Protest March Against Corruption – Sunday 20 April, 2pm
April 18, 2014
PROTEST MARCH AGAINST CORRUPTION
The Refugee Union celebrates two protest camps and marches in protest against corruption at International Social Service (ISS-HK) and the Social Welfare Department (SWD).
Refugees resist being treated as sub-humans and demand adequate welfare assistance while denied the right to work. A gentle resistance against social injustice is expanding.
Refugees struggle to preserve the universal values of human rights that are violated by cruel, inhumane and illegal asylum policies. Refugees join a broader class struggle for accountability, transparency and democracy in public service.
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Rise – Unit – Resist
Global wealth meets its refugee nemesis in Asia’s World City
April 18, 2014
In Hong Kong, the Refugee Union’s Occupy Movement is taking on a deterrent asylum system, and the NGO Vision First is right behind them.
Something disturbing is happening in Hong Kong that deserves global attention. The former British colony is not at the centre of international debates on asylum, nor does it make news with the social injustice it conveniently hides behind a respectable façade of sophisticated modernity. But all is not well in ‘Asia’s World City’.
Hong Kong is a small metropolis against a backdrop of geographical vastness. And precisely for this reason the Hong Kong government claims the city should do without receiving refugees. Official accounts maintain that playing a major role in the production and consumption of global wealth is unrelated to, and incompatible with, taking responsibility for the human consequences of neoliberal capital expansion. About 6,000 asylum seekers are thus left to scrape a living in limbo, waiting for the government to determine their asylum claims despite there being no comprehensive legislation to serve as a guide. In the past twenty years, more than 13,000 have applied for protection under the UN Convention against Torture, but only eleven have been granted the right not to be sent back to their country of origin. Even these lucky ones are denied secure residence and employment rights.
The asylum seeking population of mostly South Asian and African origin bears few similarities to the famed Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who navigated to Hong Kong between the 1970s and 1990s. Today’s asylum seekers are urban refugees who escaped corrupt governments, war and violence as well as the deleterious effects of unbridled globalisation. Hong Kong’s establishment would rather forget the previous experiences with the inflow of Chinese and Vietnamese refugees, and its struggles with its asylum roots result in a ‘culture of rejection’, with asylum seekers crushed between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with no options and no future. Asylum seekers are demonised as deviant illegal economic migrants and criminalised for eking out a miserable existence. Sandwiched between inadequate welfare assistance and an effective zero-per cent recognition rate, this vulnerable group is compelled to turn to criminal activities to survive. Consequently, fuelled by caustic propaganda and pro-government media reports, a public and official perception is misleadingly formed that asylum seekers are dangerous illegal migrants bent on abusing the asylum mechanism for personal profit.
This year, however, a ray of hope has shone over this grim backdrop of policy and politics. Recent activity sparked by asylum seekers’ sense of self-respect, self-worth and dignity may have far-reaching and meaningful consequences. In a rare exhibition of courage, determination and unison, culturally diverse asylum seekers fearlessly voiced their frustration against the deterrent logic of the refugee welfare system, contracted out since 2006 by the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department to the Hong Kong branch of Switzerland-based non-profit International Social Service (ISS-HK). Assistance is disbursed on a minimal basis, so as not to attract more destitute claimants enticed by higher levels of welfare.
A date to remember for asylum seekers in Hong Kong is 11 April 2014, which marked the second month of activity of the newly formed Refugee Union’s ‘Occupation’ movement against the ISS-HK and the government department that contracted it. In the past sixty days, asylum seekers unwaveringly protested that their suffering is directly related to this non-profit enforcing government policies which oppress and exclude them. In addition, they have alleged that ISS-HK profits from the government tender by manipulating food quantity, quality and prices, a charge strenuously rejected by the organisation, which has issued legal proceedings. But the asylum seekers, bolstered by sympathetic media coverage of the ‘Occupation’, have lodged a complaint against the ISS-HK with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which has not yet been adjudicated. Political movements have since joined the asylum seekers’ struggle, cognisant that refugee rights and the political manipulation of welfare relate to issues of accountability, transparency and democracy that are hardly of exclusive concern to asylum seekers.
