Asylum seekers protest as rights group sued for defamation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 4:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 4:10am

Dozens of asylum seekers marched on government headquarters yesterday to protest against their welfare provider's decision to sue a refugee rights group critical of its services.

International Social Service Hong Kong - the charity to which the government outsources the provision of welfare to refugees - filed a lawsuit against Vision First last week claiming it had made defamatory comments about its services. The action follows a series of public protests by asylum seekers - supported by the rights group - who claim they are receiving less food than the ISS-HK is contracted to give.

Yesterday, as the protesters marched from Chater Garden in Central to Admiralty, they chanted "ISS, shame, shame!" and displayed banners reading: "No money for the poor - but money for the law courts!"

The protest organiser, Refugee Union, called on the government to take over aid responsibilities from ISS-HK.

With a wife and two young children, aged five and three, Muhammad Babul said he struggled to make ends meet with his monthly allowance of HK$1,500 for accommodation and HK$1,200 worth of food.

"I want a job but I know I will go to jail if caught," said the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who has been in Hong Kong for 12 years. Asylum seekers are forbidden to work and those caught face up to 15 months in prison.

"Sometimes, when I am desperate, I have to look inside rubbish bins for food," he said.

Alice, an asylum seeker from Uganda, demanded proof that the food she received each month was worth HK$1,200.

"We want to see the receipts. We demand transparency and accountability," she said.

Vision First executive director Cosmo Beatson said he welcomed the defamation lawsuit as it would "finally open the door for hundreds of refugees to make their complaints heard".

"I challenge the ISS lawyers to take this to the courts and prove [our claims] are not true."

ISS-HK could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in a writ filed last Monday, it said the Social Welfare Department had a well-established regulatory mechanism to closely monitor its service quality.

The Social Welfare Department last month said it had found no irregularities with the contractor's services.