On 28 January 2014 senior executives from the Lands Department held a meeting with Vision First and Refugee Union representatives, one of whom has continuously resided in a slums paid for with government funds since he arrived in 2006.
The refugees presented three voluminous bundles of photographic evidence to formally lodge complaints on 69 questionable compounds erected on lots that Lands officers agreed were “mostly for agricultural use, including chicken and pig licenses no longer in use, because the government doesn’t allow [such business] having imposed many restrictions on farmers.”
The delegation was assured that registered owners were in breach of lease covenants for any structures that were not exclusively for agricultural or gardening use. It was brought to attention that the issue is not whether housing was properly constructed, but that no housing whatsoever is permitted on farmland and as such would be targeted for demolition.
It was noted that irrespective of collusion (by way of documentary inspections and site visits), registered owners were ultimately responsible for the existence of structures that third parties allegedly exploited to profit from the welfare program for refugees. The Lands Department did not consider acceptable justifications that ‘primary tenants’ had rented land for purposes landlords were unaware of.
Acting on the above mentioned complaints, warning letters demanding the removal or demolition of unauthorized structures are likely to be sent out copiously, failing which encumbrances will be registered with the Lands Registry and the government will take steps to ‘re-enter the land’.
A promise was made for zero tolerance of lease breaches. An officer explained, “Any conversions that are not designated for agricultural or gardening use are prohibited. Any structures that are not described in the land schedule must be removed”. It was categorically emphasized that settling refugees in these compounds constituted an offense under the law.
The delegation was told: “The government is very concerned. Everyone is concerned with the health of the occupants. We will step up enforcement action, including with estate agents … the Social Welfare Department is concerned with the management and supervision of ISS.”
A refugees who spearheaded the anti-slum campaign remarked, “The government accepts there is a huge problem. Last week my officer said ISS only approves the houses after getting approval from the Lands Department.” Vision First is hopeful that the tide is turning on the reckless practice of settling destitute refugees in dangerous and unhygienic slums away from the public eye. At what price?