How things have changed! Veteran refugee workers recall a time not so long ago when the SWD didn’t reply to emails about problems faced by their clients, because the task was delegated to its service contractor. By comparison today the Refugee Union communicates daily directly with the SWD head-office to report failures, lodge grievances and request assistance.
It is equally unprecedented that in April 2015 the Refugee Union approached the Legislative Council Redress System and filed 500 complaint letters drawing attention to their plight and campaigning for improvements. Vision First takes credit for paving the way that gives a voice to the voiceless and empowers refugees to stand up for themselves and demand the changes needed by their community.
Following a preliminary meeting on 22 April 2015, the Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung invited the Refugee Union to discuss welfare concerns ahead of the meeting of the Legislative Council’s Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. It is noteworthy that refugee welfare made the Panel’s agenda in under two months, compared to nine in 2013. Is it an indication that the wellbeing of refugees has gained in priority over the past two years? If so, what factors contributed to this?
Discussing the topic at hand, a Bangladeshi refugee told Fernando, “I have been in Hong Kong for 15 years and I am not allowed to work. Things are getting better. It seems the government is listening to our complaints and treating us like human beings. I lived in the slums for many years. They are closing down this year after a refugee died in a fire. It is true that for $1500 [in rent assistance] we cannot get a room anywhere. The government should increase the amount to $2000.”
An African colleague commented, “It is unreasonable that refugee without money or jobs are forced to sign agreements with landlords. Isn’t this cheating? We commit to deals we cannot keep because we cannot pay for the high rent. Is it entrapment? This policy makes us delinquent tenants when we don’t pay. ISS case-workers urge us to get money from NGOs and churches, who say they are also struggling to fundraise. Instead we suggest that our case-workers sign the tenancy agreements with the mandate of the government. All we want is a safe place to sleep.”
A refugee mother spoke about the food, “The coupons are better. There are some problems we need to resolve, but generally people are happy. However we need competition as Wellcome prices are not always cheaper. ParknShop and Kaibo supermarkets should be included. Why not give refugees an Octopus card accepted by these three supermarkets? Or Wellcome could match the lowest prices offered by competitors because already [the food allowance] is too little.”
A Pakistani added, “Yes, the coupons are good. I received $1200 also for my children and I hope it is the same for all families. It is impossible to live on $40 food so many refugees must work. The food allowance should be increased to $1500. Also, we don’t get dish soap or toilet paper [one roll a month] and razors [one a month] break in our hands. The SWD should save the money of toiletries, staff and storage to give us one more coupon to buy what we really use.” A woman then described sanitary pads considered of dreadful quality, unsafe and unhygienic.
The Hon. Fernando discussed these and other issues with the Refugee Union members, displaying genuine concern and a determination to push for improvements at the Legco Panel on Welfare Services on 8 June 2015. He noted that the 45 minutes allocated would only allow for the discussion of two topics, which were agreed to be rent and food – the greatest concerns of the community.
The previous increase in levels of assistance was introduced on 24 January 2014, when the monthly rent allowance was raised from $1,200 to $1,500, security deposits and estate agents’ fees were introduced and the food budget was increased from $1,060 to $1,200. Unlike the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) provided to needy residents, there is no mechanism to tie refugee assistance with inflation – an arrangement that ought to be considered by the Panel.
On 1 April 2015, Vision First and the Refugee Union launched an action to file complaint letters with the Legislative Council Redress System. Several hundred letters were completed and lodged with the assistance of lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung and his hardworking team.
The complaints to the Legislative Council summarized the daily plight of refugees who rely entirely on government welfare and are not allowed to earn an honest living. Most often, refugees have no savings, certainly no lawful income and most commonly cannot rely on limited social networks and NGO assistance.
It is widely recognized that the current levels of assistance offered refugees are grossly inadequate: $1500 in rent assistance, $1200 in food coupons and a few hundred dollars for utilities and transportation. Refuges are loath to rely exclusively on welfare, but stringent immigration policies punish them for working and leave them with no alternative.
Vision First request that the Hong Kong Government, the Security Bureau and SWD fulfil their obligation to provide for asylum seekers and refugees’ basic financial, material needs or otherwise. These needs include, but are not limited to, appropriate quantity and quality of food assistance, payment of full rent and utilities, payment of full rental deposits to landlord, daily necessities like cooking gas, clothing, health care, transport allowance for required trips always payable in full and in advance. We request that ISS-HK sign the Tenancy Agreements as refugees have no savings or income to pay rent balances every month.
