In April 2006 the Social Welfare Department signed the first service contract with International Social Service (ISS-HK) to ensure, among other objectives, that refugees during their stay in Hong Kong, “would not be left to sleep in the street”.
[Note: HKSAR refuses to make public contracts between SWD and ISS. From 2006 to 2013 SWD subvented ISS-HK with hundreds of millions of dollars. Details for 2012 are available in these SWD-ISS Service Specifications. On 28 Sep 2012 ISS-HK signed a contract worth HK$ 396,877,881 – including HK$ 40,000,000 in salaries, to be explored in an upcoming blog]
In April 2006 the Government announced the “Voluntary surrender of pig farm licenses”. This incentive scheme encouraged pig famers to surrender their licenses voluntarily and cease pig farming to reduce associated public health and environmental pollution problems. At that time local farms supplied markets with 20% of fresh pork, a quantity later replaced by imports from the Mainland.
The ex-gratia payment to the pig industry was budgeted at HK$ 941,700,000 (min. HK$ 450,000 and max. HK$ 25,450,000) to close down pig sheds and surrendered licenses. As a corollary the Government introduced legislation to stop the issue of new licenses and froze the rearing capacity of those not joining the scheme. In brief, pig farming stopped and sheds lay empty.
For a while the farmers were content with the pay-outs, but they soon looked upon empty sheds and wondered how to redevelop them profitably. Most remain abandoned to this day, though a few unscrupulous landlords turned animal farms into refugee ghettos. It is unclear how the conspiracy started, though there is evidence that ISS pushed refugees to the farmers in 2007.
Vision First is investigating numerous violations of several ordinances. Chief among our concerns are violations of Section 25 of the Building Ordinance which specifies land use. With regard to breaches of Section 25, the penalties are defined in Section 40 as a level 5 fine (50,000$ per offence) and imprisonment for one year. More critically, the Government may impose an encumbrance, impairing the transfer and lessening the value of the land.
There is no excuse for conspiring with pig farmers to settle refugees illegally.
This refugee ghetto is one of the largest and oldest slums exposed by Vision First. Its days of glory are coming to an end as the new caretaker is unable to provide ISS-HK with the documents required to demonstrate ownership. In other times, ISS-HK would have closed an eye, but mounting pressure is forcing them to change their ways and file documents that pass more than a superficial inspection.
Mr. Mang is the new boss. He took over management of this ghetto from Mr. Cheng over considerable gambling debts. 25 refugees are worth 30,000$ a month from ISS-HK, plus an additional 12,500$ cash from refugees for rent balances and utilities. That’s 510,000$ a year! There is no saying how many millions were lost at the majong table between these two old friends.
It is disturbing that ISS-HK has settled refugees in this slum since 2007, when rents in legitimate village flats would not have been much more than for these shacks. There is further evidence that, despite public claims, ISS-HK always promoted the segregation of helpless refugees in isolated ghettos. Until present and past contracts between SWD and ISS are produced, both are to be held accountable.
The SWD service specifications require that, “The Contractor shall ensure that Service Users having genuine housing need are provided with accommodation (including electricity, water, gas supply and other basic utilities).” However, it is blindingly obvious that ghetto homes do not have adequate facilities and those required are below standard, if not outright dangerous and illegal.
In July 2010 we first visited the refugee ghetto in the “Slum in the Farm House”. At the time we didn’t realize how pervasive ISS-HK policy to settled human beings in animal farms was. Comparing the photographs from three years ago with recent ones, it is readily apparent that little has changed for those segregated in slums.
ISS-HK established its refugee business with illegal accommodations. There never was a business plan that did not assume a large number of clients would be pushed into animal farms. Our investigation has uncovered sufficient evidence to support these factual findings. It is astonishing how chicken and pig sheds were targeted as viable housing for those unaware of Hong Kong laws.
How much are these ghettos worth?
