Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Asylum seekers in Hong Kong forced onto the streets over demand they find rent guarantor

Social service provider is asking refugees to provide guarantee document if they have to pay more than HK$1,500 a month for housing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2016, 3:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2016, 9:51pm

Elisa, originally from Africa, arrived in Hong Kong in April this year. She filed a protection claim in July and later enrolled for social welfare assistance. But, up until now, she has not received any support to pay for a home.

Campaigners say that dozens of asylum seekers like Elisa have been pushed onto the streets in recent months because the government’s contractor responsible for providing social welfare assistance to protection claimants is asking them to find “rent guarantors”.

Asylum seekers receive stipends from the government, including HK$1,500 for rent, while their claims are being screened – a process that might take years. However, those who cannot find a place for that price are requested by International Social Service Hong Kong (ISS-HK) to bring a letter from a guarantor who is wiling to help them cover the full rent.

Refugees and campaigners say the problem has become more serious in the past few months, as ISS-HK is only approving rent assistance for new or renewed tenancy agreements after they produce such a document.

The South China Morning Post has heard a recording of a conversation between an ISS-HK case officer and a refugee talking about Elisa’s case. In the phone call, a case officer said: “If you cannot find any friend, anyone to write the letter, then the case is stuck and [ISS-HK] cannot pay the money.”

Elisa, who has not found a guarantor, is currently “sleeping here and there”, relying on help from friends and NGOs which have sheltered her.

According to Refugee Union secretary general Peter Maina, the requirement was introduced only recently. “It started about three or four months ago, but we’ve only realised that it is becoming a serious situation now,” Maina said. “Many people, I would say dozens, don’t have a guarantor. It’s very hard for them to find someone to help cover their rent,” he said.

Connie Hui, spokeswoman for ISS-HK, said “the requirement for ‘rent guarantors’ has been a long established arrangement for those service users who do not obtain approval on social or medical grounds to rent units with monthly rent exceeding the ceiling of accommodation assistance.”

Hui said that “eligibility for rent assistance is assessed by ISS-HK case workers following conditions that define accommodation as providing a place to sleep, cook and [having] access to drinking water, a toilet and bathing facilities.

“Any condition that requires specific facilities, which results in a higher rental payment, needs to have documentary proof from the local hospital and clinics.”

A space of less than 100 square feet in a subdivided Hong Kong flat might cost more than HK$3,500.

The ISS-HK spokeswoman said the existence of rent guarantors “is to ensure sustainability of our service users in affording such rent requiring a ‘top up’, before entering into a tenancy agreement.”

She said that both local and overseas guarantors were accepted.

Many protection claimants seek help from local NGOs and churches. Roy Njuabe, lead pastor for the refugee and asylum seeker ministry of the Vine church, said that proof of support had been requested by claimants in the past few months.

“The government knows that it is not possible to find accommodation for HK$1,500 in Hong Kong ... If they ask for such a document, it means the government is not fully supporting them,” he said.

Njuabe said that many asylum seekers were left homeless. “Many of them don’t have a place to sleep at night. They live in the streets.”

As of September, 10,815 people were waiting to have their protection claims screened.

Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho said that her law firm, Daly and Associates, which has fought major refugee rights cases, had not been made aware of such a policy. “But we are aware [refugees] have been asking for places like the Vine to sign undertakings that they will cover the full rental payment,” she said.

“What is of concern to us is that ISS-HK is keenly aware that it is impossible to find any accommodation for HK$1,500, yet they have generally been refusing to top up support to claimants,” Ho said.

The lawyer noted that it was the duty of the government to prevent claimants from becoming destitute. “If their policy leads to the effect that claimants have to be left homeless, that would be illegal,” she said.

In 2006, Daly and Associates filed a judicial review to challenge the Social Welfare Department’s failure to provide welfare to asylum seekers. The review was settled when the government engaged ISS-HK to provide minimal welfare assistance including rent, food and basic utilities.

“We are actively considering further such challenges in light of recent developments,” Ho said.