Unfair and unrealistic asylum policies force refugees to contend with unscrupulous landlords for living space that is confined, overpriced and often illegal. While the last word hasn’t been said on the 66 refugee slums exposed by Vision First in 2013, numerous refugees accept dangerous and substandard accommodation only partly subsidized by the official 1500$ rent assistance.
Five refugees rent partitioned rooms in a derelict structure erected on the rooftop of a decrepit building in Kowloon City recently targeted by the Building Department for “unauthorized building works”. One South Asian refugee lived here three years. Vision First queries how ISS-HK case workers approved these rooms in the absence of “Evidence of ownership” (according to ISS-HK rental guidelines) that presumably relevant departments would not issue for illegal structures.
Basic, legal rooms cost about 2400$ in urban areas and greedy landlords squeeze refugees for all they are worth. “We don’t have any choice.” said Marcus from West Africa who lived here for two years, “If we don’t pay the difference, the landlady shouts ‘(Expletive) you pay or you go out!’ And if one of us comes short, her husband cuts electricity to all seven rooms until everyone pays. She wanted 3000$ for my room, but I told her 2000$ is the maximum I can afford. There is a shortage of cheap rooms. What can we do?”
Saeed from Pakistan stayed in a guesthouse for six weeks after Vision First reported he was homeless. In May 2014 he moved into this structure under a metal sheet roof. In August his electricity bill shot up to 1,340$ because his air-conditioner is mounted between two rooms and recycles overheated air with no external vent. Saeed installed a fan in the false ceiling to remove cooking fumes, blowing more heat above, not outside. He pays dearly for a room he thought he rented for a bargain 2000$. Then there are the rats “running over the ceiling like having fights”.
Number 7 is a coffin-room shocks the conscience of any visitor. At the edge of the rooftop, plywood separates a cooking-washing-toilet space that defies descriptions (see photos below). A gaping space above the wall with no window is only covered by a plastic sheet. The air-con unit from room 6 vents into this space. A mattress is thrown on the floor in a crawl-in area without a proper ceiling, where plastic bags hang to catch dripping rain. Here is a room that rents for 1500$ and supports ISS-HK claim that some refugees actually live within the budget!
It’s hard to believe that Mahmood has stayed here two years. He explains, “I cannot work so how can I rent more? I have no money to pay more rent so I cannot leave this place. There is no window to stop the rain. This is fake room. Nobody want to live here, but I have no choice. Summer is too hot. I go park. I go walking around at night until it is cool, because too hot under the metal roof.”
It is questionable that this unauthorized structure was approved as accommodation for five refugees with rent from government funds. These partitioned rooms are constructed to give an appearance of suitability from the entrance, though, upon closer inspection, the walls and ceiling tiles conceal a deceptive reality. It could be argued that some Chinese residents also live on rooftops, though stronger construction and maintenance is not overlooked for their dwellings.
Inspection of the ISS-HK agreements raised further concerned about the addresses: one contract showed the 5/F, another showed the 6/F; the street number changed from 25 to 27, although the latter is correct. If case workers fail to examine ownership documents with due diligence, purported landlord may complete tenancy agreement with incorrect information that places refugees in other buildings and on different floors, when only separated by plywood walls.
Vision First objects to unrealistic asylum policies that force refugees to accept dangerous and substandard housing, often paying extortionary rentals, with little or no support from case workers who should manage landlord relations. These five refugees living under a metal sheet roof are a case in point. They live in a condemned structure and pay excessive rent under threat of eviction. Their rooms are shoddy illegal structures, with unlicensed electrical work, overheating air-conditioners, poor sewage and either no ventilation, or no windows at all!
The overall picture is bleak for the refugee community. 9000 refugees are denied adequate rent assistance by failed welfare policies and prohibited from working which would enable them to rent basic, safe housing. Immiserated by these two contradicting restrictions, they are exploited, criminalized, vilified and presented as a burden instead of being allowed to work until their asylum claims are determined.