Reflection’s of a volunteer – Kenny

Nov 23rd, 2013 | Personal Experiences | Comment

My name is Kenny and I attend Renaissance College

It was my first time being a volunteer and helping refugees. We saw a lot of refugees from different parts of the world. I learnt about how Vision First works. There were different tasks assigned for us to work on.  We were involved as assistants in some of the teaching lessons. There were maths, English and mandarin class. We prepared some worksheets for the refugees to complete.

On Tuesday, we went to visit their slums. They are located somewhere in Kam Sheung Road. It was my first time seeing an actual slum in Hong Kong. I find it very heartbreaking for the refugees to live in these kind of places. There were no proper doors, furniture, floor, roof etc. It didn’t look like a normal house to live in. There were nothing around the slums, they have to walk for a long time to reach transportation.

We were told that the slums are not a safe place to live in as there might be snakes outside. We also went to visit another slum located up the hill. It took a long way before we reached there. Those slums were just a metal cage and there was no electricity. The place was small and there were 8 people living in there.

We also took part in a playgroup on Thursday where we played with the children of the refugees while their mother listened to a presentation about children care. I think it was a great experience volunteering in Vision First and we get to learn more about refugees. There were lots of fun for both of us and the children. I met some new people such as Frank who is a friendly refugee, he also volunteers there. We also gained more experience about what is happening around the world and I find myself very fortunate to be able to live safely in Hong Kong.

Reflection’s of a volunteer – Aran

Nov 23rd, 2013 | Personal Experiences | Comment

My name is Aran and I attend Renaissance College.

It is extraordinary and shocking to know that such living environment exist in Hong Kong. The slums are small and uninhabitable. There is no lighting, making it difficult during night times. The slums we visited are made of pieces of sheet metal, as if they are stapled together in some slack manner.

Pieces have to be installed between the sheets to prevent leaking during raining season. They look vulnerable during thunderstorm season, as it is not safe. Refugees suffer from prejudice from the landlord. The ISS-HK (Contracting organisation responsible for refugee’s food and rent for the government) provides a maximum of $1200 dollars to the landlord at the time when we visited the slums.

However, it is actually insufficient as a refugee we visited is charged $1000 for rent on the rent papers, but in reality charged $1500. Knowing that the ISS has increased the rent support recently, landlords are expected to increase the rent to gain most from the ISS policy.

Food is also arranged through the ISS. There is a so called Food Order Sheet given to the refugees, but the price of the food is blacked out, and it turns out the food price are nearly twice as expensive to the local supermarket. This is the same as diminishing the amount of food refugees get each day by half, which is the same as torturing in an indirect manner.

These refugees are not provided with a Hong Kong identification by the government, which means they are not allowed to work, cannot open a phone line, cannot get internet, and many more limitations. In the minds of many Hong Kong people, the stereotypical refugee has no education and lacks working ability, but in fact, many of them are seeking asylum in Hong Kong because their beliefs are different from the ones the government wants people to have.

Many of them are highly educated people, who have been to higher education institution. They definitely have the ability to work in the Hong Kong society with great contribution.  In Hong Kong, they are nobody. They don’t just come to Hong Kong to beg for food; obviously there is a reason why they have to flee their own country. They want to start a new life in this town, and why can’t they do so?

Are refugees victims of malicious prosecution?

Nov 22nd, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Malicious prosecution denotes the wrongful initiation of criminal proceedings to intentionally and maliciously pursue a suspect without probable cause or sufficient evidence. Law enforcement officers (police, Customs or Immigration) might charge arrested persons with offenses on the basis of circumstantial evidence, i.e., without reliable witnesses, DNA proof or hard evidence. Victims of such prosecution can file compensation claims against the government. Consider these cases:

- Four Bangladeshi refugees searched for cheap rooms in a slum where shacks were being erected. The police pounce and arrest them. They were charged with breach of conditions of stay (working) for being at that location. They plead not guilty and were sentenced to 22 months imprisonment. After 10 months the High Court releases them on lack of evidence.

- Two Pakistani refugees were arrested and charged with robbery after being identified by a Chinese victim in an ID parade (don’t minorities look the same to a non-trained eye?). They pleaded not guilty, refused bail and held 9 months on remand. The victim failed to recognize them at trial. Two other suspects were convicted for the offense. They were released.

- An Indian refugee, with a complicated immigration record, was held at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) despite having torture and CIDTP claims. He was harassed and attempts were made to remove him. He made it clear that he would rather spend his life in CIC than return to face danger. He was released after one year and two weeks of detention.

- Two Indonesian refugees borrowed money from a friend at her place of employment. Immigration pounces and they were arrested for working. They pleaded not guilty. They were held over a month in prison. They were threatened and promised a 2-month sentence if they pleaded guilty. Under duress they agree and were shocked to receive 15-months instead.

