Protesting asylum seekers say food provisions ‘not worth’ what government contractor claims

Dozens of demonstrators are taking part in sit-ins at three social welfare offices, claiming they are being short-changed over food rations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 3:55pm

Dozens of asylum seekers are staging sit-ins and hunger strikes at the offices of their government-appointed social welfare provider, accusing the organisation of overstating the value of the food it is contracted to provide.

Since 10am on Tuesday, some 20 asylum seekers have been holed up inside the offices of the Mong Kok, Prince Edward and Tsuen Wan branches of the International Social Service Hong Kong. Yesterday a further 30 milled around outside the locked premises as police stood by.

At the height of their action, about 90 asylum seekers were massed at the three locations.

"We are calling for a stop to unfair ISS-HK practices that for years have reduced the real value of the food we collect - from HK$1,060, as indicated by the government, to between HK$600 and HK$700, as distributed to us," the group wrote in an open letter to the organisation.

The Hong Kong branch of the Swiss-based global aid network was commissioned by the Social Welfare Department in 2006 to take care of asylum seekers. NGOs say it serves about 5,000, providing food, toiletries and allowances for accommodation and transport.

"This is not worth HK$400," Pakistani torture claimant Rehan, 30, said, as he held up pictures of what appeared to be bread, a bag of flour, a carton of eggs, milk, curry powder and a handful of other items. He said the ISS-HK considered this 10 days' worth of food.

Rehan and the other protesters are seeking a meeting with the ISS-HK director of migrants programme, Adrielle Panares. They also want the organisation to supply a price list for the goods they receive, and to provide expiry dates for food items.

The price list is confidential as it is part of a government tender.

On Tuesday night, staff at the Mong Kok branch declined to speak to the Post. They shut the door and refused to allow food to reach the nine protesters inside. Questions put to ISS-HK managers yesterday went unanswered.

The protesters are part of a new union of asylum seekers. The union wants asylum seekers to be allowed to work while their claims are processed, and be given supermarket vouchers instead of groceries. In recent years, ISS-HK has come under scrutiny over the conditions asylum seekers are living in, some without toilets or fresh drinking water.

Cosmo Beatson, director of Vision First, an NGO that helps asylum seekers, questioned the long-term role of the ISS-HK. "We'd like the Social Welfare Department to take over [the care of asylum seekers]," he said.

The department said claimants' views on the ISS-HK's services were always welcome and it was willing to communicate with them and address their concerns.