The United Nations refugee body has defended its decision to slash payments to the 180 refugees living in Hong Kong by 80 per cent, saying it had no choice as global emergencies tie up more of the organisation's resources.
As the Sunday Morning Post revealed last week, the UNHCR cut the HK$1,500 payments to just HK$300, with the Hong Kong government stepping in to make up the shortfall. Refugees told the Post they feared losing their homes because they could not pay rent and had no money left for essentials.
However, Choosin Ngaotheppitak, head of the UNHCR's Hong Kong office, said the new policy would ensure refugees now have full access to the government's humanitarian assistance and are provided with a rental allowance, utility allowance, food, clothing and toiletries, as well as reimbursement of cash for travelling expenses for certain appointments. The HK$300 allowance the UNHCR now provides is meant to cover miscellaneous expenses, he said.
'We had to find another way of supporting refugees and so we approached the government for help,' Choosin said. 'The new scheme may leave refugees with less flexibility but this is the system the government uses. It was essential for us that they got involved.
'It's only right that the government shares the burden and assists the refugee community... We'll carry out regular reviews to ensure that we are able to fulfil our obligations.'
Human rights lawyer Mark Daly says the biggest problem is that refugees are not allowed to work in Hong Kong. He urged the UNHCR to press the government to change the law.
'They're not pushing the government very hard or co-operating very well with those who can assist them in pushing them harder like non-governmental organisations or legislators,' Daly said.
The UNHCR received private contributions of HK$20 million from Hongkongers in 2010 and HK$16 million up to September 19 last year .
However, Choosin said the US$700,000 budget the UNHCR in Hong Kong had to stick to made life an 'uphill battle'. The organisation has had to cut staff and rely on pro-bono help from non-governmental organisations.
'All the money donated here is sent to our headquarters in Geneva and is then distributed according to where it is needed most throughout the world,' he said. 'In world terms, a place like Hong Kong is not a priority, so we have to do the best with the funds that we are given.'
He said 2011 saw mass forced displacement around the world as a result of many global emergencies. All of these new crises required extra funding. The organisation named the civil upheaval in the Ivory Coast and Libya, torrential flooding in Pakistan at the end of 2010 and ongoing problems in famine-torn Somalia among its major crises over the last year.
'This has, accordingly, stretched UNHCR's relief efforts and financial resources to the limit,' he said.
The number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong. There are 180 recognised refugees