In the evening of 27 August 2014 Vision First interviewed 15 new protection claimants who were sleeping rough under the arches of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. “Tonight many refugees are not here because is rainy and wet. Maybe they sleep on the floor in a friend’s room or inside buildings and staircases at Chung King Mansions and Mirador Mansions” said an African refugee who has slept outside for three months.
These protection claimants arrived between March and August 2014 and, after lodging asylum claims, were released by Immigration Department with recognizance. They are therefore neither overstayers, nor illegal immigrants. It is an affront to allow vulnerable individuals fleeing for their lives to be treated like animals on the streets of Hong Kong through government negligence that leaves them destitute, hungry and often sick.
A refugee from India narrated his SWD registration, “I told the Welfare Department that I have nothing to eat and I am sleeping at Star Ferry every night. They said that they cannot help me because there is a process and I have to wait 2 to 3 months for a phone call. I begged for help because I have nothing to eat and they gave me the meal times of a place in Chung King Mansions.”
Several refugees joined in and a wiry young man produced a wrinkled Meal Time notice handed to newcomers by SWD in Yau Ma Tei as an alternative to government services. Vision First queries whether the SWD has an agreement with this charity to refer legions of hungry asylum seekers who are in the government’s care. A refugee from Central Africa reported that staff at this agency was frustrated by the pressing demand for food and he noted that probably they were unaware the SWD sent them over. It is noteworthy that the Meal Time notice appears unofficial and does not bear any logo.
This group of homeless refugees shared similar experiences. They had told SWD about their predicament; they had begged for help; there was no intake process or assessment; they were bounced with negligent indifference: “There is nothing we can do”, “We will call you in 2 to 3 months”, “You must wait for a phone call”, “There is a process and many claimants are in the queue”, “We cannot help you”, “You must wait for ISS to call you”, “Don’t come back here”.
It is disturbing that government welfare officers are turning a blind eye to human suffering.
It is unacceptable for the SWD to delay emergency assistance to destitute refugees with the excuse of a backlog. A savvy refugee who required medical services after weeks on the streets noted, “If there are too many refugees to register, why doesn’t the government hire more people? They warn us that we will go to jail if we work and then they give us nothing to eat and no shelter. How can we live three months with nothing?”
At stake are the well-being, health and security of vulnerable newcomers who have a legitimate expectation that their basic needs will be met by Hong Kong Government through the services of the Social Welfare Department. Vision First calls on the SWD to urgently address this problem that is causing great suffering and is damaging Hong Kong’s reputation for human rights in the international community. The cost of failing to protect refugees as well as the shame derived from it, is not insignificant.