Breaking the rent assistance barrier
July 24, 2014
Hong Kong Government remains tight lipped about the renewal the Social Welfare Department (SWD) contract for welfare services to refugees due to expire in the coming weeks. The authorities generally prioritize outsourcing over the direct provision of services and it is said that the SWD does not have the logistic and human resource capacity to deploy its own operation.
The reality is such that no organization seems interested in competing for the SWD’s “Project of provision of Assistance-in-kind for Asylum-Seekers and Torture Claimants” as it is currently implemented, without it being broken up into smaller areas for example, which ensures that ISS-HK effectively remains the sole bidder at the time of renewal.
The Refugee Union reports that ISS-HK case workers will soon renew their contracts and current food suppliers are renovating shops ahead of qualifying inspections. In light of the above it is likely that the SWD will renew its service contract with ISS-HK which inexplicably remains a confidential document not to be shared with the public.
If the contract remains secret, it is impossible to know if amendments will be made to improve service delivery within the scope of the “Provision of Assistance for asylum seekers and torture claimants”, namely 1500$ for rent (half for children), 1200$ for food, 300$ for utilities and about 200$ for travelling costs. Although the key figures will not change, directions might be given to broaden the price grid (who can receive more) and the flexibility with which concessions are made (how much pressure is resisted).
To illustrate this point, it appears that members of the Refugee Union enjoy higher rent assistance than non-unionized refugees, which might be evidence of more effective pressure tactics. This has revealed that, for example, the 1500$ rent assistance is a guideline that can be persuasively overcome by repeated demands, which regrettably puts less assertive individuals at a disadvantage.
Rather than begging from charities, or risking jail by working illegally, refugees are advised to strive for longterm solution. In other words, instead of putting a hand out to collect money from churches, refugees should bring their ISS-HK case workers to task and demand that their basic needs be met in full, as constitutionally required by Hong Kong Government.
As long as refugees take the path of least resistance, that is finding money elsewhere to avoid confrontation with ISS-HK, the depth of their destitution and despair will not be grasp by the authorities. It is reported that the Refugee Union has developed effective strategies to secure levels of rent assistance that are unheard of in the broader refugee community. Since all refugees are banned from working, there is no reason why all refugees should not be enjoying better assistance.
The struggle to pay rent is undoubtedly the greatest source of anxiety for refugees living from hand to mouth. To have ISS-HK pay rent in full should be every individual’s objective. It is noteworthy that over the past months, possibly since the protest movement started in February, dozens of refugees have been settled in guesthouse rooms valued about 7500$ a month, or 6000$ more than the rent allowance.
Families are doing much better than before. The Refugee Union reports of families with two children renting apartments worth more than 6000$ and families with three children renting apartments worth 8000$ to 9000$. These are facts that the entire refugee community should consider carefully before working illegally to pay rent and thus risk being arrested and jailed for 15 months.
Evidence suggests that ISS-HK case workers have more discretion in granting assistance than generally perceived. Refugees who put forward a persuasive argument and show a determination to stand their ground on principle could celebrate with the single father and child who secured 3600$ in rent assistance instead of the 2250$ guidelines. Breaking the barriers takes effort, but is certainly worth it.
The Sex Culture at Christian Action (Part 9)
July 22, 2014
“In 2008 Mr. __________ _________ from _________ had a relationship with Ms. _________ _________ then manager of Christian Action. Their relationship continued for more than a year and I know many facts, details and history that need not be divulged at this time.”
A friend of the above mentioned refugee made this statement based on knowledge of a relationship between his refugee friend and a Christian Action manager which was an open secret in the community.
Vision First asks: why is this relationship only coming to light seven years later?
With seemingly an absence of enforcement of the code of ethical conduct, an environment appears to have developed at Christian Action where improper sexual relations were apparently tolerated, despite an official blanket prohibition. It remains to be seen if any employee or volunteer was ever terminated for such improprieties.
At a time when many refugees feel strengthened by the supportive Refugee Union, victims and witnesses have finally begun to step forward as whistleblowers in the belief that by exposing past and present affairs that improper practices that seriously impact the refugee community will come to an end and be prevented in the future.
Despite Christian Action having initiated legal action against Vision First and the Refugee Union, more and more refugee whistleblowers are standing undaunted on a strong foundation forged on principle and integrity and will no longer allow complaints to be suppressed. In the present environment of empowerment and self-reliance, refugees themselves offer support and solidarity to whistleblowers who are now better able to gather the courage to expose abuses.
In the past, refugees submitted helplessly to abuse, absent any protection and anonymity should they step forward as whistleblowers. They kept their mouths shut in justifiable fear of retribution and punishment. Today, empowered refugees seek justice and are not afraid to make disclosure of NGO workers who might have taken advantage of their position by overstepping the mark and seemingly ignoring both the letter and the spirit of the code of conduct. Abuses that before were submissively accepted will not go unreported.
It appears that Christian Action reacts to such complaints in a particular way. At least one whistleblower was served with a letter from Christian Action denying further services to that asylum seeker until legal proceedings against Vision First and the Refugee Union are concluded. Another refugee family complained to Vision First that Christian Action cut them off from financial assistance after they made a public disclosure that Christian Action discouraged them from protesting.
