Christy Choi and Danny Lee write for the South China Morning Post on 15 February 2014
Asylum seekers demand answers from agency as sit-in protest over cheap meals enters fourth day
Protests at the offices of the International Social Service continued for a fourth day yesterday as asylum seekers continued to seek answers from the welfare provider and the Social Welfare Department about the true cost of food allocated to them.
Asylum seekers are claiming that up to 5,000 refugees are being short-changed by about HK$300-HK$400 worth of food per person per month.
Their union is asking the ISS and the Social Welfare Department, which has contracted ISS to provide food to asylum seekers, to provide a price list and expiry dates for the produce.
ISS said yesterday that any comparison between the price of the products it supplied and retail prices could be explained by the inclusion of special foods such as halal meat and basmati rice to meet asylum seekers’ cultural and religious needs.
A department spokesman said no irregularities were found in the documentation, and declined to provide a price list, saying it was a confidential document that could be released only to the monitoring government department and bureau.
The spokesman said the price differences may be due to vendors not being allowed to change the price of food through the period of a contract. Therefore a “direct comparison of the average budget for food for each claimant and retail food prices in the market [which fluctuates] is not appropriate.”
“No, it’s completely appropriate to do a comparison,” said Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer and non-executive director of Vision First, an NGO that has been aiding the union.
The food items, he said, were products not normally on the market in Hong Kong, but, he added, there were generic items such as rice and vegetables where a comparison with Hong Kong food prices would be possible.
“I don’t see why the Social Welfare Department wouldn’t make this list public,” said Tibbo. “These are food items for Hong Kong’s most vulnerable populations,” he said, adding it was in the public interest to know if the government or refugees were being taken advantage of.
Since 2006, ISS has provided HK$1,060 of food to each refugee each month. The amount increases to HK$1,200 this month.
“The failure by ISS-Hong Kong to disclose food pricing particulars is yet a further indication of discrimination brought against asylum seekers as well as a lack of accountability by the government,” said Mark Sutherland, a human rights lawyer.
On Day 4 of “Occupy ISS” this agency is like an elephant stuck in the thick of the jungle, vines tangled around its feet, tusks stuck in branches … unable to move. There might be justice for refugees in Hong Kong. The Refugee Union launched its first action on 11 February 2014 and four days later are going strong. Never before was a (corrupt) government contractor paralyzed by activists, let alone refugees. Local campaigners and university students are visiting and offering support with Chinese. New alliances are being formed.
This morning, a noticeable change was the absence of police. Two-men patrols regularly entered the premises to casually monitor activities without visible concern, as if this organized chaos was normal. Perhaps the police appreciate that refugees were indeed wronged and ISS-HK tampered with contracted services. Supporters sent breakfast to those locked inside, but the raucous 16 at ISS Prince Edward continued their hunger strike.
As refugees couldn’t reach case workers, they decided to post notices on the main door. They wrote messages of displeasure, urging ISS-HK to stop abusing their power and deliver services that are essential for a social group prohibited from working. Some notices were very direct, “ISS Stop Corruption” and “ISS is a thief“, while others reminded Miss Panares it was Valentine’s Day — a time for love!
Refugees who had appointments today were informed services were suspended until February 24, ten days later, which made people wonder. Was ISS-HK being reorganized? Were computers and files seized to search for evidence of crimes? It was certainly strange that staff returned to ISS Mongkok just to sit around without the tools to carry out duties. They appeared dazed and when Vision First visited, they scattered like mice before a cat.
The important elements are the following: ISS-HK has been paralyzed for four days; refugees have successfully occupied all three branches and are going strong; the police seem unconcerned with a lawful protest; ISS staff appears to be in a state of shock and Miss Panares hasn’t been seen since midnight Tuesday. These protesters have no work to resume, nor comfortable homes to enjoy, so they are happy continue with what one described as, “the most fun I have had in Hong Kong in ten years!”
