Refugees say the Social Welfare Department is failing in its duty to protect asylum seekers and attempting to cover up a misuse of public funds.
About 50 protesters gathered outside the department's offices yesterday, calling for an investigation into alleged collusion between the department and vendors and landlords providing what they say is substandard food and accommodation.
The Refugee Union, which organised yesterday's protest, claimed the department was deliberately employing "cruel and inhumane services" to encourage asylum seekers to give up their claims, and to put others off coming to Hong Kong.
NGOs aiding the refugees have been reporting for several months that asylum seekers were being provided with near-rotten food, living in slum-like conditions without toilets or fresh drinking water, and that the government-contracted provider, International Social Service Hong Kong, was providing food worth about 30 per cent less than it was contracted to give.
In a meeting with asylum seekers on Wednesday, Fung Man-chung, an assistant director with the department, reiterated that it was satisfied with how ISS-HK had managed its HK$203 million in public funding last year, the union said.
Fung told the union on Wednesday that it had found no problems with paperwork provided by ISS-HK and during spot checks of accommodation and collection points for food.
Fung reiterated that the department had not received any complaints.
Cosmo Beatson, executive director of Vision First, an NGO that has aided the union, said it was likely that food vendors and landlords were being tipped off by people within the department before inspections were made.
He said Fung had admitted that the department had not visited any of the 65 slums housing asylum seekers that were identified by Vision First last year.
"There's no one on the front lines. They have no idea of the conditions," Beatson said.
The government is required on humanitarian grounds to provide basic subsistence and housing to asylum seekers. About 5,000 asylum seekers, mostly from South Asia and Africa, get food, toiletries and allowances for accommodation and transport by ISS-HK. The union has asked the department to provide details of its contract with ISS-HK, and of food prices, to ensure public funds are used efficiently.
It also requested that the department take over the programme once the current contract with ISS-HK expires.
Lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung said: "HK$250 million is allocated for the welfare of asylum seekers, but the money is going to the wrong place."