Virginia was a domestic worker in Hong Kong for a decade before she moved to Pakistan with her husband and three children in 2005. She converted to Islam and hoped for a happy life in her husband country, but trouble started and eight years later she divorced and fled.
In September 2013, Virginia and the children returned to Hong Kong and for seven months renewed visas by travelling to China and Macao. In April 2014, she finally ran out of options and surrendered to the Immigration Department. She sought asylum because in the Philippines she would be persecuted for apostasy.
Homeless and indigent, the family roamed the streets of Wanchai and Central for one grim month, until they approached the Refugee Union protest camp at IFC mall for assistance. Welcoming arms were immediately extended to the exhausted mother and three children aged 13, 12 and 9, who experience the darker side of Asia World’s City.
At 17:52 on Saturday 24 May 2014, Vision First alerted the SWD to the unbearable condition the family endured for a month in the streets. They had spent many nights in Southorn Playground in Wanchai, where they chained their few belongings to a railing. Sometimes they slept at Ruttonjee Hospital, but the kids were disturbed by the sights that followed the ambulances. A third option was Star Ferry.
Their plight reveals an alarming welfare lacuna. The SWD is mandated to assist protection claimants whose claims have been accepted by Immigration. In this case, although in April Immigration issued the family with Immigration recognizance forms, their claim hasn’t been formally acknowledge. The SWD informed Virginia, “We need an acknowledgement letter from Immigration that they accept your claim. Until we receive it, we cannot help you.”
On 26 May 2014, an Immigration officer notified Virginia to, “Wait for a call, because your case has been passed to a supervisor and an answer would be given as soon as possible.” Based on precedents, it could take 2 to 8 weeks for registration, during which time the family remain homeless.
Immigration officers have no concern for prospective claimants’ living conditions, even relating to teenage female children, who could conceivably be abducted when sleeping in the street.
The Social Welfare Department should post a welfare officer at the Immigration Department Skyline Tower (surrender office), to ensure that most vulnerable claimants are not left destitute in the street.
On 27 May 2014, the SWD referred the case to ISS-HK and a case worker phoned Virginia and asked, “What is your claim? You have to prove that you should get assistance from the government. After you have proven this then ISS can help you.”
Vision first queries what mandate ISS-HK has to assess asylum claims? And why does ISS-HK question the referral of a needy family by the SWD? Who would challenge the urgency of this case anyway?
The caller continued, “We will put your case on top priority, so you just wait for a call from ISS and we will give you help for your case.” Finally a premeditated warning was issued, “We are both Philippina and I just want to give you an advice that you don’t join any union that is doing rally against ISS.”
This disturbing remark reveals ISS fear of and weakness before the Refugee Union. It is hardly astute to intimidate a homeless mother, left destitute in the street by a failed welfare system, who found assistance and protection among fellow refugees. Needless to say, actions speak louder than words.
Virginia unsurprisingly took offense at the caution and remarked, “I was in need and nobody give me help. Only this union give me help. Only they gave me what my children and I needed.”
The caller warned, “Now that ISS is going to help you, then you stop joining the union!”
Virginia asked, “May I know who is calling?”
The caller replied, “I am calling from ISS” and the line went dead.