Security Bureau on welfare assistance to refugees

Fernando Cheung letter to the Secretary of Security on 28 May 2013 (Chinese)

Fernando Cheung letter to the Secretary of Security on 28 May 2013 (English translation)

Secretary for Security reply to Fernando Cheung on 14 Jun 2013 (Chinese)

Secretary for Security reply to Fernando Cheung on 14 Jun 2013 (English translation)


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難民打工籌錢救病女 一日黑工換十四月監


You either rob or you find a job. He took up employment, and was arrested for it.

協助Dilan的Vision First總裁Cosmo Beatson,指目前難民每月只收到$1200租務援助,另加每日$30食物費用。他反問:「你可以用三十蚊生存到一日嗎?如果你唔夠錢用,一係去搶、一係去打工。他們選擇了去打工,為什麼咁都要被人拉?」義工Lai Win Phyu,記述陪Dilini去醫院照超聲波。同是來自斯里蘭卡,Dilan的太太Dilini已懷孕。患有糖尿病的她,一個人帶著兩歲大的女兒滯留香港。Dilini的孩子天生心漏,即心裡穿了一個洞。她們去醫院,是為了尋找證據,證明Dilini的危險情況,希望可以讓醫生在法庭的求情信中寫一段,說明她需要人照顧,求法庭不要判她的丈夫入獄,或起碼上訴期間可以保釋。沒有香港人身份,令她在香港求診極度困難,到終於有醫生好心為她寫了報告,Dilini滿懷希望來到法庭,法庭卻對內容不屑一顧,認為她只須向坊間協助難民的NGO求助,孩子無需爸爸。即使到入境處見主任,入境處的保安對著她這樣一個孕婦,亦如見乞兒見狗一樣呼喝。義工記述,曾見過法官向一個難民父親大喝:「你的妻子為何懷孕?你不應該在這裡有孩子!你們這些人,就是香港的負累。」

打一日工 14個月監禁 上訴期間不准保釋

Dilan為了籌錢給心漏的孩子,冒險打黑工洗碗。這樣一宗輕微到極的「罪行」,竟然被重判14個月監禁!而當然, Dilan這種人,多數無法保釋——保釋條件之一,是你在本地要有連繫的親人,以確保你會不會潛逃。作為難民的Dilan一家,當然無親無故,亦不會令法庭信納他可以保釋。事情多麼諷刺:把Dilan關起來是怕他潛逃,事實上他潛逃了你又會很在乎?難道政府不是希望,這些難民、申請庇護的人,走得離香港愈遠愈好?

每天$30食物費,每個月$1200租津,不准打劫,更不准打工。打劫會拉,打工也會拉,判刑分分鐘可能差不多。程序就是,無身分證所以孕婦也不可以看醫生;法律就是,無家難民唯一的收容所,便是監獄。Dilan被關之後幾晚,懷孕Dilini在家中穿了羊水,身邊無人,只有兩歲的女兒。她失去知覺了幾個鐘,又或者一晚,但無人知曉。最後她終能叫了救護車,但到達醫院時,她子宮的感染已危及嬰兒安全,醫生必須為兩條命施以緊急手術。義工Lai Win Phyu的記述中,最後並沒有說到孩子最後怎樣。法庭記者沒有問。我們也許亦不想知道。

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Contacting Robert Tibbo

To the media: Robert Tibbo is not talking to the press at the moment. You are welcome to email your requests to Tibbo is a remarkable human rights lawyer who treats each of his clients with the deep respect and consideration. We have no doubt he gave Edward Snowden no special treatment while offering him the best legal advice in his darkest days.

To understand his work and spirit, please read this Vision First article. On 18 June, Vision First lead 40 refugee and family members to support Tibbo at the high court. Regrettably his bail application for a Srilankan refugees – arrested for working illegally when he had no means to survive – was inexorably dismissed. Nevertheless, it is significant in a media storm over one VIP client, Tibbo fought the court’s intransigence and prejudice against a nameless refugee with maximum conviction. We were indeed privileged to witness a human rights fighter stepping into the river of injustice just to be pummelled by the system of oppression that shows no leniency or understanding towards those seeking international protection in Hong Kong.

Despite greater preoccupations, Tibbo inspired us with his tenacity, the one attribute that sets true advocates apart from those who abuse this title by siding comfortably with the establishment. Fighting for justice takes courage and determination, attributes that Tibbo has in spades. It’s no surprise that Edward Snowden chose Tibbo from among 7,000 solicitors and barristers in Hong Kong. At Vision First everyone knows that he will compromise nothing to safeguard the rights of those fighting for their rights. We couldn’t be prouder to have him on the Vision First board of directors, tirelessly advising and strengthening our pursuit of justice to improve refugee conditions in Hong Kong. This is the spirit that animates Vision First and forges our friendship with Robert Tibbo – thank you.