Vision First further request that a Task Force be established to investigate why persons requesting and having been granted international protection in Hong Kong have been left destitute despite a system being in place to disburse government funding to prevent this condition from happening. Such policy failures have caused refugees needless and unreasonable physical, mental and psychological suffering.
On 22 April 2015, Vision First and representatives of the Refugee Union met with the Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung to present these concerns to the Legislative Council’s Panel on Welfare. Vision First noted that deterrence objectives and criminalization of vulnerable foreigners should not overshadow welfare considerations when refugees are suffering in our community. It stands to reason that, if work rights are denied to refugees, the authorities have a legal and moral obligation to increase welfare to realistic levels consistent with human right laws.
Following the above initiative, we are pleased to inform that the Legislative Council’s “Panel on Welfare Services” has scheduled “Issues relating to welfare of refuges, torture claimants and asylum seekers” for their meeting on Monday, 8 June 2015. Refugees are invited to submit suggestions to Vision First early next week.
Vision First fearlessly reports on incidents that place under the spotlight practices adopted by various Government bodies which include the Director of Immigration, Security Bureau, Social Welfare Department and Hospital Authority.
Examples are asylum policies resulting in an effective zero percent acceptance rate, welfare failures, institutional discrimination and abuses of power by those in authority. It is unfortunate that enormous and entrenched distrust continues to widen between refugees and Government authorities, with officials often failing in their duties prescribed by law.
Government propaganda and uninformed media reports often depict refugees as abusers of the asylum process accusing them of exploiting the system for personal gain. Such generalisation is simply untrue for asylum seekers who fled torture, ill-treatment, death threats and persecution to seek protection from Hong Kong’s Government.
It is increasingly clear that the secretive walls of the Director of Immigration’s Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre (CIC) conceal apparent unlawful conduct. On 6 May 2015, Vision First arranged a visit to CIC to provide free legal advice to refugees in relation to asylum claims, the legality of such procedures, conditions and legality of detention and to secure their release from arbitrary deprivation of their liberty
The pro bono legal team comprising Barristers Mark Sutherland and Robert Tibbo, together with their instructing solicitors and interpreters, paid a visit to CIC. This is what transpired. One refugee from Africa had reportedly been detained in CIC for over three and a half months whilst the assessment of his “first tier” non-refoulement claims was underway with all the interviews so far being conducted within CIC. His next interview was due to take place the following day, 7 May 2015.
Another refugee from Africa had been reportedly detained for over a month and only that morning had been handed a set of blank Supplementary Claim Forms by The Duty Lawyer Service (DLS). This was presumably prompted by the prior lodgement of a non-refoulement claim. The assessment of this refugee’s claim had not even started and a lawyer not yet assigned to him by DLS.
A further refugee from South Asia reported that he had attempted to argue his own Appeal without a lawyer and had experienced a detention period of seven months.
Troubled by his findings of lengthy periods of detention, Barrister Mark Sutherland asked to see the supervising Immigration officer. During the course of an hour, three Immigration officers of differing levels of seniority appeared but could not shed any light on the seemingly unlawful detention of the refugees.
Finally, the Superintendent of CIC, a Mr. W.S. Kwong, the highest ranking Immigration officer responsible for CIC attended and agreed to a meeting with the pro bono legal team during which serious concerns were expressed as to the legality of the detention of the refugees. Sutherland asked Mr. Kwong: “Are you aware of the Ghulam Rbani case?” Mr. Kwong replied words to the following effect: “I have never heard of it. It’s not my department.”
Superintendent Kwong was unaware of this landmark and legally binding decision of the Court of Final Appeal case “Ghulam Rbani vs. Secretary for Justice” (FACV 15/2013), wherein it states:-
“Once it became clear that the CAT claim had to run its course, it would have been obvious that no decision to make a removal order could have been arrived at within the maximum period of detention permitted under section 32. Applying the 3rd Hardial Singh principle, steps should then have been taken without delay to effect the appellant’s release.”
Put simply, if an asylum seeker has filed a claim for non-refoulement protection, he cannot lawfully be detained and must be released forthwith.
Vision First is of the view that the Director of Immigration, Mr. K.K. Chan, should call for an immediate review of the detention status of each and every inmate currently held at CIC. Sutherland invited Superintendent Kwong to see that such a review was undertaken as a matter of priority. The result is awaited.
Based on this legal visit, Vision First is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to merit an independent investigation of the apparent disregard by the Hong Kong Government of the principles enunciated by the Court of Final Appeal in Ghulam Rbani. We shall leave it to our readers to draw their own conclusions.