
Six months of protest haven’t improved the system. While outspoken refugees receive better assistant, the silent majority continue to suffer abuse in a failed system. Meanwhile the government appears to be indifferent to such human suffering.
Refugees have learnt through experience that relief comes only to those who complain directly at the Social Welfare Department head-quarters, where social workers are compelled to put pressure on their colleagues at ISS-HK. In the words of a savvy refugee, “My suffering taught me that I can only trust myself. There is no cash falling from the sky and only I can support my family. If I want change in these conditions, I need to fight for my rights. That is why I joined the Refugee Union.”
Vision First urges refugees with complaints and problems to approach the SWD office in person: