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.
The Refugee Union held their ground in all three ISS-HK offices through the afternoon, with no lunch or water. The police came in waves, gradually cutting out threatening rhetoric that had no place in a peaceful protest with families. Mothers and children had it toughest, holding out without food to prove a point: the current system is a rotten with corruption and must be changed.
There were heated moments, arguments erupted between refugees and ISS-HK staff, but level heads prevailed. Miss. Panares never bothered meeting the protesters to address their complaints. In a few months she will realize that intransigence was her downfall. A veteran refugee sagaciously observed, “ISS-HK cannot show the food prices. Without prices there is corruption. With prices there is transparency. The fish can hide in the murky waters. Some people are getting rich on our back by cheating Hong Kong Government!”
As evening grew closer it became clear that the deadlock would not be resolved any time soon. ISS-HK refused to issue a letter confirming prices would be included in future food collection forms. The Refugee Union stuck by its guns. This is clearly a problem for higher authorities to resolve. when they decide to clean the shameful mess ISS-HK created.
At 6pm, shutters came down on the main doors: who was inside was in lock down, who was outside wasn’t allowed back in.
Gradually the number of protesters thinned out as most had had enough and called it a day. Not so for those who were in for the long run. It is said that, when the going gets tough, the tough keep going!
Hardcore protesters are aware that everything they struggled for in 2013, was granted in February 2014. No greater power ever granted rights to the downtrodden without a struggle, often a painful one. For those who suffered oppression and humiliation from ISS-HK since 2006, this confrontation has a deeper meaning. The victors will be the refugees in a few months.
GO REFUGEE UNION!
KEEP UP THE STRUGGLE!
On Tuesday 11 February at 10am the Refugee Union mobilized to OCCUPY the offices of ISS-HK.
The Refugee Union sent a delegation to all three offices: Prince Edward, Mongkok and Tsuen Wan.
The protesters requested that ISS-HK stop cheating with the food supplies and introduce prices in the food collection forms.
Refugees believe this is the only way to prevent ISS-HK and its contracted shops from manipulating food distribution, effectively cutting supplies short
Aggrieved protesters are raising a legitimate complaint: ISS-HK cannot be trusted, SWD is doing nothing to monitor and refugees are victimized.
The Social Welfare Department and Security Bureau are invited to look into the Refugee Union request
11:00 protesters entered the 3 ISS offices
11:32 police was called to Prince Edward office (soon to other two)
11:45 police told refugees not to take photos
12:00 ISS-HK offered a lame acknowledgment letter
12:30 police send officers with SHIELDS to Tsuen Wan!
13:00 refugees are holding the line
13:00 ISS-HK boss Adrielle Panares is nowhere to be seen today (typical!)
It has been said that, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Peter, and his family from West Africa, were lied to and put under oppressive and humiliating conditions by ISS-HK. Since June 2006, ISS-HK wholly failed in their legal obligations to meet their material and financial needs. Vision First reported this incident last October in “Refugee family is becoming homeless” and “Arrested refugee father loses home and freedom”.
Over several months, ISS-HK represented to Peter that they would meet his rent and food needs in full. That turned out to be a lie that amounts to fraudulent misstatement and fraudulent misrepresentations. In fact, Peter had a legitimate expectation to receive government assistance and for that reason he acted to his detriment when ISS-HK made a turnaround and failed to fulfill their promises.
Peter was dishonestly strung along by ISS-HK, ISS-HK acting in bad faith, to the point where his family faced eviction and there was insufficient food on the table. After months of misrepresentations, Peter found himself at the doors of ISS-HK begging for help and ISS-HK took this as an opportunity to call the police on a man desperate to help his family, with nobody else to turn to and no right to work.
ISS-HK disingenuously blamed Peter for an old and worn out door handle that had been damaged due to ordinary wear and tear, Peter having simply turned the door handle wherein the worn out component was at the end of its lifespan. The police arrived and told peter to leave. Peter insisted that he needed the assistance for his family from ISS-HK.
After some time Peter telling the police of his dire personal situation, the Police suddenly violently arrested Peter, which resulted in his hospitalization. The Police were deaf to his pleas for help that ISS-HK should have provided, promised to provide and had agreed to provide. The Police had no sympathy for a destitute man, despite his entitlement to protection under the UN Convention against Torture and Article 3 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.
The police only saw an asylum seeker and made no effort to understand his plight or background. After being released from the hospital for injuries inflicted on him by the police, the police officers exercised their discretion to lock him up in police custody, in a cell, for three days – without bail. Had a Hong Kong resident been in the same position certainly he would have not been locked up and would have been granted police bail immediately for such an alleged offense.
