Asylum seeker group says defamation case a chance to probe welfare contractor

Vision First says defamation trial a chance to air welfare contractor's failures

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:27am

Rights group Vision First says a defamation lawsuit filed against it by a government contractor is a welcome opportunity for public scrutiny of the contractor's work with asylum seekers.

International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISS-HK) holds a contract from the Social Welfare Department to fulfil the government's legal responsibility of providing basic food and housing support to asylum seekers.

Vision First and other groups have for months accused ISS-HK of failing to live up to its contractual responsibilities. They say ISS-HK houses asylum seekers in slum-like conditions, gives them rotten food, and provides food worth less than it is legally contracted to give.

ISS-HK denies any wrongdoing and is suing Vision First for publishing since August 2013 "untruthful and defamatory comments and misinformation on its website, seriously injuring the reputation and image of ISS-HK as well as putting unnecessary pressure on ISS-HK staff", according to a writ filed with the Court of First Instance on Monday.

Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, said: "Vulnerable refugees make complaints to us and we are a watchdog, simply communicating what appear to be illegal activities by ISS-HK, who have taken on the role of government agents.

"We welcome the opportunity presented by this defamation suit to forensically expose the overwhelming evidence supporting the suspicion that since 2006 International Social Service failed to lawfully meet its tender obligations with the Social Welfare Department."

ISS-HK says in the writ it has received no monetary gain from providing the services and it has not deducted subsidies from the sum it receives from the government or been involved in any corrupt activities.

Vision First supports a group of asylum seekers who have protested outside ISS-HK's Wan Chai office since February 27.

About 5,000 asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia and Africa, get food, toiletries and allowances for accommodation and transport from ISS-HK. The Social Welfare Department said last month it had found no irregularities.

International Social Service has a presence in more than 100 countries and its branch in Hong Kong was established in 1958.