Among the many scenarios that come to mind, there is one that fits every piece of this puzzle and it is hardly promising for The Gang of Panares.
After eight Refugee Union members reinforced their comrades inside ISS-HK Prince Edward, hope grew of achieving the objective of stopping the corruption in food distribution. The police was less helpful than previously and constable projected needless authorities to curtail non-existing trouble. The senior officers failed to make the 3pm briefing and were in animated discussion with stone-faced ISS staff.
Tension was rising, but chief inspector Stephen was unable to offer anything more than the formulaic, “Nothing changed. We are still in a deadlock. ISS still refuses to talk to the Refugee Union.” Given the severity of accusations based on factual evidence (food collections) and three days of protest, the investigators were not about to tip their hand.
On a record cold afternoon, with the mercury plunging to 5C, refugees huddled about in small groups discussing ISS abuses and the impossibility of making ends meet under current conditions. More refugees are now incarcerated for working illegally – a necessity where welfare fails – than ever before. This protest is as much about food cheating as it is about resisting unjust asylum policies.
Activist power down but never switch off. Three days of little sleep and much adrenaline raises alertness to combat zone levels. And suddenly everyone sprang into action. An SMS arrived from ISS Mongkok, “They are taking away all computers and files. The staff is packing everything and closing the office.” Was ISS-HK removing evidence from a crime scene? Could that be possible with scores of policemen around?
The toughest part of being right in the middle of the action, is being kept out of the information loop. Nobody will tell refugee protesters what strategic decision are being made. Minutes later those inside ISS Prince Edward confirmed that there too staff was removing computers and packing files into boxes. Why would ISS-HK move refugee welfare operations to another office where the sit-in would follow?
There was a feeling that ISS-HK was removing evidence and, since the police appeared to collaborate, calls went out to back-up teams keeping warm nearby. If authorities would let this happen, the Refugee Union would document such unprecedented activities. A protest that sought to stop food cheating had caused an unexpected chain of events and the shocked faces of ISS staff spoke louder than words – it looked like everyone had just suffered a death in the family!
What was going on? As much as the refugees holed up inside the offices could do nothing, those outside could only monitor the exits, determined to take photos of the relocation. Within minutes there were more than 100 refugees inside and around the building. The wrongdoings ISS got away with for years would not continue today, not under the eyes of the police force and the Refugee Union.
The Mongkok protesters sent photos of eerily bare offices. Staff had removed everything but desk, chairs and cabinets – bizarre to say the least! How did “Occupy ISS” collapse one-third of arrogant ISS Hong Kong in less than three days? Refugees had demanded a food pricelist, not a surrender. It makes no sense for ISS-HK to move operations to another location where the protest will follow.
Two protesters climbed a wall to peer into the Prince Edward office, where police and staff, who appeared in shock, were in animated discussion. The blinds were quickly closed. Then secretarial staff streamed out with frowns of antipathy against refugees. Were their jobs in jeopardy? More senior staff stayed on, though Miss. Panares and her managers were not seen. Had anyone been arrested?
As night descended so did a bitter cold. The support teams could not spend a third night outside without consequence. It was decided to return home and recover ahead of an embattled weekend. If ISS-HK was going to strip Prince Edward bare there was nothing the Refugee Union could do about it anyway.
One wonders what on earth is going on – change is happening and it is precipitous.
The supporters arrived at ISS-HK Prince Edward at 830am, having collected take-away McDonald and followed a nervous ISS case worker to work. A statement needed to be made, if ISS-HK dared opening the office, new protesters would join the strike. Today there was no notice on the door. It could have gone either way: ISS-HK might have opened, or not. The most likely scenario was that they wouldn’t. There was some loud knocking on the main door to say Good Morning to the boys.
