Hong Kong refugees deserve basic right to decide what they eat

Victoria Wisniewski Otero says inefficient food scheme is ripe for change

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 2014, 4:50am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 2014, 9:13am

Food. We all need to eat. It’s a basic human right and something most of us in Hong Kong take for granted.

By the time you read this, you will probably have already spent a fair amount on food and drink today: that morning coffee, an orange juice, maybe a muffin?

Yet imagine for one moment that you have no cash, are not allowed to work and have no family in Hong Kong to rely on. How do you feed yourself and your children? How do you buy food?

You don’t. Instead, you are given a prepackaged bag of food, which you have to pick up every five to 10 days from a shop, often far away from where you live.

You wake up early, travel several hours along the cheapest transport route to wait in line with many others to receive your food parcel on your designated day. Inside your bag are six small juice boxes, a carton of 10 eggs, a frozen chicken, two tubs of plain yogurt and a handful of bruised tomatoes and apples.

This food is supposed to be worth HK$40 per day, but when you compare it with food for sale in the local supermarket, you see it’s worth much less. It is meant to cover three meals each day and last until the next pick-up.

It isn’t what you asked for and you’re already anxious about how you will make it last, how you will feed your children.

This is how Hong Kong’s 8,000 refugees are forced to eat – from a meagre prepackaged bag of food handed out by the government. Sometimes the food is out of date; sometimes it is even rotten; always it is limited in choice and quantity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In a city of plenty, no one should have to eat like this.

Today is World Food Day and for this past week, schools, businesses, churches and other supporters across Hong Kong have been joining our Hungry for Change campaign, calling on the government to let refugees eat in dignity by giving them small amounts of cash to allow them to choose and buy their own food.

Under the current refugee food programme, the government contracts another organisation to provide the food. It, in turn, subcontracts third-party small food suppliers around the city, who give out the bags of food. The system is complicated, expensive and inefficient. The contract is up for renewal; now is the time to change the policy.

Giving refugees small amounts of cash directly so they can buy their own food, where and when they need it, would make better use of government resources. It would also be fairer to refugees.

Cash-based interventions – used and endorsed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Overseas Development Institute and the World Food Programme – have proved to be successful in several other country contexts and are superior to in-kind forms of assistance.

They are more efficient, cost-effective, beneficial for local economies and empowering to recipients. Empirical evidence shows people that receive cash are best-equipped to determine how to prioritise their own needs, and that they do not spend the money on inessential items.

It is the ability to choose that makes us human; not being given control over the most basic human need – what to eat – strips people that have already suffered countless abuses of their free will and dignity.

Changing the food policy here would be a win-win situation for everyone. Let’s build on this incredible momentum for change now in Hong Kong, and extend it to everyone, including refugees.

Victoria Wisniewski Otero is advocacy officer at Justice Centre Hong Kong. To join the Hungry for Change campaign and sign the petition to allow refugees to eat in dignity, go to www.justicecentre.org.hk/hungryforchange