There is no doubt the police viewed Peter as belonging to a clearly defined “Social Group” in Hong Kong and used violence against him when he was no threat to them or anyone at ISS-HK. By holding him in custody for an offense that did not warrant a custodial sentence if convicted by the court. Clearly the police discriminated against Peter and used violence and took away his liberty. But for his asylum seeker status the police would not have treated him differently to Hong Kong residents.
The Hong Kong government’s treatment of Peter as part of this distinct “Social Group” falls under the clear definition of “Persecution”. The conduct of the Hong Kong police force in this matter should be brought to the attention of the UNHCR.
Peter was represented at trial by barrister Mr. Robert Tibbo, who acted pro bono, since the Duty Lawyer Service insisted that any duty lawyer could have competently taken up this sensitive and challenging defense. Based on Mr. Tibbo’s advocacy to the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the DOJ agreed to a bind over and the prosecution ended with Peter walking free and without a criminal record.
As part of the bind over, the DOJ insisted that Peter pay 500$ in damages, despite representations made to the DOJ that Peter had no money, because he is not permitted to work, and ISS had failed to meet their legal obligations towards his family. The DOJ insisted on this despite Peter having been assaulted by police, injured, hospitalized and locked-up in a police cell for three days for an offense for which he would not have even received a custodial sentence for, had he been found guilty.
Substantial efforts had to be made by Barrister and Solicitors – all working pro bono – resulting in significant time and expense being incurred by Peter’s lawyers, the police, court staff, and the DOJ for a situation that was wholly and unnecessarily created by ISS-HK’s unconscionable and incompetent behaviour. This shameful saga could have been wholly avoided had ISS-HK acted responsibly and compassionately towards a refugee, his wife and two very young children.
Vision First urges the SWD, the DOJ and relevant authorities to learn from this regrettable incident.
Last week in the UK, government contractors came under fire for providing inadequate housing and squalid properties for vulnerable asylum seekers. Does it ring a bell? There are unsettling parallels with Hong Kong, though ISS is an international humanitarian organization and has neither been held accountable, nor stopped shameful housing practices, which for its NGO status is even more reprehensible.
The issues is then whether private and international contractors are principled enough to respect human rights in the delivery of target-driven, profit-making services. While legitimate doubts may be raised with regards to UK private companies, these should be eased in the case of an INGO.
To illustrate the facts, the UK equivalent of Hong Kong’s Audit Commission investigated an outsourcing contract to house 23,000 asylum seekers across Britain. Worth hundreds of millions of pounds, the contract was allocated to three private security companies. An inquire was necessary as UK charities are increasingly concerned by the way government contractors cut corners and fail to abide by rules and regulations in the housing of asylum seekers assessed as being destitute.
Maurice Wren of the (UK) Refugee Council, said: “Asylum seekers are often people who have fled horrifying experiences in their own countries and have lost everything. They do not get a choice where they live and are totally reliant on the contractors to ensure that their properties are safe for them and their families to live in. Failure to provide adequate accommodation is always unacceptable. It’s essential the Home Office sets clear standards, provides the resources required to deliver them and is tough on contractors who fail to meet them.”
The UK inspectors discovered that government contractors took on housing stock without inspecting it and subsequently found that many of these properties did not meet the contractual quality standards. The private contractors failed to meet specified standards in some areas such as finding properties for asylum seekers in a set timescale and on property conditions. They could be referring to ISS Hong Kong!
The similarities with the housing scandal caused by ISS are remarkable and worrisome.
Vision First urges Hong Kong government to consider managing refugee housing through a dedicated branch of the Social Welfare Department. Further, we urge the government to consider that appointing multiple service providers, as per rumors in the corridors of power, does not guarantee performance, when profits are placed before integrity.
In particular, to prevent the abuse of security deposits and rental payments, the government is urged to take control of housing. Many scenarios readily come to mind in which millions of dollars in deposits will be forfeited and lost if the government does not directly manage landlords and endorse tenancy agreements. In July 2013, Vision First exposed numerous cases in which bogus landlord details and fake home addresses were entered fraudulently into ISS housing contracts.
The authorities are urged to consider these questions. Why are slum lords approaching ISS to dig for gold in newly established slums? Why are honest landlords and agents refusing to deal with ISS? Why has ISS’ reputation deteriorated so much that offering deposit will not convince landlords? Why is ISS suffering a brain drain despite offering salaries up to 50% higher than in the private sector? Why are experienced case workers abandoning what they perceive to be a sinking ship?
Before cleaning up a failed system, it is unwise to throw good money after bad.