9 o’clock came and passed. The shutter remained lowered. Since an old notice stated that business would resume today, the refugees knocked more urgently until … guess what? the police arrived. It was pointed out to the constables that the either the notice was misleading, or ISS-HK hadn’t bothered replacing it. Calls were made and two anxious employees emerged with a new sign: ISS Hong Kong would remain closed for a second day in a row (clearly due to refugee occupation).
The Mongkok police station sergeant arrived to explain his orders: there would be negotiations with ISS-HK in Wanchai and a briefing at 3pm. Until then it was hoped that order would prevail. Cold weather and heavy rain delayed supporters, but there were over a dozen by 10am. When two rookie policemen entered the office, they failed to pay attention to Ismail who pressed threw with the excuse that he was inside for two days before being taken to hospital – kinetic superiority determined the outcome: Refugee 1 – Police 0.
ISS-HK security manager, Ben, felt weak after three days on duty and more pressure than he had signed up for. The ambulance was called for him (not Ismail as might appear in the photos). Ben must have recovered, or he wasn’t taken out of our exit. There are three stairways up and, out of respect, refugees are content with managing the main entrance. The rookie cops tried to persuade Ismail to leave. He lay down on the floor in protest. The helpless guys had no clue how to deal with Palestinian determination.
The supporters outside persuade the Postman to hand them the mail, as his knocking must have been perceived as some threatening noise best ignored. Then ISS-HK dropped the ball. At 11:52 the main door was left unguarded. A quick minded protest made the winning move of the day. He unlocked the door and 11 supporters dashed inside, instantly transformed into protesters. Police reinforcements were called. Ten more officers tried to restore order among such celebratory elation: Refugees 12 – Police 0.
One had to feel sorry for ISS-HK who, since Tuesday morning, had battled with food deprivation and air-con games to cull the protesters’ line. The original 15 had dropped to 8 by yesterday evening. What a depressing blow to have that number double to 16 after 3 infiltrators agreed to return outside as they would not stay overnight. Activism is a fluid state of mind. One has to be quick minded and even quicker footed to maintain superiority. The Refugee Union is certainly emerging as a quick learn.
Vincent Kolo of Socialist Action came to interview the team, having read the exploits in the South China Morning Post. He was so impressed with this group’s style and accomplishment that he extended an invitation to speak at tomorrow at their weekly meeting at City U. That would be an honour, but the priority is to keep focused on the mission at hand and it is doubtful that ISS-HK will make meaningful concessions by then. The protesters are in for the long haul and none of them are quitters.
Good Morning protesters in the ISS-HK offices – more power to you!
Yesterday a record 886 readers (8 from Switzerland) visited this website — over three times the daily average. “Occupy ISS” is attracting attention beyond our typical audience of refugees, NGO workers, advocates and government officials. Interest is rising and with every day, every hour, the hole ISS-HK is feverishly digging itself into becomes deeper.
On Monday, Miss. Panares controlled the stairways, entrances, receptions and back offices at the Prince Edward, Mongkok and Tsuen Wan branches. On Tuesday, a refugee blitzkrieg reduced her dominion to the glass-partitioned back offices. It is doubtful any of her cowering staff will emerge to greet service users and offer coffee today.
The authorities should be wondering why this government contractor is hated viscerally by most clients. Where are the ISS-HK supporters who would testify that everything is good and they are quite satisfied with services provided? At every protest there should be ISS-HK FANS — those who love case workers, who call Miss. Panares by first name and have photos of ‘the boss’ visiting their huts and sharing a delicious meal prepared with her great provisions.
Quite to the contrary, there seems to be great anger and contempt for a purported social welfare agency that made enemies of thousands of men and women. Why? Is there some truth behind widespread complaints of oppression, humiliation and deception? Is it possible ISS-HK is cheating more than the trust it receives from a rather unsuspecting, if not downright naive, Social Welfare Department?