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Robert Tibbo reveals he worked closely with Snowden

Lana Lam writes for South China Morning Post on 23 June 2013

Two lawyers specialising in human rights cases – including the secret 2004 rendition of a Libyan man and his family from Hong Kong to Tripoli by US and British spies – have revealed themselves as Edward Snowden’s legal team in Hong Kong. Barrister Robert Tibbo and solicitor Jonathan Man confirmed they were brought in to represent Snowden about two weeks ago and were kept in close contact with the whistle-blower during his stay in Hong Kong. On Sunday night, as Snowden was due to land in Russia, Tibbo spoke for the first time about the high-profile case. “Snowden left Hong Kong today through legal, legitimate means and the proper immigration channels,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“We have been acting for Snowden for the past two weeks.” Tibbo would not comment further on Snowden’s plans but it is understood the former CIA technician turned whistle-blower will travel onwards to another country. Wikileaks has confirmed it helped Snowden find “political asylum in a democratic country”. Man, an associate at Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners, is part of the legal team planning to sue the Hong Kong government over its role in the rendition of a Libyan dissident and his family to Tripoli. Sami al-Saadi claims security officials in Hong Kong conspired with US, British and Libyan spies in 2004 to send him and his family to Tripoli where they were tortured and persecuted by former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Tibbo specialises in human rights with a focus on torture and refugee cases as well as constitutional and criminal law. He is a non-executive director of Vision First, an NGO which advocates for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong and has been based here for the past 23 years. [erratum: 4 years]

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Under Chinese gods

A Bangladeshi refugee rests under an altar for Chinese gods in front of his shack rented from a Chinese landlord inside a quarters at the rural Ping Chi in Hong Kong’s New Territories June 19, 2013. According to Vision First, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) supporting Hong Kong-based refugees, about 150 Bangladeshi asylum seekers and torture claimants reside in that area, suffering one of the worst conditions among thousands of refugees in the territory. Refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work, with the government paying HK$1,200 ($154) rent directly to the landlord. - REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Bangladeshi refugee Mdmozibur Rahman, 42, pictured beside his Indonesian wife Muslimah in their shack

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Stark realities for asylum seekers in Hong Kong are alien to Edward Snowden

Cosmo Beatson and Francesco Vecchio write for South China Morning Post on 20 June 2013

The world is wondering why Edward Snowden chose Hong Kong in his darkest hour. Was this the safest bet? Will he seek asylum? How will this espionage thriller develop? Although Hong Kong is widely credited for its rule of law, there is a rampant divergence between jurisprudence and reality. To illustrate this dislocation, imagine an alien from outer space researching refugee rights here. He would learn about laws that offer protection and would probably admire the justice and human rights enshrined in such legislation. “Here is a place that welcomes refugees!” he would exclaim. Our alien wouldn’t realise that asylum seekers are actually treated no differently than illegal immigrants, endure chronic poverty and are marginalised without adequate social provision. Thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong. Lo and behold, an alien has landed and his name is Edward Snowden.

Would alien Snowden’s experience be different from that of thousands of others who wait years for a decision on their asylum claim? Would Hong Kong roll out the red asylum carpet? Perhaps Snowden could peruse newspaper stories for a glimpse of reality. A recent article on refugees’ appalling living conditions in Ping Che was railed at by readers who overlooked such dreadful, government-sanctioned slums, because they label refugees as economic migrants. Regrettably, they also blame organisations like Vision First for advancing refugees’ rights and humanitarian needs. It’s hard to predict what Snowden’s next move might be. If he seeks asylum, he probably won’t be accused of fabricating or exaggerating fears of persecution. Few are as famous, resourceful and articulate. And nobody has unleashed a media storm like this one before. By contrast, the stark reality couldn’t be more different for thousands of asylum seekers denied a fair chance to prove their bona fides in Hong Kong.                                                                                                                         

The truth is that Snowden is a privileged American, while asylum seekers generally flee developing countries, are penniless and must work illegally to make ends meet. While presumably he has money to pay hotel bills, less celebrated asylum seekers sleep in slum-like conditions – if not homeless at the Star Ferry. Vision First advocates the principle that every asylum claim is genuine until all legal remedies are exhausted. In the interim, asylum seekers should benefit from the rights and privileges enjoyed by all citizens, because economic expectations are hardly incompatible with seeking asylum. Alien Snowden would be dismayed to learn how asylum seekers are trapped in a socio-legal space where their constitutional rights are negated by repressive policies designed to encourage “voluntary” departures. Afforded only minimal assistance, claimants are forced to work illegally, fostering the perception they are criminals rather than victims, untrustworthy rather than credible. Such unjustified misconceptions underplay cases of merit and undermine survival strategies compelled by the lack of legal access to labour markets. Asylum seekers survive with monthly assistance worth HK$1,000 to HK$1,200 for rent and HK$900 for groceries – amounts that haven’t been adjusted with inflation since 2006. For their daily needs, they dejectedly rely on the generosity of friends, but even the kindest supporter will eventually tire of helping the same people year after year. Soon, they figure out that wages earned in the informal economy are the only viable solution.