An issue of public concern
How those most in need are treated reveals the health and progress of any society. It is ultimately a matter of human dignity how the state treats the most vulnerable, particularly when the media spotlight is turned away. There are issues of control of an undesirable social group that today is refugees, and tomorrow could be other legally resident populations; of financial responsibility and the allocation of the government purse to assist the most needy, who are barred from employment and punished with draconian prison sentences for breaking the rules; of asylum policies based on deterrence and security that create a culture of suspicion and rejection. It is a question of formulating rational policies that genuinely take into account the rights and interests of a group who responded to a promise of international protection. We should be alarmed at the attitudes permeating State departments whose staff are convinced that asylum seekers are bogus claimants undeserving of protection and assistance – but also at the way non-profits are contracted to effectively become agents of social control, acting with powers that are capable of corrupting their humanitarian mandate, with undesirable consequences for society as a whole.
What can we do?
In this increasingly corrosive environment, it behoves everyone to be guardians of society, for we cannot depend on the State or humanitarian organisations to counter or redress social injustice. Society transforms and progress advances when we personally take it upon ourselves to champion the changes in which we believe. It is by this principle that through Vision First we encouraged and supported the establishment of the Refugee Union in Hong Kong. Our vision is for asylum seekers to draw upon their skills and desires and strategise accordingly. It is for them to acquire authority and legitimacy. The wider society has created harsh and unreasonable conditions that force their voiceless exclusion. But in Hong Kong there is change in the air – the harsher the policies, the stronger seems to be the desire to resist injustice. The asylum seekers’ ‘Occupation’ movement demonstrated a robust determination to counter the state’s predictable attempt to precarise their livelihood with a deterrent end. It highlighted the resolution of a group that, after being subjugated for years, grasped inviolable fundamental rights, no longer willing to submit to social injustice.
While public opinion is easily misled, swayed by demagogic appeals to channel limited welfare resources to alleviate poverty among the local population instead of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, the ‘Occupation’ movement reframed the argument. It shifted the spotlight onto powerful structural factors that should be thoroughly evaluated in assessing asylum seeker deviancy, namely, the inevitability that enforced destitution will lead many asylum seekers to seek illegal employment. In the final analysis, the world should now pay attention to these events in Hong Kong, because an injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.
Francesco Vecchio is a non-executive director of Vision First based at Charles Sturt University, Australia. Cosmo Beatson is the executive director of Vision First.
Refugee Bobby lives in a converted pig farm and collects food rations at the Nepali shop in Yuen Long. He has to buy groceries when the 10-day ration runs out in 6 to 7 days. Every day is a struggle to make ends meet. A far cry from the comfortable life he had in Africa.
Bobby explains, “My family was prominent and we lived well. Because my father opposed the government everything fell apart and we were persecuted. I left to save my life. You think I come here to beg for this rubbish food ISS gives me?”
He continues, “A few months ago I went to collect food with a friend. At the shop I saw that he was getting more food than me. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not right’. We are both refugees. We are the same age and the same hungry. Why he get more?”
Later Bobby complained to his ISS-HK case worker Mary Lee. Mary opened his file and said, “Let me check if you used all your money.” She made some calculations and exclaimed, “You can add a few chickens and take more food.”
The hungry and destitute refugee was speechless realizing that, a) Mary had cut short his food allowance, b) Mary was fully aware how much value he was getting, c) Mary had not provide the full 1200$ food allocation when needed, d) Mary provided more food after he complained.
Bobby was furious and shouted, “Give me all my money (food value) and stop this! Bring me to the top (of my food allowance) and it is finished. This is the way we do it!”
He reported to Vision First, “Some refugees don’t complain, but if you do then ISS gives them the full amount? The problem is if you come new (new-arrival), and you don’t know, they don’t give you all the money. It is later when you complain that they give you more to shut your mouth. This is wrong!”
Refugee Raja lives in an ungodly slum without clean running water, kitchen plumbing and toilet sewerage. It is no mystery that many tenants suffer from chronic gastroenteritis. He has been losing weight since he arrived in 2009 and is skin and bones now.
Raja reports, “Really this food is not enough. They say it is 1200$ a month but they are lying. Two chickens and two (pieces of) mutton for ten days is not enough. Then I must go buy (more food). Three tomatoes and two onions they want us to eat (for) ten days? I ask my friend, please give me some vegetables, (because I have) not enough.”
The distraught refugee points at a countryman writhing in pain, “Look at my friend. Look at his photo when he arrive in 2008. He was strong man. Very handsome. Before he is 68Kg and now he is 40Kg. He has so much pain (in the stomach), but hospital never give him good medicine. He suffer much. Look at him now … dying man!”
Raja cannot hide his anger, “Maybe next year he die. Then ISS is responsible. The food always make us sick. The food is expire. The vegetable is, how to say? … bad, very bad … cannot eat! We are sick from ISS food. We have pain (in the stomach, then) we are hungry but cannot eat. So much pain.”
