Abode seeker living on $20 a day

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2002, 12:00am

An 18-year-old mainland orphan who was abandoned by her adopted Hong Kong mother four years ago is surviving on $20 for food a day after being barred from receiving welfare benefits.

The Social Welfare Department was labelled 'inhumane' yesterday for cutting her public assistance because of issues relating to her identity status, which will only be determined in a December court hearing.

The girl, who wants to be known as Ah-man, said that when a government social worker told her on Tuesday that the legal issue made her ineligible for public assistance, she thought of killing herself.

'I have no family in Hong Kong or on the mainland. Social workers are the people closest to me. They have been helping me to live through my difficulties. Now they are saying they also have doubts about my identity. I feel so hurt,' Ah-man said.

Barrister Stephen Tang Lung-wai - who will represent Ah-man when she seeks a judicial review to quash a removal order - is unhappy at the timing of the department's move.

'I question if it is fair and equitable,' Mr Tang said. 'It is totally unimaginable and inhumane. Her status does not allow her to work, so how can she live?'

Ah-man came to Hong Kong in May 1997 on a one-way permit. Her nightmare began when police and social workers intervened after she confided in a classmate that she had been sexually molested by her mother's live-in boyfriend.

Her adopted parents separated two months after she arrived and the girl chose to live with her mother. Ah-man claimed her mother asked her to drop the sexual assault complaint and then told investigators she was adopted - the first time the girl had been told.

While Ah-man agreed to drop the case, police then referred the issue of her identity to the Immigration Department, which accused Ah-man of obtaining her identity card through fraudulent means and invalidated her document in March 1998.

Ah-man was later released on bail but served with a removal ordered in January last year.

The Immigration Tribunal dismissed her appeal and Ah-man is now seeking to quash the ruling through a judicial review.

Ah-man was abandoned by her adopted mother following the sexual abuse incident and lived in a succession of youth hostels with the help of social workers.

She was also issued with Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, allowing her to take care of herself and save $190 a month for emergency use.

But Ah-man, whose age forced her to move out from the hostels to a small room in Wan Chai in August, said payments covering her $1,600 rent were cut in June and the public assistance ended in July.

The teenager said she then supported herself by using her $10,000 savings and by borrowing from friends. But study fees ate up her savings. 'For a period of time, I ate instant noodles for lunch, biscuits for dinner or just simply skipped it.'

Ah-man said while the Social Welfare Department agreed to grant her emergency assistance of $1,600 and pay for her rent earlier this month, she said she still could not make ends meet and she could only afford to spend $20 on food a day because it cost another $20 to travel to school.

'I have no money to pay for the school fees. I want to continue my studies. I don't want to waste time as I can't work or do anything else.'

She said she did not know if she would receive the emergency funding next month.

While the cutting of her public assistance drove Ah-man to thoughts of killing herself, she said the efforts of her lawyers inspired her not to give up.

Mr Tang has been helping Ah-man for free on the instruction of the Bar Association until she recently obtained legal aid. According to her judicial review application, the decision to remove her was wrong in fact and law.

It argues that Ah-man was never told that she was adopted before she came to Hong Kong and she was not required to state whether she was an adopted child when she settled in Hong Kong in May 1997 with a one-way permit.

It added that the residency rights of Ah-man should not be affected by the residency provision in the Basic Law as she arrived before the handover.

Both the Immigration and Social Welfare departments declined to discuss Ah-man's case yesterday because of the pending court hearing.

A spokesman for the Social Welfare Department said it was their principle to grant public assistance only to Hong Kong residents, but he said their social workers would follow up on Ah-man's case.