The media interest on the Ping Che slums intensifies as concerned citizens query whether International Social Services (ISS) followed guidelines and abided by the law in authorizing the disbursement of government funds for these refugee slums. South China Morning Post have also uploaded the AFP video – now available here – that has been uploaded on over 30 websites worldwide. On Wednesday Vision First director Robert Tibbo visited the Ping Che slums and his comments are reported below in view of his considerable legal expertise:
Having seen the shacks in this compound, it is clear that the conditions are unacceptable. Human beings, in particular the asylum seekers, should not be living in these conditions. I question whether any of these residential premises are permissible in this area, whether this is zoned for residential living. It is clear that the asylum seekers have no choice about the extremely unhygienic conditions in which they live, including having toilets in their kitchens.
There are structures in Ping Che that clearly appear to be unsafe and dangerous. It is hard to believe that ISS and the Social Welfare Department have previously come down here and approved these living conditions. I have serious doubts that they ever came down here to approve these appalling living conditions. I would be interested to see the land title documents for these addresses and whether building permits for these residential living units even exist. I am curious as to who did the electrical work and whether the electrical work open wiring was installed by licensed electricians. Clearly this living environment for the asylum seekers comes as a great shock as Hong Kong is one of the world’s richest cities.
The Security Bureau and ISS have taken up responsibilities for the government in distributing aid, the Social Welfare Department oversee the living conditions for asylum seekers in the Ping Che area. These organizations, in my view, stand in a position of trust towards the asylum seekers, a position that I would describe as a fiduciary position. Looking at these terrible living conditions, I have my doubts about whether the government, Social Welfare Department and ISS have carried out their fiduciary duties towards asylum seekers.
This week TVB invited ISS director Ms. Panares to Ping Che for an interview, assuming she is proud of her housing program and willing to accompany journalists on an inspection. They were mistaken. Ms. Panares declined. She insisted on an interview in the comfort of her Mongkok office and offered the baffling excuse that, “Ping Che is overexposed!”
It is important to note that at 930am the day after TVB Pearl exposed the slums on the evening news (20 June 2013, World Refugee Day), Ms. Panares and a delegation of ISS officers pounded on that compound’s metal door unannounced. The sleeping refugees were shocked to open the door and see a dozen dignitaries had been dragged out of beds on a damage control mission.
For the first time ISS suggested refugees pair up to secure village rooms for which ISS would pay deposits and advance rent. It is also reported that ISS offered, “Whatever you need, refrigerators, stoves and gas cylinders … just make a request and we will give it to you.” The refugees were surprised by this sudden thoughtful attention after being ignored, cheated and discriminated against for years. As one witty Bangladeshi observed, “ISS treated us like VIPs … Very Inhuman Persons!”
There are reasons to doubt that humanitarianism is ISS’ core motivation at this stage. Vision First is of the opinion that ISS agreements in the slums and the landlords’ contracts and electricity demand notices, having contained incorrect information, might constitute evidence of offenses falling under the Theft Ordinance (sections 14-19).
In particular, we query whether these documents might evince:
- Theft by deception, with risk of prejudice to the government and tax-payers;
- Theft by false accounting, with information stated for false accounting purposes;
- Conspiracy to defraud, with parties involved in an elaborate scam for years.