Any organisation that banishes highly vulnerable refugees and denies services to those who voice complaints, and even taking legal action against them, appears to result in a silencing of legitimate complaints and concerns. This in turn appears to discourage and dent the fundamental constitutional freedom of expression. This also has the potential to drive complainants underground and silences potential whistleblowers. Banning dissent and suppressing justifiable freedom of expression might ultimately end up being less effective than confronting and resolving complaints in the first place.
Vision First believes that refugees have the right to voice their complaints without fear of being penalised and are entitled to whistle blower protections. Just because refugees are indigent, destitute and highly vulnerable, does not mean they are to be denied their rights to be heard and their opinions expressed.
The Sex Culture at Christian Action (Part 8)
July 14, 2014
“Around 2006 Mr. __________ from __________ had a relationship with Christian Action manager Ms. __________ until she left for __________ around 2008. __________ was my good friend and their relationship was no secret. Besides I often saw them together in Jordan Park, Kowloon Park, going clubbing and around Kowloon. Further, I know from other friends that __________ debated the ethics of her relationship with __________, but nevertheless continued in it.”
A friend and roommate of the above mentioned refugee made this statement alleging that a former female manager of Christian Action (not the manager mentioned in Part 3) had an ongoing relationship with a refugee client, in contravention of the code of conduct she was bound legally and morally to follow and uphold.
Years after these events occurred, members of the refugee community still query and criticise this and other inappropriate relationships that threaten the impartial provision of services and treatment of refugees. The ethics of NGO workers deserve to be scrutinised as they stand in a position of trust with the power to greatly affect the lives of their refugee clients. It is incumbent upon all NGO workers never to abuse that power and for staff and volunteers to behave both professionally and ethically to set a good example to colleagues and the outside world. If there are abuses by NGO workers, channels for whistleblowers to expose such improper conduct should exist to aid a public interest driven disclosure.
There are reports of past cases whereby those who attempted to make disclosures to Christian Action management were ignored. It would appear that nothing was done by Christian Action management to investigate and/or cull such inappropriate behaviour. This has resulted in a consequential consistent pattern of behaviour that has led to the sexual exploitation of refugees.
Prior to this series of blogs, few refugees were aware of the code of conduct that is relevant to them as clients of charitable organizations and NGO’s. Professionals such as lawyers, doctors and teachers are prohibited from dating clients for ethical and professional reasons. Romantic affairs strain professionalism, compromise confidentiality and cloud judgment. They create an imbalance of power, authority and dependence that makes such relations exploitative and disruptive. The appearance of impropriety alone is often reason to generate grave misunderstandings and inappropriateness.
Professional and emotional distance must be maintained between clients and employees to guarantee objectivity in decision making and impartiality in the provision of services especially in times of an emergency. As such, sexual relationships are clearly disruptive of the ethical and professional balance and create considerable ethical, professional and emotional risks for both parties.
Within the asylum sphere, one other inevitable consequence of such sexual relationships is compounded by other refugees, who are not in those sexual relationships, becoming jealous and suspecting favoritism when preferential treatment is or appears to be enjoyed by refugees involved in such illicit relations. Refugee partners might be tempted to behave differently within the community and visit NGO offices with a higher level of confidence entitlement. This is because they (temporarily) enjoy a stronger position and might feel that they do not need to compete for the limited resources such as food, clothes, shelter and donations.
Environments wherein there has been a history of improper relationships between NGO management and front line case workers with vulnerable refugees, such relationships having previously gone unheeded and unchecked, create a culture whereby any code of conduct is viewed as simply window dressing and lacking in teeth. Under these circumstances, it might be said that a legitimate expectation has been created by the NGO, namely asylum seekers may fully expect that they are allowed to enter into such sexual relationships and receive benefits beyond others. That cannot be right or proper.
These series of blogs has not only exposed a series of sexual relationships but has allowed refugees to express their concerns about improper conduct within any organisation – a self-reflecting lesson for any NGO (including Vision First). In this respect, Vision First welcomes scrutiny from others to help improve its services. Vision First blogs have allowed “Whistleblowers” to make necessary disclosures without fear of reprisal and punishment and with an expectation that such disclosures will bring about positive and tangible changes to correct any past or ongoing wrongs.
Refugees have witnessed, and some have experienced first-hand, the perils of engaging in sexual relations with NGO staff, which result in an invitation to disaster. For NGO workers, this amounts to clear exploitation of highly vulnerable and desperate individual refugees whose fundamental constitutional security of the person is compromised, while non-participating refugees paradoxically feel excluded and disadvantaged. Codes of conduct are formulated precisely to avoid such antagonising and, at times, highly prejudicial situations.
Codes of conduct should naturally extend to NGOs implementing a whistleblowing mechanism that allows asylum seekers to safely make disclosures of improprieties by case workers and management without fear of reprisal and punishment. Such mechanisms should also allow for NGOs to investigate and take positive action in respect of any improper conduct. This is something that asylum seekers should expect and, as such, it is a real and legitimate expectation.
Today, refugees better understand that dating NGO workers is inappropriate and unethical and might negatively affect their partners’ job and livelihood. Nevertheless, more needs to be done by NGOs to bring an end to such seriously improper behaviour and provide enhanced protections to refugees, including potential whistleblowers.