These cases have a few elements in common. The defendants are undesirable South Asians torture claimants. Irrespective of the merits of their case, they were profiled as suspect who fit a certain description: brown skinned, poorly educated, little understanding of English, unassertive and generally subdued in character, easily intimidated by authorities and persuaded under duress, unknown to NGOs and human rights lawyers, unaware of their rights and of little interest to duty lawyers.

Law enforcement might be motivated by performance targets: arrests per month, successful prosecution, guilty pleas and increased crime statistics for torture claimants. Under pressure it is understandable that arrested persons collapse. Another refugee pleaded guilty after a month-long trial and turned down the judge’s suggestions he think about it for two weeks. He had broken down and simply couldn’t take it anymore. He would rather go to jail than be harassed daily in court.

Vision First is extremely concerned about the racial profiling of South Asian refugees, their arrest and prosecution without adequate legal assistance. It is evident from numerous cases brought to our attention that prosecution standards must be raised. Refugees should not be manipulated into crime statistics to prove they are criminally minded and merely motivated by a desire to abuse the system.

We are filing compensation claims for the above cases and welcome inquiries from victims of malicious prosecution and unlawful detention who require legal assistance to seek justice and redress.

Hong Kong citizens believe in justice and expect law enforcement to meet high standards of fairness.

Should refugees be removed as a *sacrifice* to protect Hong Kong’s wealth?

Poverty and destitution in Hong Kong

Nov 21st, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Destitution is generally understood as a deprivation or lack of something – an extreme want of resources the lack of which may jeopardize survival itself.  It is worth repeating here that ISS-HK is contracted by the government to provide services to refugees in a form that “prevents destitution.”

But what exactly determines destitution? This new article helps to clarify the concept by analyzing what deprivation is in Hong Kong. After researching community views, a list was compiled of the items that Hong Kong people consider a necessity. It flows that a lack of such items directly undermines an acceptable minimum living standard. The results define poverty in real terms and more specifically than by measuring income alone, which is the government preferred method.

Poverty is much more than lack of income and one doesn’t have to lose one’s job to appreciate it.

Interestingly, out of the 35 items that emerged from this study as to be a must for Hongkongers – divided in the categories of  “accommodation and food and clothing”, “medical care”, “social connections”, “training and education” and “basic amenities” – the great majority of ISS refugee clients we know possess very few.

It’s a no brainer, for most people, to conclude from our many ghetto reports, that refugees definitely do not have a “safe environment without structural dangers”, “sufficient living space at home, with no need to stay in bed all day”, “bathroom inside a self-contained apartment, with no need to share” … “a window”.

Yes, a simple window! An opening most residents take for granted, even if it opens on an adjacent building. To be able to look out of one’s home has a huge psychological effect anyone can appreciate. The opposite – being trapped in a coffin-room – produces a feeling of imprisonment that many readers would find hard to grasp, but is the structural oppression most refugees suffer and not only in the slums.

Further, refugees can hardly “go to a tea-house sometimes”, “have hot shower in winter”, “take transport to visit friends and relatives”. The list of NO boxes they would tick in this survey is unbearably and painfully long. Of course one leaves aside training opportunities that are denied adult refugees, unless they pay for them, which is rather difficult when they are prevented from earning an income.

The debasing tyranny of ‘in kind assistance’ not only denies freedom and flexibility, but robs recipients of dignity and respect. It is essentially a way to control the underprivileged by stating indirectly, “I don’t trust you are not an alcoholic. I don’t trust you are not a druggy. I don’t trust you with cash, so take your bag of rice … as my heart goes out to you”.

The ‘in kind’ provision prevents refugees from developing  broad “social connections”, “travel to their hometown”, have “dental check-up” and “purchase medicines prescribed by the doctor” – if they can even “consult a private doctor” that is.

The life of a refugee is a deprived life. And by this standard ISS has clearly failed in its contractual obligations.

Some people cannot fulfill their basic needs because of social exclusion rather than lack of money, for example ethnic minorities who face discrimination in the labour market, or who cannot access public services or financial instruments … These limitations can distort estimates of who is most at risk of poverty … The deprivation approach focuses on directly studying people’s actual ability to acquire the items required to meet basic needs.

“Deprivation and Poverty in Hong Kong” by Peter Saundersa, Hung Wongb and Wo Ping Wong

The remains of a refugee shack after a storm (photo by BillyHCKwok)

No. 52 – The slum under construction

Nov 19th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Hidden discreetly along a path behind Chung Uk Tsuen, is another illegal business funded by ISS-HK with tax dollars. Mr. Cheung is a shrewd slum lord who for several years profited handsomely from refugees’ rent assistance. Business has been good, but the times are changing. Five refugees live in the outer huts that survived a blaze and storm in recent months. Life is always at risk where building rules are contravened for profit.

