Eight homeless refugees, including two children, had an evening stand-off at the ISS-HK Mongkok branch. Rising rents are pushing refugees against the ropes and many are becoming homeless. With no savings, income or salary and inadequate support from ISS, the situation is troubling as more destitute refugees become homeless. While every homeless case is disturbing, families should not be sleeping in the streets. Ibrahim arrived from Togo in 2005 and Immigration has not started his torture case yet. Realizing the asylum process takes years, in 2009 he persuaded his wife to join him and they have had two children in Hong Kong.
For several years they lived in a rundown flat in Cheung Sha Wan, struggling monthly to raise 900$ balance between 4500$ rent and 3600$ paid by ISS. Despite pawning the wife’s wedding necklace – a gift from her mother – and borrowing from anyone who listened, overdue rent increased and an irate landlord sued at the Lands Tribunal. Ibrahim begged ISS to assist but his pleases fell on deaf ears despite the presence of his two young children. After a few months the inevitable happened: an eviction notice was issued, the police enforced the court order and the helpless family was on the street. In despair Ibrahim approached Vision First and a lawyer took the case pro-bono, though the legal process was too slow to keep the home. With no option, yesterday afternoon the family took their few belongings to ISS Mongkok office ready to camp out till a viable solution was found. At this point the tragedy became a comedy.
With a reporter from am730 (daily readership of 960,000), Vision First witnessed the spectacle that unfolded over five confrontational hours, during which the indifference of ISS case workers was apparent. This 200,000,000$ giant is a helpless child when confronted with the unexpected, like rabbits dazed by the headlights of an oncoming truck. A dozen staff tried their best to look professional, but from the other side of the security glass, appeared like stunned fish circling a fishbowl when hungry cats approach. In a time of crisis greatness shine, but clearly there was none of that nor professionalism to display in those premises. The security guards were instructed to remove us. That didn’t happen. They were then instructed to stop photo taking. No luck again. ISS made a few panicked offers to Ibrahim and the other homeless refugees. When they refused in frustration the next action was predictably pathetic.
What do agents of social control do when biscuit rations and empty promises fail? We triggered this reaction often enough at UNHCR to expect ISS to call Hong Kong’s finest. Shortly afterwards, two, four, six, eight police officers entered the office with that familiar walkie-talkie chatter. Since crimes weren’t committed, the police could only attempt their best mediation technics for such an intractable problem, appreciating refugees depended entirely on ISS service or lack thereof. Everyone clashed against ISS’ rigid intransigence. Those dazed rabbits were dancing to an uncomfortable music they were unfamiliar with. They were out of their depth. They had been abandoned by Director Miss Panares, who was reported recently been discharged from hospital with high blood pressure. Vision First wishes her a speedy recovery to deal with upcoming actions that are sure to test her lateral thinking as much as her executive decision: is it worth managing a cruel program that causes refugees more harm than good?
The naivety and confusion of ISS was apparent when they asked the police to delete our photos and remove the journalists, an action that infuriated the reporters who sternly reminded ISS of freedom of press. ISS displayed an intransigence only matched by their negligence. They refused several reasonable requests to put promises in writing and couldn’t move beyond offering guesthouses while longterm dwellings were secured. Clearly they were instructed to sign nothing that would guarantee an undertaking to do the job they are paid for. At 9pm the homeless refugees broke the stand-off for the sake of the tired kids. They weren’t surprised that ISS refused to sign any guarantee their demands would be met in the near future. Even a police officer said, “It’s very difficult to find rooms. I have tried for a month to get the right flat and prices are so high!”
Exactly the point. If ISS salaries of 15,000$ to 25,000$ make it hard for them to find decent homes, what chance do refugees have on a 1200$ budget and 15 months jails for working illegally? Something is alarmingly wrong with ISS housing policy and the cruelty it perpetuates. Its details will be revealed next Monday in the Legislative Council. Ahead of the big day, we suggest Miss Panares take a crash course in relaxing techniques to avoid hyperventilating at the sight of a disgruntled ISS clients filling the meeting room, galleries, lobbies and waiting for her outside Legco. The storm clouds are gathering and they might just blow away a whole lot of incompetence this time.