As told to Cynthia Chung
Why is the no-work policy a problem to the refugee community?
Refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work to earn a living, they are barred by law from doing so.
We depend on the government welfare system (ISS) for survival. However, the welfare is grossly inadequate. It’s so low that it cannot meet our basic human needs.
Refugees are left to survive on their own without any how they manage within these boundaries of meager welfare assistance. They scavenge and beg to survive which puts them in a very difficult situation because it pushes the refugee community to the extreme margins of poverty.
As a result, refugees resort to other means in order to make ends meet. They have become the official suppliers of illegal labor, fueling Hong Kong’s underground informal economy which thrives through the cheap labor. Simultaneously, it exploits this marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable group of people in this great Asian city.
Other refugees engage in various vices such as prostitution, selling drugs and stealing for livelihood. For those who get caught by the police while working illegally, the punishment is so harsh that it’s better to be caught stealing or even selling drugs. They send you to prison for a 21 month sentence.
How do you help others overcome the problems that the no-work policy has bought to your community?
The Refugee Union advises the refugee community to follow the law and live on what is provided by the government because there’ll be indelible consequences. If you are caught working and sent to jail, you get a criminal record. This becomes a serious problem for you as you lose credibility.
A refugee who has a criminal record faces even more hardships, making it more difficult to get resettlement in a third country. Majority of countries will run a background check on you before accepting you. They try to find out what kind of person you are, and if you have a criminal record it reduces your chances of getting resettlement and a future, among other things.
The Refugee Union has always actively sought donors who are philanthropic enough to assist the refugee community with donations of various forms and kinds. May it be financial support, clothes, shoes, household items, furniture or even computers. We welcome these kind donations in the forms or conditions that they are available. We then distribute these donations to members of our community.
We also liaise with Social Welfare Department to ensure that the welfare package prescribed by the government is accessible to all refugees. There are instances that Case workers from ISS Hong Kong gave less than what the Government promised by law, in this case we intervene to ensure that the law is enforced properly.
ISS Hong Kong does not give money directly to refugees, for housing refugees have to look for a house, sign a contract with the landlord then present the contract to ISS Hong Kong. ISS will then verify the validity of the contract and the ownership of the house before paying 1500 Hong Kong dollars directly to the landlords on monthly basis. Food is issued to us in the form of coupons .
In the past, we used to get bags of food, which we would collect from selected stores across Hong Kong. These bags of food were not a good way of giving food to the refugees.
We were shortchanged by the system.
For example, the food was never fresh, with limited options while the amount given was always in dispute. We did not receive what was promised by law. This led to constant conflict with ISS case workers who declined to give us their price list that they were using to distribute the food. Refugees had to fight rigorously for an end to bags of food which saw the introduction of food coupons in mid of 2015. This fight was fought through a well thought out and deliberate campaign through protests, engaging the media and occupations that lasted over three months.
The use of food coupons does by itself pose challenges whenever we go out shopping, we are required to plan our purchases to 100 dollar coupons, it is indeed difficult for you to come up with items for a flat 100 dollar coupon, so most of the time you need to look for money to top up as you cannot get a balance from the coupon. Where do we get this money from?
How is it possible to survive on so little?
Basically it’s impossible to survive on 40 dollars a day in Hong Kong. You got to find ways to bridge the huge gap between what is provided to you to survive on and what you need in order to survive. Hong Kong is a very expensive city. How does the Social Welfare Department expect the refugees to survive off the current assistance?
We deduce that welfare is being used by the Government as a tool to manage/ suppress the refugee community. The strategy is to frustrate and force us to give up on our claims and rights so that we go back to our home countries. My take is that it has failed miserably to achieve that.
There are organizations as well as private individuals who donate both dry and ready to eat food to the Refugee Union. These food donations goes a long way in meeting our daily need while we hope that tomorrow will be a better day for us. For example we have an organization that gives us breads, cakes, sandwiches and salads every evening if they cannot sell all off their stocks for that day.
What are the consequences for companies if they are found out for hiring refugees?
The law says that an employer is breaking the law by employing a refugee to work for him, the individual concerned is liable to prosecution in a court of law. Punishment includes a fine of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars.
What is your opinion on the no-work policy in Hong Kong? How it should be changed?
I think refugees should be allowed to work so that they can be able to support themselves. To me, the right to work is a human right. If you deny someone the right to work, yet you do not meet his or her basic needs fully, that equals torture. Period. This policy has changed industrious and hardworking people into pests.
They depend on others for survival. What a shame. This is not only a morally wrong but a very bad and inhumane policy decision. Most of refugees are healthy and competent people, they can work and contribute to the development of Hong Kong society. The Government should focus on helping the senior citizens and the disabled with welfare instead of putting that money on the refugee community.
The hundreds of millions of dollars being used to fund the refugee lives here can be used to expand the social infrastructure in Hong Kong. Our lives have been ruined. We ran away from the risks of torture and death to a life of hopelessness in Hong Kong. Many of us now have become alcoholics as that’s the only meaningful thing one can do. You find that majority are always drunk because in the state of being drunk one tends to forget all your problems, we smoke weed, do drugs, all sorts of bad things that don’t add value to our lives or anyone else. One wonders what are the cost benefit to Hong Kong in treating refugees in such an inhumane and cruel manner.
What happened to compassion and democracy? Are we truly honest with ourselves? Surely Hong Kong can and should do better than this.
How do you overcome the bars no-work policy has set for you and how do you help people overcome them?
This is a law, it’s not easy to overcome a law that is so strictly enforced. I have not been able to overcome it. The only way to do it is to work illegally which is not an option for me. Refugee Union has not shied away from educating the public how discriminatory this law is to the lives of refugees. That’s why advocacy is our top priority as we engage the Government hoping to influence the policy makers to change their views about the refugee community. We call upon all the loving people of Hong Kong to join us and demand that the law be changed as when some people are not free in a given society then all us will never be free.