Vision First remains deeply concerned that the government has failed to monitoring the approval of refugee housing, while authorizing the payment of tens of millions of dollars to slum lords each year. Why do government departments continue to turn a blind eye? How does this happen in a city that takes great pride in the rule of law and clean administration? Are refugee lives less valuable than those of residents?

Mr. Cheung’s investment was struck twice by misfortune. In the summer, a fire broke out in a section of the slum and even ISS-HK decided that the affected rooms could not be rented without refurbishment. In September, typhoon winds tore down other rickety shacks, leaving only five metal-sheet ones standing. Then the slum lord was forced to spend money on renovation to secure more illicit profits.

The photos below reveal the extent of the work that is not driven by humanitarian consideration, but by exploitative calculation. How many rooms in what layout will maximize payment from ISS-HK? What room size will case workers approve? Should rooms have windows? Air-conditioning for ventilation? How many washing areas and toilets are acceptable for 20 people? What sewerage?

The planning was done before the government announced last week a rent increase from 1200$ to 1500$. Today Mr. Cheung is probably rubbing his hands together with greedy glee, unaware of Vision First’s determination to hurt his income. We will make weekly visits to this site, take photos and report to relevant authorities to ensure that ISS-HK does not settle a single refugees in this newly built ghetto.

Sometimes our activism makes a difference.

#52 – The slum under construction

click above to see a refugee ghetto under construction

The Right to Work for all refugees

Nov 18th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Government concerns over opening a floodgate to refugees coming to our city to work, were policy changes implemented, such as granting them the right to work, are unjustified, says a new article by Chinese University scholars Michael Ramsden and Luke Marsh.

Using the Ma v Director of Immigration case, the authors offer comprehensive understanding of government views on refugees and strategies that should be implemented to successfully challenge the stringent employment policy with regard to refugees.

Importantly, from Vision First’s perspective, a convincing link is made between the excessive time refugees are made to wait in Hong Kong before a durable solution is found for them and the likeliness that prolonged unemployment causes a deterioration of their mental health.

This in turn is most likely to result in refugees agreeing to ‘voluntary departures’ to take their chances in their country of origin. In fact, in order to escape a protracted period of waiting while living at the margins of society, refugees would rather travel back home to face the dangers they had once escaped.

Vision First is a proponent of the idea that current government restriction on refugees working in the formal economy is cruel and unreasonable. We learn from this article that only when the refugee mental health is challenged does the director of immigration consider whether to grant permission, on exceptional circumstances, to grant work rights.

However, the threshold for claiming such ‘exceptional circumstances’ is so high that we question whether there is any willingness to effectively consider granting refugee rights on an individual basis.

This paper explores possible ways for refuges in Hong Kong to assert these rights and calls for a cogent administrative framework that has proper regard to a wide range of rights-based considerations in the assessment of refugee work authorization requests.

The ‘Right to Work’ of Refugees in Hong Kong: MA v Director of Immigration

Given Hong Kong’s general policy not to grant asylum it is apparent that little attempt is made to integrate refugees into society … Life as an individual is not all about survival and subsistence. This treatment places refugees in a position of destitution and denial of individual dignity (and is equivalent to CIDTP torture).

Forcing refugees to wait 5-7 years without work and income is torture

On dangerous ground

Nov 17th, 2013 | Advocacy | Comment

Increasing refugees’ rent assistance by 300$, the government presumably added about 15,000,000 to the 203,000,000$ allocated a group that realistically requires much more to be lifted from destitution – until it is afforded work rights. With this stingy concession, refugees are entitled to 2,560$ a month (1500 rent + 1060 food) and remain repressively 30% below the official poverty line. The government set the income at 3600$ for a family of one. Shouldn’t it ensure that who depend entirely on its support lives above it?

First, it is nonsense to justify oppressing people because some might abuse the system. This should be as self-evident as assisting all underprivileged citizens, even if some might be cheating. Further, the 5000 refugees in town have, for the most part, not exhausted the screening process and must not be presumed “fake” until their claims are fully evaluated by a credible system.

Vision First strongly emphasizes and reiterates that they are human beings who deserve shelter, food and water while they wait for the government to make a decision on their life.

As long as human beings breathe and walk in our city, it is the community’s duty to ensure everyone’s needs are met without exception. One cannot raise the lame excuse that some are abusing the system, to accept, condone or acquiesce to an asylum policy that causes physical suffering to the entire refugee community. That’s equivalent to dumping a box of apples because a few a rotten. To do so is a sign that motivations other than rights-based and humanitarian are formulating the asylum policy.

Credit for the belated increase undoubtedly goes to Vision First refugee members who rose against an oppressive housing practice since February 2013 when they first signed ISS-HK Agreements ‘in protest’. That being said, adding 300$ to their rent assistance is decidedly too little, too late. Let’s analyze why.

