Over the past six months Vision First has meet with over 600 refugees, many of whom expressed a desire to become members, while others already constituted the core team upon which we rely for changes in practice and policy.
Hundreds of the refugees we actively engage with have been in Hong Kong for years, often over a decade. Others are relatively newer to the asylum field. They bring a different perspective and fresh energy to debates and activism as they seem unwilling to wait in limbo for endless years.
Over the past months, we reported about new asylum claimants experiencing great difficulties in securing accommodation even after registering with authorities. In this respect, Vision First engages government offices almost on a daily basis to resolve individual cases of unreasonable marginalization and immiseration. The authorities on a whole take reports to heart and endeavour to provide responses within the limitations of what we consider a failed welfare system.
Although we take pride in being a dynamic agency that evolves with, and at times ahead of the changes we spearhead in the asylum arena, it goes without saying that Vision First’s work is hardly a bed of roses. Quite the opposite, we expect thorny issues to cut and puncture without allowing it to dishearten as we never take failure personally. Rather, we seek to learn from every outcome and welcome criticism valued for the lessons it may teach.
As a case in point, we would like to discuss the criticism we recently elicited with a view to clarifying rumors, enhancing performance and refining longterm objectives. We believe this transparent self-analysis helps invigorate our efforts as we learn from past experiences to shape future endeavours.
Here are some objections that have been considered and critically evaluated:
• The information available to members on policy changes is too little and too sparse, and such changes are at times too radical and difficult for members to understand.
Response: A new website was launched to expand communication. It will soon feature a dedicated and public “Members Page” to report and explain policy shifts, new objectives and other changes that members can read about in a timely fashion (possibly even in their own language). This will be boosted by new ideas to be unveiled soon.
• Promises relating to individual assistance were suddenly broken.
Response: Vision First never makes promises. Members are reminded that deep uncertainty dominates the asylum field, particularly for small, independent NGOs that rely exclusively on voluntary support. Vision First always qualifies assistance with words to the effect of “We will do our best according to resources available from time to time”. We constantly re-evaluate programs in light of changes that are often beyond our control. Vision First is unable to replace government services to refugees and any material or financial assistance is a temporary solution until the authorities meet their obligations entirely. In this respect, individual assistance may be tailored to promote our “Triple A strategy” – Advocacy, Activism, Advice.
• Expectations of support and assistance were unfulfilled.
Response: While it is reasonable to have expectations, we acknowledge that we did not do enough to manage them. To this end, a new website and a leaflet for new members were launched, to explain what we do and what members should expect. It is noteworthy that our membership expanded four-fold since January 2013 to almost 1300 members, with scores wishing to join. This growth required a strategic shift from merely ensuring a few hundred members live ‘comfortably’, to vigorously engaging government department so that they meet refugees’ basic needs. A genuine concern for the thousands we could not assist compelled the broadening of our strategic thinking.
• Financial assistance offered by Vision First is insufficient for members to make ends meet.
Response: This is very true! Vision First is not mandated or subvented by the government to meet the financial needs of its members. Hypothetically speaking, if each member required 1000$ a month, we would need to raise 15 million a year – clearly an impossible scenario. Vision First pioneered the concept of unconditional Financial Assistance for refugees in 2010. We are pleased to note that ISS-HK adopted a similar practice in February 2014 and now provides cash to all protection claimants (about 6500). The same can be said about security deposits for homes.
• Prospective members have to wait for a long time before being heard.
Response: We are very sorry! Vision First is a tiny, independent agency run by volunteer staff who passionately serve this community without drawing a salary (only one staff works on very low remuneration). The long registration time is evidence of a widespread desire to join our organization. Logistical challenges are unavoidable in an environment where thousands of anxious refugees seek urgent advice. More of this work will soon engage the wise judgment of Refugee Union members, while new methods of registrations are continually tested to speed up the process and facilitate the circulation of information.
• Registrations are actively sought by Vision First only for those who serve their interests.
Response: Vision First welcomes any refugee who filed or will soon file a protection claim, without distinction. We go to great pains to refrain from assessing the merits of claims (which is exclusively an Immigration Department’s task) as we firmly believe that seeking asylum is an inalienable right. At the same time, Vision First vigorously encourages its members to learn their rights, demand adequate government assistance, resist abuse and become effective agents of change – an invitation that understandably not everyone is ready to accept.
• Vision First favours certain individuals over others.
Response: Vision First adheres to the belief that refugees are the first advocates and activists for the changes they want to see in the Hong Kong asylum sphere. Nobody can speak better than them about systemic shortcomings and structures of abuse. It would be questionable for the victims of any unjust system to expect others to fight their battle while they stand on the sidelines to reap the benefits afterwards. Therefore the principle of Active Engagement applies and more time, capacity and resources are justifiably devoted to those who participate most ardently.