"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
The media is in an uproar. Oxfam, the leading charity, has covered up sexual exploitation by its aid workers. The allegations include refugees employed for sex, with donations allegedly funding the fun. The story broke around incidents in Haiti. Since then its moved on to cover claims of abuse of young girls working in UK charity shops. In a matter of days, the Oxfam brand has suffered irreparable damage. Executives are resigning, government funding threatened as donations fade.
Hollywood types, who virtue signal as charity ambassadors, have run for the hills. They’ve done the calculation. It does not sit well with their ‘brand’ having an association with sex parties. What did they think was happening in Hollywood? Millie Diver, having basked in the limelight of Oxfam’s work, took three days to decide she was gone. A tacit admission she was only using Oxfam for publicity. Some friend in need.
Is anyone surprised by these allegations? None of this came as a shock, given the things I saw dealing with international charities and refugee agencies. They operated as any corporation. Each had a culture that placed their clients, the refugees, well down the pecking order. They were inflexible, partisan organisations.
My first exposure was in the early 1980s, to the work of United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Later, came ‘Doctors without Borders’ and others, including Oxfam. All fronted up in Hong Kong, apparently to help us deal with our burgeoning Vietnamese refugee crisis. With hundreds of desperate refugees arriving each week, we had a mess on our hands. Diverted from my regular duties, I found myself in unknown territory. I was to receive, feed, house and secure the refugees.
The first Vietnamese arrived in 1975, after the fall of South Vietnam. By the 1980s, about 100,000 were in camps pending screening and resettlement overseas. Tiny Hong Kong accommodated over a quarter of a million Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 2000. That’s a staggering achievement when the local population was only five million.
Former government official Clinton Leeks, was in charge of policy for much of that period.
"We always knew in reputational terms we had little choice but to try to treat the people coming humanely and try to find a solution for them," he recalled.
Thus, the government didn’t turn them back to sea. Instead, it mobilised all its available resources to help. Then, it appealed for international assistance. That was to prove a double-edged sword. Many charities came with strings attached.
My own experience involved a little known Vietnamese Refugee camp called Erskine. Located in rural Sai Kung, this former military barracks is now the site of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
It’s 1990, with Vietnamese shuffled around camps to defuse trouble. I'm assigned to take over the site, prepare it to receive the refugees and act as liaison with staff from the UNHCR. The run-down camp has filth everywhere and no proper perimeter fence. A sloping site didn’t help, with trees and dense vegetation encroaching on all sides.
My staff set about cleaning things up, working with casual labour hired for the job. We identified a command post and office space in the few serviceable huts. Then the UNHCR staff arrived. They would not move-in until the offices were ready, with air-conditioning. They declined to share an office with the police. For impartiality, they’d need separate secure accommodation. At that stage, my officers had no changing facilities nor canteen. We’re eating rice boxes in the open.
‘Doctors without Borders' were next up. Appointed to look after the medical needs of the refugees, they demanded another separate building. Moreover, police officers must stand guard while they treat patients. They declined an opportunity to enter the camp to inspect the bathrooms and washing facilities. I was beginning to get a sense these people were not the help we needed. Their comfort was more important than getting the job done.
With the accommodation only partially ready, we started receiving Vietnamese families. No single men, but a few young unaccompanied females. This arrangement made management of the facility relatively easy. Without the young men, the potential for trouble lessened. We soon had a kitchen up and running, with volunteers and Vietnamese working together. It was far from ideal, but they had roofs over their heads, bunk-beds and three meals a day.
The aid agencies had opted not to move in citing the fact the offices were unacceptable. Meanwhile, their publicity machine was in overdrive telling the world what a marvelous job the UNHCR was doing in Hong Kong. After a month, I relinquished command of the camp to proceed on leave. By then ‘Doctors without Borders’ were making weekday visits. For the weekend, we conveyed sick refugees to the hospital because the noble charity workers didn’t cover us.
Some months later, a disturbance at Erskine had police using batons to break up a fight. UNHRC staff made public statements critical of the police action. Then, without a sense of irony, demanded a report to assess if the camp was safe for them to operate.
Meanwhile, senior UNHRC officials flew business class to Hong Kong to berate us on the conditions in the camps. The British government, then responsible for Hong Kong, took a hands-off attitude. For example, the British Forces did little to help deal with the Vietnamese Refugees.
Relations were never cordial between the refugee charities and us. Conflicting priorities and different agendas drove a wedge between us. The police felt they couldn’t trust the charity groups to be fair when violence arose. They didn’t understand our swift response to signs of potential trouble.
The UNHRC promised the Hong Kong Government that it would cover the bill for housing the Vietnamese. To this day the UN owes Hong Kong HKD 1.61 billion. Payment is now unlikely.
The charities I dealt with had highly-paid bosses, fancy offices, large staffs and dominant media teams. They had no qualms about attacking us, while operating under our protection. Thus, it's no surprise that the recent revelations have come to light. Charities are businesses, which if left unchecked will exploit people; both the donors and those they're supposed to help. Consider that the first world has sent more than US$1 trillion to Africa over the past 50 years. Extreme poverty still blights the continent, but the charity business is doing well.
That tells you everything.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.