Hello, I am Outsider reporting again on the experiences of refugees in Hong Kong.
Recently there have been many news reports about criminals who lodge Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) claims with the Immigration Department, but might not have legitimate grounds for protection. This is an issue which deserves to be discussed. It raises the question: Who allows wolves in sheep’s clothing to hide among refugees?
Immigration officials recently informed journalists that several hundred USM claimants broke the law: since the beginning of the year 113 claimants were arrested for working illegally and 515 were involved in other crimes, amounting to about 6% of 10,000 outstanding claimants.
Conveniently no explanation was provide about the different backgrounds of the so-called criminals with asylum claims who were arrested. At a risk of oversimplification, I believe there are three major groups: 1) destitute USM claimants who perform legal work without permission; 2) impoverished migrants and troubled traders who cannot renew/obtain visas; c) gangsters abusing asylum to avoid removal and engage in criminal activity.
For the first group, government press releases and news reports are biased and unbalanced as they failed to make relevant distinctions. It is suggested that many USM claimants are criminals and troublemakers, yet the unfair reporting lacks context. For instance, we refugees rent subdivided rooms costing $2500-3500 (the cheapest are windowless 2x4m cubicle with shared facilities), but receive just $1500 in rent assistance since February 2014.
For subsistence reasons, including keeping a roof over our heads, many refugees are obliged to work. Any refugee stuck in Hong Kong more than six months, has probably worked here and there. Of course few dare to admit it. We simply have no choice. The government is mocking readers by calling us ‘criminals’, which brings to mind dishonest individuals breaking the law for easy money.
The reality is refugees do hard work in construction and recycling for 10-12 hours a day in very dangerous conditions for a rip-off $200-300 without insurance or medical cover. That is neither desired nor easy money. We must work to pay for ours and our family’s daily needs, in particular for our children. Don’t let the government fool you, it is the failed asylum policy that forces refugees to work without permission.
For the second group, there are several nationalities who enter Hong Kong with visitor or work visas which eventually expire. Previously they would leave and return with another visa which was problematic, expensive and time consuming. After discovering that USM allows them to remain for years with some assistance, they stop leaving and returning. They are not to blame. They probably suffer unbearable poverty without social services in their country and, after discovering a benefit, naturally seize the opportunity.
For the third group, there are hardened gangsters who resist deportation by lodging USM claims to avoid removal/detention and persist in their criminal ways. A few characters frankly explained to me that this was the only exploit to remain in Hong Kong. These abusers are thumbing their noses at a system that allows them to stay unchallenged for years. Their pockets lined with the real easy money, they entice dispossessed refugees to join their gangs.
Entering Hong Kong just to be an asylum seeker is not attractive. In fact, asylum seekers face years of intolerable hardship. Instead abusers and criminals are attracted by a failed asylum system that remains open to and indeed welcomes exploitation. These individuals find an open and unguarded environment in which they can achieve goals not related to asylum.
It appears that the government is deceptively singling out a minority 6% of arrested refugees to criminalize and degrade the law-abiding majority. A careful review of recent news reports suggest that the Government is blaming everyone – refugees, smugglers, lawyers and interpreters – without considering its responsibility towards a policy that fails refugees. The USM appears not to benefit society (tax-burden and security risk), while it allows the government to maintain an established policy of not granting asylum.
Dear readers, if the USM processed asylum claims credibly and fairly within 6 months rather than the claimed average of 2-3 years (more like 5-10), would it be approved by refugees? Would it benefit society? Would it limit the cost and social risk? Would it continue to harbour wolves in sheep’s clothing?
The police arrived to mediate the stand-off in what has regrettably become an all too frequent scene at the headquarters of the Social Welfare Department, the department entrusted with the physical wellbeing of about 10,000 refugees in the city. After listening to complaints, a community relations officer called out, “How many people are homeless?”
What happened next was symptomatic of the sickness that pervades our society – unnoticed and unassisted the poor agonize among the affluent. In the overcrowded and guarded lobby of the SWD, 20 unintimidated men and women raised a hand. “Homeless people are a crime risk as they might commit offenses out of desperation,” a concerned police officer whispered.
Nevertheless, this warning appears to be largely ignored in the offices of the Security Bureau, the mastermind behind refugee policies in Hong Kong. This semi-autonomous global city follows a precept that is plainly depicted in its distrust towards the poor that frequently makes the news.
