On 13 February 2015 Vision First conducted a joint slum inspection with a team of lease enforcement officers of the Lands Department, who are tasked to identify unauthorized structures and take enforcement action against registered owners in flagrant breach of lease covenants.
Following the slum blaze in which a Sri Lankan refugee was burned to death, the government approach towards and tolerance of refugee slums appears to have markedly changed. It was regrettably predictable. Vision First campaigned vigorously against hazardous slums advising officials to prudently take preventive actions against dangerous structures before the loss of life and property.
The lead Land Executive confirmed that the present compound at the Slum on two Storeys, the site of the fatal fire, was in breach of the land lease. She explained that the Squatter Control Survey only classified three small huts as “tolerated structures”, erected prior to 1982 and marked “TS” on Lands charts (red ellipse), and those shacks no longer exist.
The Lands executives were shown around the slum and spoke to resident refugees. They were lead to the back of the second storey where the most hazardous cubicles are not easily accessed. It was confirmed that enforcement action started after the fire and warning notices had been posted on 11 February 2015. Lands was yet to hear from the registered owner.
The appalling living conditions – dreadful waterless toilets and bathing buckets in particular – raised grave concerns with the lead officer who asked, “Has the Social Welfare Department visited this place?” She was surprised to learn that her colleagues at the SWD had never visited any of the refugee slums they supported through contracted agent ISS-HK. She assured Vision First that she would refer this case to the SWD and Fire Services for follow up.
We shared a ride in the Lands van to the nearby “Slum that rose like a Phoenix”, which takes its name from a previous blaze and was reported by Vision First on 20 November 2013. We witnessed the Lands executives posting a notice on the perimeter fence 450 days after our original blog. The notice warned that present structures are in breach of lease conditions and must be purged within 28 days to avoid further lease enforcement action.
The lead officer confirmed that following a public complaint, Lands had inspected the site last week and identified unauthorized structures in which dozens of refugees appeared to have been living for some time. She questioned the appropriateness of such arrangements on agricultural land that were not tolerated. She further explained that the government will reenter the land if the registered owner fails to demolish the offending structures in a month’s time.
Affected refugees are gravely concerned about the prospect of being suddenly evicted, though they generally appreciate that short-term discomfort (moving to guesthouses or dormitories) is preferable to years of living dangerously in structures that could as easily collapse as erupt in a ball of fire like Lucky’s hut. Death has a way of focusing attention on what is most important in life.
Vision First emphasises that securing adequate housing for refugees is a government duty, not a task for penniless refugees without savings and work rights. Few doubt that Hong Kong Government is at fault if it fails to meet the legal requirements of the High Court “Usman Butt” case (HCMA 70/2010):
“A genuine torture or refugee claimants deserves sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state during the determination of his status. However, his basic needs such as accommodation, food, clothing and medical care are provided by the Government” – Justice Cheung.