Any investigation, we suppose, would commence by examining the Service Contract between SWD and ISS-HK, which is bizarrely kept secret. On 12 January 2014 Vision First requested a copy of said contract from the Social Welfare Department, that has regrettably not been forthcoming on the subject matter. Who is hiding what? And indeed, what is there to hide? Miss. Panares could be holding a Get Out of Jail Free card, one that authorizes and defines abuse. Does she have it?
We would rather suspect, Not. The police are asking questions about allegations of cheating in food distribution, as raised by the Refugee Union and exposed by the South China Morning Post. It is Vision First’s duty — as Champions of Refugee Rights — to bring this matter to the attention of other news agencies. Miss. Panares has always shown distinct ineptitude with moves and counter-moves. Let’s see if overnight she prepared a persuasive speech for investigative reporters picking up “Occupy ISS” on its third day.
A police Chief Inspector of police, who was mediating yesterday, listened attentively to what a dozen refugees alleged. They are victims of an apparent conspiracy to defraud. They have evidence of unfair dealings going back years. Veteran refugees explain with exacting details how ISS-HK cheated them since 2006. Hong Kong government cannot no longer turn a deaf ear to these serious allegations. ISS-HK cunningly suppressed individual complaints, but can do nothing against occupied offices it no longer controls.
Vision First urges relevant authorities to investigate ISS-HK’s and its principles’ financial dealings from 2006. With rent scams and landlord collusion, with food cheating and supply pilfering the hands at the helm appear to be less than clean. ISS-HK, in our view, stood in a position of trust towards refugees, a position we would describe as a fiduciary one. Weighing hundreds of complainants, we have our doubts whether ISS-HK carried out such fiduciary duties with integrity.
Christy Choi writes for the South China Morning Post on 13 February 2014
Dozens of demonstrators are taking part in sit-ins at three social welfare offices, claiming they are being short-changed over food rations
Dozens of asylum seekers are staging sit-ins and hunger strikes at the offices of their government-appointed social welfare provider, accusing the organisation of overstating the value of the food it is contracted to provide.
Since 10am on Tuesday, some 20 asylum seekers have been holed up inside the offices of the Mong Kok, Prince Edward and Tsuen Wan branches of the International Social Service Hong Kong. Yesterday a further 30 milled around outside the locked premises as police stood by.
At the height of their action, about 90 asylum seekers were massed at the three locations.
“We are calling for a stop to unfair ISS-HK practices that for years have reduced the real value of the food we collect – from HK$1,060, as indicated by the government, to between HK$600 and HK$700, as distributed to us,” the group wrote in an open letter to the organisation.
The Hong Kong branch of the Swiss-based global aid network was commissioned by the Social Welfare Department in 2006 to take care of asylum seekers. NGOs say it serves about 5,000, providing food, toiletries and allowances for accommodation and transport.
“This is not worth HK$400,” Pakistani torture claimant Rehan, 30, said, as he held up pictures of what appeared to be bread, a bag of flour, a carton of eggs, milk, curry powder and a handful of other items. He said the ISS-HK considered this 10 days’ worth of food.
Rehan and the other protesters are seeking a meeting with the ISS-HK director of migrants programme, Adrielle Panares. They also want the organisation to supply a price list for the goods they receive, and to provide expiry dates for food items.
The price list is confidential as it is part of a government tender.
On Tuesday night, staff at the Mong Kok branch declined to speak to thePost. They shut the door and refused to allow food to reach the nine protesters inside. Questions put to ISS-HK managers yesterday went unanswered.
The protesters are part of a new union of asylum seekers. The union wants asylum seekers to be allowed to work while their claims are processed, and be given supermarket vouchers instead of groceries. In recent years, ISS-HK has come under scrutiny over the conditions asylum seekers are living in, some without toilets or fresh drinking water.
Cosmo Beatson, director of Vision First, an NGO that helps asylum seekers, questioned the long-term role of the ISS-HK. “We’d like the Social Welfare Department to take over [the care of asylum seekers],” he said.