Two visitors recently arrived in Hong Kong. One was the business magnate Jack Ma, the richest man in China and founder of the fabled e-commerce company Alibaba. The other was the less prominent Jagadeep, who claims to be a victim of the “corruption that is eating away at India like a termite and is coming from the top”, as Indian Premier Modi lamented. Two visitors with two experiences worlds apart.
It was reported in the press that Jack Ma purchased a fabulous home on Hong Kong’s Peak for an eye-watering HK$1.5 Billion – the second most expensive property purchase in the history of the city. Government rules and regulations facilitate the entry into Hong Kong for the wealthy, who are shamelessly feted and encouraged to spend, purchase and invest to their heart’s content.
Jagadeep’s experience was less wonderful and included several weeks of homelessness. He was granted a one week visa which he was obliged to overstay to seek asylum, thus committing his first offense. He was then detained for a month and pressured to depart by the Immigration that is struggling with 10,059 asylum seekers shamefully homogenized into a melting pot of distrust, vilification and rejection.
It is a tale of two cities. Jack Ma surely deserves to enjoy the fruits of his success from the balcony of his new mansion overlooking Victoria Harbour. Part of his purchasing price was HK$12,750,000 in stamp duty paid into government coffers to fund policies that include the Social Welfare Department’s “Provision of Assistance-in-kind for Asylum Seekers and Torture Claimants”.
Like an anxious billionaire terrified of becoming poor in 20 years, Hong Kong Government is obsessed with hoarding HK$734 Billion in fiscal reserves and abstaining from alleviating poverty among those who today don’t have food and shelter. Shoulder to shoulder with 1.3 million impoverished Hongkongers, stand Jagadeep and 10,000 refugees who “we will continue to ensure do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong,” claims misleadingly the Security Bureau.
One of a hundred refugees who protested on 17 August 2015 at the SWD head-office begs to disagree, “The government pretends not to see our suffering. But they know our needs and our pain. They created this system. They know $1500 is not enough for rent in this expensive city. They know $1200 is not enough to eat for a month. They use (policies) to oppress refugees.”
A Refugee Union leader, who claims his basic needs are not met, exclaimed, “The government says we are not allowed to work. They say they give us enough rent and enough food, but they are lying. They delay (decisions on) our claims for 10 years and keep us here. We are dying. Hungry people are angry people. You can go ahead and lock all of us in jail. What difference does it make?”
More angry voices would not be suppressed: “You see our children? We are in starvation. You make us suffer”, “Hong Kong pretends to be an international city, but this is a ghost city”, “They just pay for a system that abuses and rejects refugees”, “They know what is wrong, they know what is right, but they are not thinking about us”, “You can drink our blood, but drink it small and don’t kill us!”
“We will fight for our rights until there is change” promised an empowered Refugee Union member. But Vision First has serious reservations this is achievable in the near future. It is heartbreakingly obvious that Hong Kong Government turns a blind eye to the destitute, resident and otherwise, while crushing refugees behind bureaucratic lies supported by preposterous assurance that nobody will fall destitute while seeking asylum in the city that Jack Ma loves.
Security Bureau replied to the Legislative Council Secretariat concerning 500 complaints letters lodged by members of the Refugee Union on the inadequacy of welfare support.
“Foreigners who smuggled themselves into Hong Kong, and visitors who overstayed their limit of stay allowed by the Immigration Department (ImmD) or who were refused entry by the ImmD upon arrival at Hong Kong (collectively “illegal immigrants”) are subject to be removed from Hong Kong in accordance with the Immigration Ordinance (Cap. 115). To safeguard immigration control and for public interest, they should be removed as soon as practicable.”
“Some non-refoulement claimants may not be able to meet their basic needs when their claim is being assessed. Since 2006, on humanitarian grounds, the Government has been offering in-kind assistance to these claimants to prevent them from becoming destitute (the assistance programme). Coverage of such assistance includes temporary accommodation, basic utilities allowance, food, clothing, basic necessities, appropriate transport allowance and counseling activities … The Government has enhanced the service package … since February 2014:
- Accommodation: the rent allowance grid per adult claimants has been increased to $1,500;
- Food: the budget for food for each claimant has been increased to $1,200 a month;
- Utilities: the allowance per claimant has been increased to $300 per month;
- Transport allowance: the allowance per claimant has been increased from $200 t0 $420 per month.”
“We will carefully consider all the views received, including the concerns expressed in the 291 + 209 cases enclosed in your letter, with a view to ensuring that the non-refoulement claims are screened in a fair and expeditious manner and deterring illegal immigrants and abuses to our current system. Meanwhile, we will continue to ensure claimants do not fall destitute whilst in Hong Kong.” (emphasis added)