Vision First has inspected ISS-HK reports that paint a lucrative picture. ISS-HK paid slumlords Mr. Ko Soen Lan and Mrs. Yue Oy Lian at least 1,395,156$ in four years. While property ownership is unclear, ISS-HK authorized the settlement of 28 refugees into two small farm houses. It is troubling, however, that refugee don’t live inside these homes, but rather in surrounding shacks!
With an average of 25 refugees receiving 1000$ a month:
- In 2010 ISS-HK paid 300,000$ rent
- In 2011 ISS-HK paid 300,000$ rent
After rent assistance was raised to 1200$ a month:
- In 2012 ISS-HK paid 360,000$ rent
- In 2013 ISS-HK paid 435,156$ rent and utility (28 refugees)
ISS-HK paid a total 1,395,156 HK$
However, each refugee is forced to pay 350$ for miscellaneous cost, so slumlords collect an extra 118,000$ a year (tax free?). Multiplied by four and added to the above figures, this unscrupulous couple raked in about 2,000,000 HK$ in four years. They have good reason to defend the illicit gains offered by ISS-HK.
Compared to other slums exposed by Vision First, this one would be considered medium size. Since ISS-HK credits bank accounts with monthly statements, this greed couple surely has nothing to worry about our results being forwarded to the Inland Revenue Department. Let’s add the tax man to the departments called to investigate the refugees ghettos established and supported by International Social Service, Hong Kong.
For the attention of Hon. Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung
Dear Fernando –
We are writing to you to express our deep concern about the potentially very precarious situation faced by a refugee family with two young children.
__________ Peter is a protection claimant from Togo. He arrived in 2006 and has Recognizance No. RBCL __________. In 2009 he married ____________ Priscilla, also Togolese. They now have two young children, Anna 4 and Maria 1 – born in Hong Kong. Peter spoke at the LegCo Public Complaints Office meeting on 15 October 2013 and therefore his grievances are on record.
Peter’s family lives on __________ Street in To Kwa Wan and pays 5600$ rent. It is noteworthy that ISS-HK only contributed 3600$ in assistance – or 64% of the rent. The security deposit and monthly balance was paid by a friend, who recently had twins and was obliged to withdrew his contribution.
Today the future of Peter’s family is hanging by a thread.
Last month, the landlord increased rent to 7000$ and demand that Peter pay up or move out. With a wife and two young children, Peter is alarmed by the prospect of becoming homeless. He has brought his problem to the attention of ISS-HK who eventually offered 5000$ – always too little, too late. This amount is manifestly insufficient for the cheapest, most rundown flat in To Kwa Wan.
The alternative is for Peter to move to a village in the New Territories. However, their daughter Anna goes to school in Hung Hom. It would evidently be impossible for young Anna, and an accompanying parent, to walk such a distance when penniless. As you can appreciate, there is a real risk that Peter’s family will become homeless through a failure of the welfare system.
We are concerned that ISS-HK assumes that Peter can raise 2000$ a month as he has done in the past. Vision First strongly denounces the assumption that refugees must beg to complete inadequate government assistance. Not only is this a cruel and unlawful welfare strategy, but it is degrading and dehumanizing to force refugees to beg for survival in a foreign city. Would SWD and ISS officers like to experience this for themselves in Lomé, Togo? It is even more outrageous that last year ISS-HK returned to SWD 60 million dollars in unspent funds, despite refugees crying for help!
Should refugee children be homeless to increase Hong Kong’s surplus of 1.4 TRILLION dollars?
Recently the similar situation of Ibrahim’s family received media attention:
It is an affront that a refugee family should be homeless through insufficient welfare assistance when contemporaneously denied the right to work. Clearly this should not meet the terms of the contract between SWD and ISS – unless such terms include the barbaric treatment of vulnerable human beings.
Dear Fernando, we urge you to intervene on behalf of this family in favour of the full rent payment. Such payment is incumbent upon Hong Kong Government as long as refugees are banned from taking up employment while awaiting determination of their cases.
We thank you in advance for your urgent attention to this matter.
