Friday, March 28, 2014, 11:59
Haven of hopelessness
By Hazel Knowles / Focus HK

Haven of hopelessness

Vision First executive director Cosmo Beatson says many refugees are living in squalor in illegal and condemned structures in the New Territories. Some have no toilets and clean water and are old pig and chicken huts.

When Mohammad Rahman fled persecution in Iran and arrived in Hong Kong in 2007, he thought he had found a relative paradise. Today, he had taken a bleak view of the city and sees it as an uncaring place.

“I thought Hong Kong was beautiful when I first came here and I said to myself ‘This is a place with human rights’. I had no idea that inside the city was darkness. I had no idea they would destroy me mentally.”

Rahman, known as Raymond, is one of 5,600 refugees in Hong Kong waiting for resettlement in a new country.

For the last seven years, he claims he has led a life of torture because of the government’s way of handing out assistance, which keeps him and fellow refugees below the poverty line, forbids them to work and, he says, encourages corruption.

Raymond says some refugees turn to crime as their only means to find relief from the miserable and desperate conditions under which they are forced to live. Others, he says, actually return to their home countries where they face persecution, imprisonment, torture and some even face death.

Harsh realities

The refugee rights group Vision First claims there are around 6,000 refugees in Hong Kong, including registered asylum seekers and those who have not registered.

Only around 100 of the number have been granted refugee status by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UNHCR), which until January this year handled all claims from asylum seekers with the exception of those claiming to be victims of torture.

However, a court ruling last year forced Hong Kong government to take over all claims, which it began doing earlier this month (March) under a scheme called the Unified Screening Mechanism.

Raymond, officially granted refugee status three and a half years ago and currently awaiting resettlement in another country, is chairman of the Refugee Union.

The group was set up just two months ago to campaign for the rights of Hong Kong’s refugees. For the past month, members have camped out on the pavement of Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai close to the offices of the Social Welfare Department, the government department responsible for assisting refugees.

The group’s main concern is the way the government provides assistance to refugees, handing out food rather than cash, and a monthly rental allowance of HK$1,500 per person.

Services for refugees are contracted out by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) to the Swiss-based NGO, International Social Services (ISS-HK), which in turn contracts seven food suppliers to feed the refugees.

Both the SWD and ISS-HK insist the process follows rules and procedures set out in the contracts to ensure a “smooth and undisrupted service to users” and that it is appropriate for ensuring that those in need do not become destitute.

The Refugee Union disagrees and claims the system is flawed and poorly monitored by the government, leaving it open to corruption. The refugees counter claim that they receive less food than what they are entitled and that they are forced to live in slums.

Hunger games

Haven of hopelessness

Refugee Union chairman Mohammad Rahman says the Hong Kong government is torturing refugees by keeping them living in poverty and depriving them of the chance to work.

“The food is of very low quality and the price is very high. ISS gives the food suppliers lists but the suppliers are the ones who buy the food,” said Raymond.

“Of course they (the suppliers) will buy the cheapest to get the benefit because there is no one to monitor them. No one from ISS is monitoring what they are doing, and there is no real monitoring of the ISS by the Social Welfare Department.”

The value of food each refugee receives under the government’s humanitarian assistance scheme is set at HK$1,200 a month. But the Refugee Union claims very often the food they receive is worth less.

“Look at this basket,” said Raymond showing a photo of food. It shows a small chicken, one pack of meat, onions, some tomatoes and potatoes, some chili, a pack of salt and a bunch of bananas.

“This is food which is meant to be worth HK$400 and has to last 10 days. How can this support someone for 10 days?” he asks.

“We think this is worth only 100 dollars. I can buy much better quality food than this cheaper. It is like organized crime and we are the victims.”

Raymond says the rent allowance of HK$1,500 is insufficient for living in Hong Kong and forces people to live in slums. Some have taken up quarters in illegal structures converted from pig and sheep pens in the New Territories.

Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, doubted that the food the refugees are given is worth even HK$400.

“It looks like it is worth HK$200 tops. So money is vanishing. Not even if you buy these produces in the most expensive supermarket in Hong Kong would it cost HK$400 dollars.

“This minority group is without doubt the most impoverished, most vulnerable group in Hong Kong.

“They cannot work, they have no income, and there are very few charities and churches looking out for them. There is no network of aunties and uncles to take care of them as they would be with the Hong Kong poor. Society really has to make sure the basic needs of these people are met.”