He continues, “I am from India but only in Hong Kong I (have been) hungry! So much pain. I complain to (case worker) Felicity Wong, but she don’t listen. I say to her my food is not enough, my food is 250$ not 400$, but she don’t care. Who make inspection of this problem? Me not (allowed to) working. I have no money for buying food. This veeery big problem. Where the money coming???”
Refugee Ali is a respected leaders of the Pakistani community in asylum. He speaks with self-assurance and brings to the debate the experiences of many suffering individuals and families. That the Pakistani shop in Yuen Long last week gave him a can of baby formula with 19 days to expiry will be overlooked for now (Shops buy close-to-expiry supplies to maximize profits).
Ali explains another widespread trick ISS-HK adopts to manipulate food, one reported by many. Case workers and refugees select the food items by ticking a food collection sheet monthly. As prices are not indicated, refugees have no assurance the total is worth 1200$. But refugees appraise value upon collection.
Problems arise when case workers call refugees to say, “Sorry your choice of X is cancelled because you are OVER BUDGET.” There no point protesting over the phone as ISS-HK controls distribution.
Hundreds if not thousands of refugee complain about the “Over Budget Problem” that deletes essential items previously confirmed. It remains to be seen if the food sheets were subsequently amended and, even if they were, the system is inefficient at best.
Ali explained that in early April his case worker Mary Lee called to again reduce his allocation. Mary Lee, a veteran staffer who should know better, keeps getting prices wrong because the price list is hidden.
The “Over Budget Problem” makes victims of refugees who have no control. Vision First is concerned that ISS-HK shop do not provide a copy of the food collection list to refugees as standard practice. This means that refugees denies refugees to keep the system in check.
It should be noted that unilateral alterations are the norm, not the exception. Refugees lament the “Over Budget” phone calls that frequently deprive them of necessary items. Vision First is concerned about the discrepancies between the food selection sheets and the rations refugees take home.
The current arrangement brings the system into disrepute and could be easily remedied by publishing a price list for case workers and refugees to calculate openly and transparently.
ISS-HK Franco Choi misleads refugee about security deposit
April 16, 2014
We report the case of ISS-HK case worker Franco Choi who on 19 March 2014 denied a refugee, stranded in Hong Kong since 2007, assistance with rental deposit. On that day the refugee approached Franco inquiring about the procedure to get such help. Franco Choi said, “We don’t pay deposits. If people are saying this to you they are lying. ISS does not pay deposit for its service users.”
In a letter dated 24 January 2014, the Social Welfare Department instructed ISS-HK on the new provision of assistance for asylum seekers and torture claimants. Under accommodation it is stated “To provide rental deposits up to two months of rent or two months of the eligible rent allowance grid, whichever is the less.”
The refugee disbelieved Franco and asked again what the policy was. Franco Choi replied, “ISS does not pay deposits. If you want deposit you have to stop taking rent for two months and then ISS can use that money to pay for your deposit for a new room.” The refugee asked where he was expected to live for two months as the slum lord would not allow him to stay without paying rent.
We inspected the derelict, crumbling shack where this refugee lives and it is unfit for living. This vulnerable man has no money, no saving and no right to work; he depends entirely on government assistance. Instead of offering service and sympathy, Franco misled his client by denying precisely what he is entitled to from government, not ISS-HK, funds.
The refugee complained, “Where do you want me to live for two months? Do you expect me to be homeless? If you are not going to help me then why are you sitting here? You should go and find another job. Don’t pretend to help me!” The conversation ended and the refugee returned to the slums abused and humiliated.
This was not an isolated incident. On 15 April 2014 we were informed that three other refugees living in slums were refused deposit assistance by their case workers. There appears to be a conspiracy to mislead refugees who are not fully aware of the services that ISS-HK is obliged to provide by government instruction.
Vision First encourages refugees to spread the word about security deposit. Refugees must know that it is not optional for case workers to offer this service. It is not discretionary but compulsory. In fact, every refugee has the right to receive this assistance once throughout the entire assistance period. ISS is expected to pay these deposits deposit precisely to help refugees relocate from the slums.
For reasons unclear, ISS-HK is making it hard for slum refugees to relocate to legal housing.
Vision First will report every incident to the Social Welfare Department that is advised to ensure that its contractor follows the rules without bias or discrimination. We are concerned that for every abuse Vision First uncovers, a dozen might go unreported painting a very unattractive picture of ISS-HK and its unsupportive case workers.