The department said claimants’ views on the ISS-HK’s services were always welcome and it was willing to communicate with them and address their concerns.
There were no illusions that the second afternoon would resolve the deadlock the Refugee Union found itself with ISS-HK. Rumors circulated about the director not being around, which probably meant that Miss. Panares was getting a grilling somewhere. She’s in the hot seat and it’s hard to imagine a reprieve for her anytime this year. The ball was in her quarter as the protesters prepared to spend another night in lock down.
The South China Morning Post article offered a timely boost for those feeling tired. It put forward concerns and suggestions that the Refugee Union propose as alternatives to resolve ISS-HK service failures. As friends exchanged reports from the other offices, unexpected assistance came from a Chief Inspector from Wanchai police headquarters sent to mediate between two parties that view refugee services from diametrically opposite positions.
The protesters were sadly getting weaker and paramedics were called in twice to remove two refugees who felt unwell. A Palestinian and a Nepali were taken to Kwong Wah Hospital after suffering a spell of weakness that gave reason for concern. That was three comrades down in two days as a testament to the harsh conditions they endured inside those offices.
Dying phone batteries hampered communications between strikers and supporters, though communication was made through door that took the occasion pounding of excitement. The advantage of having refugees swing by at different times, means there is always fresh energy to encourage when others feel tired – which summarizes how everyone felt today.
The police had several senior officers shuttling between the Union representatives and ISS-HK management. The refugees’ goal remained the same: to occupy all ISS-HK offices in protest until guarantees were made that prices will be displayed on the food collection forms. Easier said than done, because publishing them would not only ensure that full provisions are given, but also that prices aren’t set too high. All in all, it is a goal worth fighting for.
By 10pm lunchboxes were delivered to all three offices – thanks to police mediation - and the hunger strike was officially over. There were about twenty supporters outside the Prince Edward office when staff locked the gate, sequestering again the protesters on the first floor. Further concessions were made, such as switching off the air-con at Tsuen Wan, which signaled a more compromising attitude on the part of ISS-HK forced to host unwelcome overnight tenants … again.
Supporters will spend another night outside in solidarity with the protesters in ISS-HK detention.
A freezing morning brought little relief to the support crew that spent the night in the cold. They took comfort in being able to enjoy a hot, nourishing McDonald meal, a simple pleasure denied the protesters inside the three ISS Hong Kong branches.
The men and women of the Refugee Union had spent the night in freezing air-conditioning as management tried to add insult to injury, perhaps hoping to freeze them into submission. The refugees took comfort in the knowledge that the more Miss. Panares abuses them, the stronger they become. Period.
By denying these refugees food and water, ISS-HK forced an involuntary HUNGER STRIKE from 2pm on Tuesday morning, 11 February 2014. Instead of meeting the Union’s demand to display itemized prices in the food collection forms, Miss. Panares took a hardline approach to starve the protesters out of her dominion. Time will tell whether it will work, as moves and counter-moves play out with unexpected twists.
The Refugee Union is blazing a new path by countering the wickedness of ISS-HK with personal courage and collective support. A Central African Republic supporter shouted, “ISS ill voll! ISS c’est un grand voller!” – a cry that is likely to reverberate across the Swiss valleys of International Social Service’s Head Quarters.
The die is cast! It is war between ISS Hong Kong and the newly-born and already highly respected Refugee Union. Round one was own by the Refugee Union, whose overnight protest forced ISS-HK to unprecedentedly close all three branches on Wednesday morning. There was a dozen refugees outside when the doors failed to open at 9am, a sure sign that not all was well inside.
Service users with monthly appointments were bounced by a baffling notice that the office was temporarily closed without an explanation. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize what the hunger-strikers had accomplished in one night — the unexpected closure of all three ISS-HK branches!
A female case-worker, called on speaker-phone, amused the crowd by crying out , “You cannot come in. The situation is very BAD, very BAD inside here” … everyone laughed … and the line went dead!
