Moral right prevails

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2001, 12:00am

The Security Bureau's decision to reconsider the ban on schooling for mainland children awaiting a decision on their right of abode status is a development of profound significance. Today, some 30 children will go to school who a fortnight or so ago had no hope whatsoever of getting a formal education in Hong Kong. Simply put, the decision shows that the Government can take a moral standpoint and set aside the strict application of rules in accordance with the wishes of the public.

The fact that the Security Bureau refuses to accept its review is a volte-face is curious; but, ultimately, it is not important. Semantics aside, the decision is a victory for decency and civilised values, and the Security Bureau's change of heart, while belated, is nevertheless correct.

The Government's position from the start of this sorry and unnecessary episode has been that, under immigration rules, the children are classed as visitors and therefore have no right to attend school. However, as has been pointed out elsewhere, unless you have a chop in your travel documents saying 'visitor', you do not have that status; and none of the right of abode children do have that chop. Instead they have recognisance documents.

But this never was what the argument was about. It was about the fact that dozens of young children, many of whom had been here for years, were denied the basic right of being allowed to go to school. This is not a legal debate, but a moral one.

The precise criteria the Government will employ in its review of each of the 187 children's cases are not, as yet, precisely clear. But it is appropriate and reassuring to know that the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, yesterday used the term 'compassion' in relation to the children. This compassion, doubtless, has to be balanced by the status of each child's court case. Some children have exhausted the legal process and are now appealing to the Government to stay here purely on humanitarian grounds. Those appeals may be unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, the principle remains clear: while children are waiting for their futures to be determined, they must be given the right to attend school.