LCQ3: Humanitarian assistance for non-refoulement claimants

     Following is a question by Hon Leung Che-cheung and a written reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, in the Legislative Council today (February 15): 

     Since 2006, the Government has offered various kinds of humanitarian assistance for people who lodge torture claims/non-refoulement claims under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment immediately upon entry into Hong Kong unlawfully (claimants) so that they will not become destitute while awaiting screening. Such assistance includes accommodation allowance (including rents, rental deposits and property agent fees). It is learnt that quite a number of claimants moved out of their rented units after living there only for several months, resulting in the rental deposits being forfeited by the landlords on the ground that the claimants had breached the tenancy agreements. Some members of the public suspect that in some cases, the claimants might have colluded with the landlords to deceive public money. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether the authorities have formulated guidelines for granting accommodation allowance to claimants; if so, of the details; 

(2) in each of the past three years, of (i) the number of cases in which accommodation allowance was granted to claimants and the respective total amounts of rents and rental deposits involved, and (ii) the number of cases in which the claimants reported that the rental deposits had been forfeited by the landlords on the ground of the claimants having breached the tenancy agreements, and the total amount of money involved; 

(3) of the countermeasures taken by the authorities to prevent collusion between claimants and landlords in deceiving rental deposits; and 

(4) whether the authorities will consider setting up detention centres with designated time rules for entering and leaving the centres to accommodate claimants while they are awaiting screening, so as to solve their accommodation problem; if so, of the details? 

     Since 2006, the Government has commissioned a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to offer humanitarian assistance to non-refoulement claimants (claimants) to prevent them from becoming destitute during their presence in Hong Kong, whilst avoiding any magnet effect which may have serious implications on the sustainability of the assistance programme and on our immigration control.
     All along, the NGO to operate the said humanitarian assistance programme has been selected by the Social Welfare Department (SWD) through open and fair tendering exercises. At present, the assistance programme is operated by the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch (ISS-HK).  Items covered by the assistance include:
Assistance Item Assistance received by each service user per month
Food $1 200
(Rent Allowance)
$1 500 (adult); $750 (child)
Utilities $300
Transportation Allowance $200 to $420
Other Basic Necessities Provided to service users in kind

     From 2012 to 2013, concerns were raised by some Legislative Council members, concerned NGOs, etc. that given the unique background of claimants (e.g. language barriers, difficulties in securing long-term tenancy agreements with landlords), they faced hurdles in finding suitable homes. After considering all relevant issues, the Government agreed to provide service users with rental deposits ($3 000 or an amount equivalent to two months of the rent, whichever is the less) and property agent fees ($750 or an amount equivalent to the rent for half a month, whichever is the less), starting from February 1, 2014. Such arrangement has been maintained till now.
     Besides, ISS-HK provides counseling services to service users based on individual needs.
     Our response to various parts of the question raised by the Hon Leung Che-cheung is as follows:
(1) On accommodation assistance, service users can generally identify suitable accommodation on their own. ISS-HK also provides service users with genuine needs with temporary accommodation equipped with electricity and water supplies and other basic utilities. At present, over 90 per cent of all service users choose to identify accommodation by themselves. Rents are paid to landlords by ISS-HK direct. 

     Before making rent payments, ISS-HK will assess whether the concerned premises are of conditions suitable for accommodation assistance. Where necessary, ISS-HK will require landlords to provide supporting documents on the conditions of the premises. ISS-HK will also conduct spot checks and home visits to assess the hygiene, home environment and safety conditions of the premises. As and when premises are assessed to be below standard, or if there are signs of irregularities, ISS-HK will inform service users concerned and advise them to move, and stop the relevant rental payments. If service users encounter difficulties in securing alternative accommodation, they may approach ISS-HK for assistance.
     Generally speaking, each service user is eligible for rental deposit for one time only. If the rental deposit is returned upon completion of a tenancy agreement, it can be used by the service user under a new tenancy agreement. However, if the rental deposit is forfeited because of failure to complete a tenancy agreement or violation of relevant terms, the service user will not be provided with further rental deposit under the new tenancy agreement. He or she may make use of any remaining rental deposit which has not yet been forfeited under the new tenancy agreement. Different situations may lead to failure to complete a tenancy agreement, including departure from Hong Kong, or a need to move due to domestic violence, safety reasons or worsening health conditions, etc.
(2) From 2013-14 to 2015-16, the number of service users receiving humanitarian assistance is 5 953, 8 594 and 12 671 respectively; the expenditure is $204 million, $254 million and $485 million respectively. SWD does not maintain the number of service users receiving rent allowance and the corresponding expenditure. As at end of December 2016, 98.9 per cent of all service users were receiving accommodation assistance under the assistance programme. 
     On rental deposit, the total amount of rental deposit rendered between February 1, 2014 (when the arrangement to provide rental deposit assistance began) and end of December 2016 is $23 million. The total amount of rental deposit forfeited or paid out as compensation for various reasons is $5 million. Since rental deposits can be carried forward for use under new tenancy agreements in part or in full according to individual case circumstances and the actual accommodation assistance provided varies amongst individual service users, SWD does not maintain further breakdowns of the causes of forfeiture or compensation and the accommodation assistance.
(3) ISS-HK and SWD make rental deposit arrangements for each individual case to ensure prudent use of public money and providing service users in need with suitable accommodation. 

     Currently, tenancy agreements are entered into between service users and landlords; whereas rental deposit agreements are entered into between ISS-HK, service users and landlords. If landlords request to forfeit rental deposits according to tenancy agreements, they must provide justifications and relevant proofs for the consideration and approval by ISS-HK. If there are suspicious situations between service users and landlords regarding rental deposits, ISS-HK will investigate, and seek legal advice and the advice of the Police where necessary. ISS-HK will report any collusion and frauds to law enforcement agencies.
(4) The suggestion of setting up detention centres involves challenges from legal, land and manpower resources perspectives. Since the 1980s to the 1990s, the Court has made multiple rulings in relation to the detention of illegal immigrants. That being said, we will look into proposals to detain more illegal immigrants (including non-refoulement claimants) and strengthen support to the management of detention facilities, taking into account legal, resources and public security implications.

Ends/Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Issued at HKT 15:52