A game of cat and mouse started between supporters and the police. Pounding on the office door causes the predictable arrival of a squad of policemen. The rules of the game are simple: pound on the door, call the police (yes, the refugees call them), pound until policemen arrive, then ask for help to deliver water and snacks inside. When the reporters arrive – repeat! To keep ISS-HK staff on their toes – repeat!
While the support team can come and go, the hunger-strikers are stuck. Those inside the Mongkok office are even denied toilet visits, since they will be locked out if they step outside. The Refugee Union vs. ISS-HK stalemate will not resolve easily. Knowledge of the personalities involved might help forecasting, though these are uncharted waters where epic stubbornness flows into anger against injustice.
The police made it crystal clear: this is a private commercial dispute they will not meddle with. Officers will keep the peace and, provided the main door isn’t battered down, nobody will be arrested. The commanding officer stated, “If you don’t damage any property, you are welcome to join the hunger strike in this public space”.
Maybe it’s time to make the Li Po Chun Health Centre in Prince Edward even more famous than the Refugee Union managed in the past twenty-four hours. It is hard to tell what this empowered group of refugees will come up with next.
Stay tuned for more!
Since morning the Refugee Union had a team in each of ISS-HK’s three offices and everyone was determined to hold the line. As the coldest night fell, it became apparent that the protest would carry on throughout the night. The first twelve hours were the hardest. Now it was time to somehow settle in for the night.
ISS-HK management made a last ditch effort to present the Prince Edward team with a document that might persuade everyone to vacate the three premises. Alas, it was too little, too late and sincerity was lacking. The leaders decided that a high-ranking SWD representative would be required to authorize any deal.
The SWD was closed and it was too late to invite anyone to mediate. The police wasn’t willing to physically remove the peaceful protesters, so refugees, staff, security guards and policemen were preparing to spend the cold night together.
The Refugee Union made history! Never before had refugees occupied ISS-HK offices overnight, let alone all three branches at the same time. This empowered team was leading by example. They proved that refugees have fundamental rights that ISS-HK might not concede and the police will not stop a peaceful protest.
Nevertheless, police officers were inside and outside every office, with reinforcements sitting in vans around the corner and CID officers keeping a watchful eye. The Refugee Union support teams brought food to their colleagues in lock-down, but it was used as bate to attract the hungry outside. Once outside, the shutters came down and there was no way of getting back inside.
Around 10pm mothers, children and those who were cold and tired called it a day. Only a core of hardened veterans would go all the way and make history by occupying ISS-HK’s offices overnight – bravo! Motivated by a deep resentment against this hated contractor, these hungry and thirsty refugees were determined to hold out. Lawmaker Fernando Cheung and other well-wishers sent messages of encouragement and praise. The South China Morning Post came to interview the support team and ask probing questions about the alleged corruption in ISS-HK food supplies.
As outside gates were locked and lifts blocked by cordons of police, the protesters prepared to spend the night on the reception chairs. There were 10 at ISS Prince Edward, 8 at ISS Mongkok and 6 at ISS Tsuen Wan. The police blocked food deliveries for hours. Those at Mongkok weren’t allowed to take the rice-boxes till 2am, and it is still unknown what happened at Prince Edward.
Around 430am distressing photos circulated of comrade Hashimi being taken away by an emergency medical team. No further details are available at this time (7:25am). We hope that our good friend is feeling better after going hungry for a long, stressful day.
Those who had it toughest were the supporters waiting in the freezing lobby of the Mongkok building, where overnight the marble floor felt like ice. The police made several inspections, but were satisfied that no attempts were made to reach the upper floors. The wee hours of the morning tick over glacially slow. Teeth were chattering, hands were freezing and thoughts drifted off to comfortable beds forsaken for a great cause.
The first 24 hours of OCCUPY ISS are about to complete and ISS-HK management must deal with a pressing reality.