This Spring four-square-meter subdivided rooms rented for 1700$. Today they cost over 2000$. It is bewildering that anyone should suggest that 1500$ can rent anything legal, even with a deposit. The increase is laughable in the light of definite rental hikes in the coming twelve months. 1500 today is just as unrealistic as 1200 was a year ago. This palliative remedy is truly unreasonable in the face of real-life economic pressures that besiege every strata of our society.

That the rent increase is a sizable 25% justifies accusations of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDTP) against those whom the High Court said ‘deserve sympathy and should not be left in a destitute state’. Why did it take so long? Were earlier enhancements purposefully denied? Shouldn’t refugees jailed for working be now released following an official admission that rents were 25% below acceptable levels?

Vision First is most troubled that the Social Welfare Department hasn’t officially spoken against ISS-HK strategy to segregate refugees in ghettos. After exposing over 50 slums, we are deeply concerned that the government is supporting and subventing this practice by failing to provide sufficient assistance for slum dwellers to relocate into legal housing. Why hasn’t the government issued any statement against refugee ghettos? Are they officially condoned? Is it hoped that refugees will find 1500$ rooms?

It is alarming that slum lords have already increased rents over 1200$ in most of the ghettos exposed by Vision First. And that is exclusive of extortionary electricity charges. The myopic and unrealistic 300$ increase plays exquisitely into the hands of the criminals who exploit refugees the most. When slum lords learn that refugees receive 1500$, they will demand it without fail. It is likely that new ghettos will open to profit from this bonanza. Ten illegal room now generate 15,000$ a month without penalty!

The one sure outcome of this misguided increase is inflationary pressure in refugee ghettos. Nobody will escape upcoming rent hikes. The government might have considered this increase would benefit small landlords in Kowloon and in New Territory villages, but their 2000$ rooms remain unaffordable to destitute refugees. Again welfare remains markedly behind the curve and on dangerous ground.

There were only two reasonable, rights-bases solutions the government could have chosen. Either pay the cheapest rents in legal buildings in full, or allow refugees temporary work visas for as long as it takes the Immigration Department to assess protection claims.

If the current solution is the best the government could devise in four months, since the July LegCo meeting, one has to wonder whether the decision was left for summer interns to make.

If this is the “Enhanced Welfare Assistance”, then it’s too little, too late and hardly impressive.

Only Slum Lords will profit from the 300$ rent increase

Transgender asylum seeker says she turned to prostitution to survive

Nov 17th, 2013 | Media | Comment

TVB “Closer Look” on rent increase for refugees

Nov 16th, 2013 | Media | Comment

Government increases rent to 1500$ with deposit

Nov 15th, 2013 | Advocacy, Media | Comment



English translation by Matthew

The government announced that they are going to review the assistance for refugees and torture claimants. The authorities will preliminary increase the rent assistance so that it can match the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). At the same time the government will provide the same level of deposits.

The Liberal Party rejected the rent increase. The Society for Community Communication believes that it will help to improve the living conditions of these refugees.
Hong Kong now has more than five thousand individual with either refugee or torture claims applications. The government intends to increase the rent assistance from $1200 to $1500 for each adult. The increase rate is 25%.

The government also intends to increase the rent deposit to $1500 (per person) to assist the refugees in finding an appropriate living place.

With regard to the $1060 food assistance, the government intends to keep it unchanged. The government foresees no need to ask the Legislative Council to allocate extra funding. But the Liberal Party clearly expresses their objection.

The ISS-HK, who is assisting the operation, said that at issue right now is to shorten the time of verification so that a lot more refugees will not have to overstay in Hong Kong.

Vision First statement

In early 2013 VF members demanded that action be taken against the rent stranglehold. Vision First organized the first action in February 2013 when over 100 refugees wrote protest letters to ISS-HK demanding an increase in rent. It is regrettable that nobody was dignified with a written reply, despite empty expressions of concern.

This campaign was followed by 200+ letters to the LegCo Public Complaint Office. This advocacy triggered and emergency meeting of the LegCo Panel on Welfare on 22 July 2013. The panel concluded with a promise that the overall welfare package would be increased in a couple of months. It is now four months later.

Vision First expresses deep dissatisfaction with this palliative solution that does little to alleviate the suffering of refugees denied the right to work in one of Asia’s most expensive cities. If the government thinks there are basic, legal rooms in the market that rent for 1500$ a month, it is clearly living in the past decade.

We will not stop our hardline action until we achieve our objective of ensuring that the basic material and financial needs of refugees are met in full, or they are allowed to work.

This belated, insufficient and short-sighted adjustment of the failed welfare provision is a sure indication that the Government does not take its constitutional obligations seriously. We shall strive, united, for meaningful changes as we safeguard the rights of those we care for.

Government will increase refugee rent from 1200$ to 1500$ a month

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