On 24 September 2013, Vision First assisted 80 refugees in a demonstration outside the ISS office in Tsuen Wan. The police took the event cautiously and outnumbered protesters two-to-one, as if trouble was expected. This was not the first time the government belatedly confronted a social problem that could have been easily avoided. The protest action was reported here.
It was anger with food provisions that drove refugees to complaint. The trigger point was not the quantity or quality of food – issues they have put up with for years – but the alteration of collections from 3 to 6 times a month. In itself that wasn’t a drama. The problem was that ISS claimed the change was necessary to supply fresher fruit and vegetables, which turned out to be untrue.
Instead, refugees realized they were being cheated: the new grocery bags were significantly lighter than before. People became suspicious. They made lists and took photos. Angry refugees refused to be treated like beggars. Not only were the grocery packages smaller, but the diminished amounts left them hungry. There was growing evidence of a sinister manipulation of food supplies.
Soon it was clear that ISS had engineered the change to conceal a reduction. Vision First denounced this unreasonable harassment of refugees who – not being allowed to work – risked jail for working to buy food. We urged authorities to investigate the quantity, quality and distribution system as organized by ISS through seven dedicated shops. Further analysis on the 53 million dollar food contract and the ‘Vanished Food’ magic trick is available here.
A recent news article reports that, “Each claimant will be entitled to HK$1,200 worth of food a month, up by HK$140. And the allowance for basic utilities will rise by HK$30 to HK$300 per head.” Hold on a moment. The current utility allowance is 190$, so clarifications are in order. As for the food value, it matters not what the SWD pays ISS, but what ISS supplies to refugees!
The enhancement will only be trusted if refugees actually receive 1200$ of groceries a month – at wholesale prices – without shifty cuts, reductions or losses. Anything less points to fraudulent practices in the distribution chain and should be a concern to authorities. Vision First will keep vigilant: we will count and value and monitor the distribution to ensure transparency.
On 24 September 2013, we had no illusions of changing the system. Any fight for social justice is an arduous one, particularly on behalf of non-citizens. It is with great satisfaction that we receive, as yet unconfirmed, news that ISS will revert back to 3 times food collections in February. Staff in the seven shops have already informed many refugees. It has taken four months for that protest action – and several blogs – to bear fruit, but it is again: Mission Accomplished!
Refugees are learning that public demonstrations have the power to change their future.
Refugees denounce the exploitation by landlords through fraudulent electricity bills. With few exceptions, urban and slum landlords earn illegal profits from electricity bills. Unsatisfied with extortionary rents, every month owners extort several hundred dollars from each refugee. This practice forces tenants to work and risk 15 months imprisonment to pay dishonest bills.
While it is legal to have qualified electricians install meters (the emphasis is on qualified), it is illegal to claim more than what is charged on the underlying electricity bills. If landlords fail to produce copies of power companies’ debit notes and proceed to charge more than the underlying invoice, they commit an offense under the Theft Ordinance (Cap 201).
This abuse is the third worse strain on persecuted foreigners beside rent and food shortfalls. With 4000 refugees illegally charged a minimum 200$ a month, this amounts to a 10 million dollar yearly racket! It is widely known that landlords blackmail fearful tenants to cough up the money under threat of throwing them in the street, “Money, money … or zau la!” (走喇 “Leave”)
Landlords blackmail refugees for 10 million dollars with fraudulent electricity bills.
In 2013 Vision First visited hundreds of homes and only two landlords readily provided photocopies of electricity bills when presenting monthly notices. Refugees call on authorities to investigate and stop this widespread cheating and blackmailing. These practices force destitute foreigners to break the law in desperation. They have no choice but to work to pay such bills.
This shameful situation raises questions about the professionalism of ISS case workers. They are the controllers who ought to monitor utility statements prior to authorizing payment of tax dollars to deceitful landlords. Handwritten demand notices are scribbled on scraps of paper – sometimes Mark Six forms – handed out with the uncompromising warning, “Pay or leave!”
Under section 17 of the Theft Ordinance, it is written that: “Any person who by any deception, dishonestly obtains property belonging to another, with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction upon indictment to imprisonment for 10 years.”
Vision First encourages refugees to report to the police fraudulent payment demands. They should state the name of ISS case workers who fail or refuse to protect them by accepting coercive notices. As such, they acquiesce to this abuse and exploitation. Refugees are deeply concerned that ISS does nothing to stop landlords from submitting false or misleading statements.
It is clear that this situation is unacceptable. ISS and SWD stand in a position of trust towards refugees. By allowing refugee to be blackmailed by dishonest landlords, both ISS and SWD are in breach of their fiduciary duties and must be held accountable. Vision First urges the Social Welfare Department to demand copies of electricity bills prior to disbursing government funds.
Refugees demand transparency and accountability in welfare services.