UNHCR axes all aid for HK refugees in budget cuts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 4:29am

In a shock move, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong (UNHCR) has announced that it will cut all financial aid to recognised refugees living here.

There are 132 people with official refugee status in Hong Kong. Each one receives HK$500 from the UNHCR per month. But this will now be stopped from June.

In a letter sent to all refugees in Hong Kong, the organisation said the events happening around the world, such as the recent unrest and violence in Syria and the lingering 2008 global financial crisis, have led to budget cuts. All their offices worldwide have been asked to take similar measures.

"We regret to inform you that we do not have enough money to continue to provide monthly cash assistance to refugees after June 2012," the letter read. "As a result, the last cheque will be distributed in early May."

Refugees in Hong Kong get government assistance with rent (HK$1,200 per month, paid directly to the landlord), groceries every ten days and other basic necessities, such as toiletries and money for transport to UNHCR/government appointments. This is given in kind - not in cash - by the International Social Service, commissioned by the Social Welfare Department.

Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First - an agency that works with refugees - reacted angrily to the decision.

"This shocking move comes hard on the heels of cuts last year. It seems aggravating refugees' suffering is now the UNHCR's policy, rather than offering them protection," Beatson said.

The change comes after the organisation raised the amount it paid refugees last November from HK$300 to HK$500. Philip Karani head of the UNHCR in Hong Kong defended the move.

"Of course, we'd like to keep supplying refugees here with this money but unfortunately our budget just cannot sustain it," he said. "The reality is, we have to respond to different emergencies around the world … where many people are suffering."

However, Beatson did not accept this decision.

"Last year HK$30 million was raised for the UNHCR here. But what good does this do the refugees in Hong Kong?" he said. "Refugees only received a pittance anyway. Now a vital lifeline has been taken away from them."