It’s unreasonable to expect asylum seekers to beg when it could take 10 years for their case to be determined. There are flaws in a system that purports to meet legal obligations, while upholding policies that appear aimed at discouraging asylum. Is Snowden ready to endure a process that accepted only four of 12,500 torture claims in two decades? We should be concerned about policies that collude with a despicable charade in which the trappings of justice are meticulously observed, while rights are systematically violated. Further, it is wholly unreasonable how the hardship of refugees is exacerbated by draconian prison sentences for working illegally. Punitive laws catch in one dragnet refugees who struggle to keep a roof over their head – often in a slum. The risk of eviction for failing to pay rent and utilities is as real for refugees as it is for everyone else confronted by spiralling costs. Chronic deprivation, however, is more devastating for refugees unable to survive with neither adequate support nor employment rights. Would policymakers please demonstrate how they are expected to survive? Would Snowden care to blow this whistle too?

Hong Kong refugees are both demonised as illegal immigrants and criminalised for eking out a miserable existence. Sandwiched between an effective zero acceptance rate and inhuman living conditions, this gross injustice will eventually shatter Snowden’s illusion that the rule of law still governs the Fragrant Harbour.

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Asylum seekers can’t afford to fall ill

Simpson Cheung writes for South China Morning Post on 13 June 2013

Ailing asylum seekers and torture claimants still appealing against their unsuccessful applications to remain in the city say they are turning to hospital emergency services because they cannot get a waiver of their medical fees. They argue that as their applications are still open, they should continue to enjoy the waivers they were entitled to when they first applied for protection in Hong Kong. Otherwise, they can only resort to the city’s hospital emergency services, which treat patients first before asking for payment, they say. John (not his real name), 29, a Pakistani torture claimant, came down with fever last November, after his claim was rejected by the Immigration Department. Denied a medical fee waiver while his application for a judicial review was pending, he queued for hours at emergency services to receive treatment. After he was treated, he had no money to foot the bill, so “for two to three days, they [the hospital] kept calling me, saying, ‘your bill, your bill’,” he said. “Who can pay my bill?” He finally paid the HK$500 he owed the hospital after he was granted legal aid recently.

Mohamed Sultan, 57, a Sri Lankan who is appealing the rejection of his torture claim application, gets a waiver for his diabetes treatment. But he was not granted a waiver for getting his injuries treated after he was beaten up in the street in April. “My case was rejected, but I am still living legally in Hong Kong … Why don’t you give me a medical [waiver]?” he said. Mohamed Sultan has been here for more than eight years while his claim for protection because of torture in his home country is being investigated. He would rather be arrested so that he could enjoy free medical services in jail, he said. He still owes the hospital HK$1,730. Habibur Rahman, a Bangladeshi and father of two, took his son to a doctor last September because of a heart problem. But he was not granted a medical waiver because his torture claim had been rejected. As a result, he had to take the boy to a public hospital for emergency medical services instead. He still owes the hospital HK$600, he said. This year, Rahman applied for the government to reassess his case after a landmark court case last December that ruled officials should give equal weight to the prospect of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment – not just torture – if the applicant were returned to his or her home country. But he was not sure whether the application entitled him to a medical waiver. He dared not take his son to hospital again as he was afraid he would be arrested if he could not settle the bill. He had to resort to borrowing money from friends in order to consult private doctors on his son’s condition, he said.

The head of a rights group that helps people seeking protection said the government was putting up roadblocks against such people so that they were denied a normal life in the city. Vision First executive director Cosmo Beatson said: “This is a culture of rejection. They try to make your life so hard that you will just give up and leave. “How can you abandon asylum seekers in the city who are sick or pregnant? This is immoral.” A Hospital Authority spokesman said medical waivers for people whose torture and asylum claims could not be validated followed those of non-residents. To ensure “rational use of limited public resources, their fees generally would not be waived unless there were exceptional circumstances”. Each application was considered separately, he said. The majority of torture claimants in Hong Kong came from South Asia or Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Those whose claims are denied by the Immigration Department have a right to appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board.