How to research a strange insect species
- Apply for welfare assistance from ISS-HK
- Collect the emergency rations from the appointed shops
- ***hazard warning*** Take a bag of rice home
- Wear gloves and surgical mask
- Prepare a pot of cold water
- Carefully extract a scoop of rice from bag
- Pour the rice quickly into the water
- Watch the rice sink to the bottom and dead insects float to the top!
- Inspect this strange insect species never seen in Hong Kong
- Don’t eat the rice and don’t bother complaining to ISS
After an intake interview, the Social Welfare Department refers destitute refugees to ISS-HK because they do no have means to sustain themselves. Besides supplying rent assistance and emergency food, ISS-HK is contracted to provide “Clothing and Toiletries” as well as ”Travelling Expenses” for approved trips. These travel costs, as stated below, include appointments with the HK Immigration Department, UNHCR, lawyers, food collection and medical visits.
It is reported that none of the refugees in the Yuen Long slums is provided with a transportation allowance for such necessary, mandatory trips. In Ping Che there was the problem of fares being only partially refunded. After Vision First exposed this problem, ISS improved this service. Now the more outspoken refugees receive full refunds, though regrettably the less assertive still struggle against case worker discrimination. Why must refugees have to fight to receive basic assistance?
The situation in the slums along the Light Rail tracks is alarming. Refugees complain that they don’t receive transportation to collect food. To make matters worse, the previous 3-times a month collection was doubled. Refugees who live in distant communities like Pak Sha Tsuen (20 minutes to the main road) find it hard to walk to the Yuen Long shops many kilometers away. Vision First is concerned that ISS-HK services are unfairly distributed with the excuse of “case by case assessments”.
ISS-HK should pay notice. There is no “case by case” when every refugee is utterly destitute, has no right to work and no income. Why should refugees in Kowloon receive travelling expenses for relatively short distances, when more vulnerable people – including mothers with babies – in the New Territories receive nothing? This is a matter of grave concern. It highlights the shameful and arbitrary distribution of government assistance by ISS-HK. It stinks of gross discrimination against the most helpless human beings in society.
We request that the Social Welfare Department investigate this complaint by speaking directly to refugees in the slums. Don’t trust what ISS-HK says and the documents produced! Get the truth from them!
On 8 October 2013, ISS case worker Jacqueline Lau signed the contract below. She confirmed that a Pakistani refugee was NOT ELIGIBLE for “Clothing and Toiletries” or “Travelling Expenses”. Why not, Jacqueline?
This gentlemen complained to Vision First about this abusive treatment. He has no money to collect his food and, more troubling, he cannot travel to the Immigration Department in Ma Tau Kok for his monthly report.
In the event that he is arrest for absconding from the authorities, will Miss. Lau testify in court why she denied this refugee’s travel costs? There is no excuse for aggravating the suffering of those already crushed by hardship.
Thank you for inviting us to this meeting. My name is Arif and I am one of the 200 refugees living in Ping Che. For those of you who haven’t visited Ping Che, let me give you a rough idea of the slum we live in. The shacks there are poorly built. They are surrounded by open drains that give off a nasty smell. The inside is equally unhygienic. My toilet, for example, is inside the same space as my kitchen.
Although the ISS insists that we voluntarily chose to live in this environment, this could not be further from the truth!
We are forced to live in the slum because the rent assistance we receive from the ISS is not enough for us to rent basic, legal apartments with adequate facilities. The ISS however intentionally hides and denies their wrongdoings. They write fake addresses on our contracts and for a long time the case workers refuse to visit us. When they finally paid us a visit and saw us living like animals, the said to us, “Oh, what a nice place you have here!” These are lies, outright lies.
Our living situation is only one small part of the suffering caused by the ISS.
When I first approached the ISS for assistance, I was told I could choose to either take the rent money or the food. It was either one or the other, as if both are not essential to survive. This was not just my personal experience. Many refugees I know were also given this impossible choice. As a result, many of us had to go hungry or were forced to live in the streets. This also happened in the Yuen Long slums.
