On 28 November 2014, the Social Welfare Department (“SWD”) issued a new tender invitation for the provision of in-kind humanitarian assistance to ensure that refugees will not – (a) be left to sleep in the street; (b) be seriously hungry; or (c) be unable to satisfy the most basic requirements of hygiene. The number of those “deprived of basic needs during their presence in Hong Kong” is now estimated to be around 6700.
Vision First disagrees with the government view of this project as “humanitarian assistance, not welfare”, because the authorities are bound by legal obligations towards refugees, who are prohibited from working, that extend beyond fractional and inadequate charitable assistance. It is highly unattractive for the government to abdicate responsibility for providing social welfare to indigent people or delegate such duties to underfunded local charities. (FACV 2/2013)
This fundamental difference in opinion places Vision First against the ‘thinking inside the box’ that characterizes a tender that, despite an estimate 400 million HKD value, is bound to fail to lift thousands of refugees from ‘destitution’, but will in fact continue to coerce them into begging for handouts and risking jail by working illegally to make ends meet. In practice, little will change.
Vision First strongly condemns the authorities’ failure to take into account the economic reality of seeking asylum in Hong Kong where it is impossible for anyone to subsist on the maximum monetary monthly values set by the tender, namely, 1500$ for accommodation; 1200$ for food; 300$ for utilities and 200-420$ for transportation depending on location of residence.
Such restrictive limitations fall disappointingly short of the High Court judgment requiring that refugees’ “basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government … The provision of that assistance clearly removes the need of a genuine claimant to seek employment pending the determination of his claim.” (HCMA 70/2010)
As Vision First was informally told by sources within SWD, the aim of this tender is to add competition in the provision of service so that new ideas are introduced to improve services and increase benefits. Food coupons and the establishment of three service regions were announced. While these were suggestions raised by civil society, the way they are formulated raises numerable questions concerning the labelling of refugees as abusers.
For example, Vision First invites prospective tenders to question whether this humanitarian assistance might be manipulated by a hypocrite government strategy that aims to marginalize the weak while purportedly protecting the wealth of a limited circle of power that ultimately pulls the strings of command. Are contractors willing to participate in unjust oppression like mercenaries?
While Vision First rejects any solution that falls short of affording refugees the right to provide for themselves, food coupons remain highly unsatisfactory when restricted to the 1200$ ceiling for groceries (or 40$ a day). Further, although coupons will put a stop to the widespread pilfering of rations (including the Revolving Door and Food-for-Cash cams), we are concerned refugees will be blamed in the public eye for selling coupons and seemingly taking advantage of benefits by moving between regions.
This might be the case if coupons are not implemented in the three regions in which the SWD will divide the contract (Hong Kong and Islands, Kowloon and New Territories), which could theoretically be managed by three different NGOs. The three regions are designed to introduce competition between agency and service models, but could disadvantage refugees managed by a less agreeable contractor. Competition in welfare services will certainly put at risk vulnerable beneficiaries.
Within these parameters, SWD should have implemented refugee welfare directly. Alternatively, refugees should be granted the right to work for the time they need to level differences in service provision, and gather the resources SWD ingeniously expects civil society to raise. Overall the new tender only serves to perpetuate the same hardship in a different package.