For Habibur Rahman (in yellow) and his children, John (in black), and Mohamed Sultan (in white), falling ill here will leave them reeling from their medical bills

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Southside Magazine “Seeking Asylum”

Carolynne Dear writes for Southside Magazine in June 2013

It’s a steep climb to the Vision First offices on the fifth floor of a ramshackle building in Sai Ying Pun. I nearly miss it, but the owner of the fruit and veg shop next door is used to directing people of all nationalities to the refugee charity’s office. It’s a buzzing melting pot of races and nationalities, with everyone chatting away on sofas and chairs; the walls are covered in homemade ads for beach barbecues, sewing groups, yoga groups. It’s casework morning for the charity’s co-founder, Shek O resident Danielle Stutterd, and the waiting list is long. Behind a makeshift screen, Stutterd is talking to an African woman about applying for school entrance for her children (“Don’t worry, they’re not looking for the children to score 100 per cent”). She explains how to catch the MTR, how she mustn’t be late, and ensures the anxious-looking woman has enough change for the journey. This is the beating heart of Vision First, a grassroots, non-government organization set up by Stutterd and friend Cosmo Beatson – a one-time luxury car dealer – four years ago to provide shelter and basic humanitarian needs for Hong Kong’s officially unrecognized refugee population. “I come from a teaching background,” explains Stutterd. “I was volunteering for Christian Action (CA), one of the only other charities supporting refugees, but I seemed to be doing more counselling than teaching. It was harrowing; tales of torture, beatings, rape, murder. I was emotionally wrung-out. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it, so I got a degree in social work.”

At CA, Stutterd worked her way up from caseworker to assistant manager. Then she and Beatson decided to set up Vision First. Hong Kong is not a signatory of The Refugee Convention and therefore does not have to recognize asylum-seekers. Instead, responsibility for the status of claimants has been taken up by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which receives about 150 applications a month. “It takes years for refugees to receive official status,” Stutterd explains. “And while they’re waiting, they’re caught in a legal vacuum. They can’t work and are given only meagre government assistance – there is some rental assistance, which is paid directly to the landlord, a food package every 10 days – out-of-date meat and veggies from the bottom of the pile – and access to A&E. We call it the ‘Panadol solution’, they will wait literally for hours and then be handed a packet of Panadol.” The friendly fruit and veg seller downstairs is an official food package supplier. “The packages are handed out and the refugees immediately disappear straight round the corner to sell bits and pieces for a handful of dollars. I have known women to feed their babies wine to make them sleep at night so they can go out and earn money through prostitution,” says Stutterd. “They are absolutely desperate. Imagine having no wallet for a day – then try to live the next ten or so years without one.” Refugees enter Hong Kong from troubled areas of Asia or Africa, often having been sold eye-wateringly expensive packages and the promise of a new life in the US, Canada or Sweden. Instead, they are flown into Hong Kong – one of 140 visa-free countries in the world – enter on a visitor’s visa and begin the long, long wait in no-man’s land under the constant threat of deportation. The really unlucky end up in China, where there are no human rights at all, and find their own way to Hong Kong. Many give up and go home, preferring to risk the atrocities they had fled to the desperate conditions here.

Vision First does all it can to provide humanitarian services, such as clothing, medical care and counselling. Its offices, the only emergency shelter in Hong Kong, are paid for by a private benefactor and Stutterd and Beatson work tirelessly to harness the support of generous local businesses. American Dental Group closes its clinic in the Landmark every few Saturdays to offer free dental treatment to refugees (“They treat everything, root canals, fillings, the lot. The bill must be hundreds of thousands,” says Stutterd). Every Sunday a local restaurant provides about 100 hot meals. And a friend of Stutterd’s from a local theatre company leads drama classes every Wednesday night. Renaissance College in Ma On Shan offers Youth Empowerment Scholarships for disadvantaged young people. Its biggest success story to date is Congolese immigrant Duvalld Ndilou, who arrived penniless in 2005 aged 15 from Congo-Brazzaville, where masked men had abducted his mother and sister from their home. He escaped through a window and found his way to Hong Kong with the help of a local pastor. He registered as an asylum seeker under the UN Convention Against Torture and, aided by Vision First, won a scholarship to Renaissance College. He is now studying to become a nurse in Adelaide and is believed to be the only asylum seeker in Hong Kong to have gone on to tertiary education. For the most part, however, Vision First relies on goodwill. What’s on her wish list? “Donations of non-perishable goods such as tins, rice, pasta and so forth would be amazing,” says Stutterd. “We’re desperate for boxes of large and extra-large nappies, toys, clothing, shoes and school stationery. We would love to hear from people who could teach a class such as music, sewing, knitting, keep fit, sport, or who could help at our fortnightly playgroup. We’d also really welcome help from doctors, psychologists and dermatologists (stress-related skin complaints are a major medical issue in the refugee community). A gynaecologist would be fantastic. And, of course, any financial donations.” And if you email ahead, Stutterd will meet you on the street to collect your donations, so you won’t even have to navigate those steep stairs.

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