Before Vision First told us what other refugees were getting, those in Ping Che had not received a single cent of the 190$ allowance for electricity and water. Not one dollar since the program started in 2006. While other refugees get cooking gas 5 to 6 times a year, those in Ping Che were only receiving it twice a year – and some people never.
On top of all this, the ISS refuses to pay us the full subsidies for our transportation. Just to give you an example, it cost $28 for me to travel from Ping Che to Yuen Long to collect food. The ISS, however, refunds less than half of that amount, knowing full well that we are penniless. Why?
How does the ISS expect us to survive? Are we supposed to live in houses with no light or water, burn wood to cook food and walk 15 Km to collect our food?
Today we demand an explanation from the ISS for this degrading treatment! Refugees are just human beings. We have already suffered enough in our country and there is only so much suffering we can tolerate having come to Hong Kong to seek protection.
I speak for all the refugees today, not just for myself. I hope my actin today will make Hong Kong a better place for all others fleeing from persecution and torture in the future. I encourage all refugees who have suffered at the hands of the ISS to become witness, expose the truth and fight for justice. Thank you.
To the United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights
Attn. High Commissioner, Madam Navanethem Pillay
Honorable Madam Pillay -
Vision First is an NGO safeguarding refugee rights in Hong Kong since 2009.
Over the past months we exposed numerous refugee ghettos in affluent Hong Kong. These slums have been sanctioned and supported by the Government and its contractor (ISS-HK) to settle destitute asylum seekers and refugees who do not receive sufficient welfare assistance and are banned from working (15-22 months incarceration).
It is outrageous that the refugee community is forced – by policy and by design – to live in desperate conditions, below subsistence levels, in the shadows of the city’s opulence. Here refugees are debased to a sub-human existence, despite Hong Kong having promised protection to torture victims since 1992, when the UN Convention against Torture was extended to the territory.
This treatment is not only unacceptable, but also illegal as Hong Kong Government has a constitutional duty to meet refugees basic financial and material needs. It appears that the government is unconcerned about the health, safety and well-being of this most vulnerable group that sought refuge here – never expecting to find segregation and oppression instead.
The Government’s asylum system in general, and welfare policies in particular, have completely failed those who seek international protection in Hong Kong. As a community member, Vision First is deeply ashamed by this outrageous reality and we seek support from your office to investigate the situation presented in these two letters (letter to the CE + Refugee ghettos).
We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter and look forward to your response.
The rural area around Yick Yuen Tsuen has seen more prosperous times. There were once thriving farms and even fish were raised in a large compound now abandoned. Today farming is dead and impoverished landlords have few sources of income. The pattern repeats itself: refugee business is good business.
Shacks have sprung up over farm land. Some animal sheds have been converted, but such structures are not essential to comply with ISS-HK lacks requirements and meaningless inspections. A newcomer refugee complained that he moved into a hut that his case worker hasn’t visited for six months. He couldn’t say the same about rats and snakes that visit nightly! The living conditions are dreadful.
The web of deception that ISS-HK weaved is colossal. There are rumours that new contracts will not be approved in the more notorious ghettos, like those in Ping Che. However, it is disturbing that case workers continue to settle helpless, destitute refugees in the slums that Vision First has not yet exposed. At this stage, everyone should be acutely aware that ghettos are not an acceptable!
To escape the heat in an unventilated room in another slum, a refugee came to live here. He didn’t expect falling from the frying pan into the fire. His room might have an a/c unit, but that is because there are no windows. Without ventilation, the slum lord offered air-conditioning to keep his revenue alive in a metal structure. It wasn’t compassion. He was doing his wallet a favor!
The toilet ‘systems’ are among the worst. What’s the point of a porcelain bowl without sewerage pipes? Whether it is a bowl or a hole in the ground, sanitation is missing. The Lands Department should bring to account those responsible for such barbaric treatment. While the authorities remain sleeping at the wheel, Vision First tirelessly documents these abuses of refugee rights. Soon justice will prevail.