Aljazeera: Hong Kong’s refugee shame
April 16, 2014
Hong Kong must update its refugee policy to match growing image as an international city
Around 6,000 refugees in Hong Kong languish in a legal nether world, which prevents them from working, studying, or even volunteering. They live in wretched conditions, in rickety shacks or subdivided accommodations. Yet, just a few kilometres away loom the glitzy, multi-billion dollar highrise properties that define the famous Hong Kong skyline.
The refugees who do make it to Hong Kong have fled torture and persecution in conflict-ridden hotspots like the Congo, Central African Republic and Afghanistan. Sometimes they escape with their children in tow. They arrive in the belief that Hong Kong will treat them with the humanity and compassion in keeping with its status as a world city.
But once here, they find themselves churned around a legal system that one refugee group, Vision First, characterises as an “official culture of rejection“. Trapped in this administrative quicksand, it can take up to a decade for individuals to exit the system as legally recognised refugees or torture victims. In the process, their sanity, hopes and futures are crushed.
Hong Kong is flush with wealth, resources and world-class infrastructure. It has embraced financial globalisation with an impressive intensity. The presence of the headquarters of around 4,000 multinational companies has helped to stamp the city as a leading commercial hub. It’s done this on the back of immigrants, rich and poor. It can amply afford to house, clothe and give employment to the smattering of refugees already here.
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ISS-HK subvents slums with inadequate proof of ownership
April 15, 2014
Prompted by a high level police visit to a notorious refugee ghetto in Nai Wai, Vision First led the media to document the site and examine the ISS-HK contracts that drew the suspicion of the authorities. Could there be fraudulent elements associating ISS-HK case workers to this ghetto?
Vision First exposed this slum in August 2013 emphasizing that since 2006 ISS-HK had channeled rent from the government purse to this slum lord. Eight months later over a dozen refugees still reside in these illegal structures with tenancy agreements and ISS-HK contracts bearing questionable data.
Generally speaking, it is our understanding that if the Building Department does not approve premises for residential use, owner are not allowed to rent such locations to anyone – citizen or refugee alike. The fact that literally thousands of ISS-HK contracts show inappropriate home addresses raises suspicion.
It is noteworthy that ISS-HK sponsored and subvented this particular slum since September 2006 and for over seven years arranged monthly payments to a farmer who undoubtedly was not licensed to rent pig sheds for human habitation.
Either due diligence was neglected, or it was expressly decided to avoid carrying it out.
ISS-HK frequently offers the excuse that “99% of service recipients choose their own accommodation”. While this claim is arguable – as certain slum lords claimed to have established ghettos on the suggestion of ISS-HK staff – in the event it were true, such a claim is far from satisfactory.
The case of Madam Lama, reported in previous weeks, demonstrated that most refugees are not helped to find accommodation when they request such assistance. Many case workers refuse to flat-hunt, even for sick, pregnant mothers. Other case workers dispatch refugees to ghettos, the only choices available for such low rent assistance (currently 1500$ a month).
Vision First has formed a reasonable suspicion that the documentation relating to slum dwellings contain fraudulent elements. It is simply impossible for slum lords to provide genuine proof of ownership for tenantable premises in abandoned fish, chicken and pig farms. For reasons that are hard to fathom, ISS-HK turned a blind eye to a crucial contractual element.
The attached document shows ISS-HK housing procedures requiring landlords to provide:
- Landlord’s HKID copy / Company Business Registration copy
- Landlord’s bank book copy
- Completed Landlord Notification Letter
- Tenancy Agreement between landlord and service user
- Evidence of ownership: Rates paper/ Solicitors letter/ Land Register …
A cursory look of any one of the 65 slums exposed by Vision First casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of such requirements and, equally, on the SWD’s oversight of ISS-HK and SWD’s scheduled and unscheduled inspections of refugee accommodation.
Vision First is extremely concern that ISS-HK case workers – who applied their signature on thousands of ISS-HK contracts bearing false information – might be responsible for misleading the government at best, and breaking the law at worst. Could the chickens be coming home to roost?
Over the months we have accompanied lawyers, journalists, politicians and academics to uninhabitable refugee ghettos where nobody but coerced individuals, without money or right to work, would reasonably “choose to live” as discredited by ISS-HK justification.
From the evidence collected and the testimony of hundreds of refugees, it appears that ISS-HK, its management and case workers are treading on dangerous ground. Since August 2013 both international and local media have paid considerable attention to a scandal that is expected to deepen this year.
Below are photos taken on 14 April 2014 during a blitz of 15 slums from Ping Che to Yuen Long, where ISS-HK pays government rent. What does the SWD think about it?