Hong Kong government plans tougher penalties for people smugglers

Legislative Council to discuss proposal in April

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 10:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 1:43am

Hong Kong is readying tougher penalties for the first time in four decades against snakeheads smuggling illegal immigrants into the city, as part of a new drive to stem the influx of asylum seekers.

A government source told the Post that the maximum penalty could be more than quadrupled to 14 years under amended legislation to be introduced as soon as possible.

The Legislative Council will discuss the proposal on April 12.

Under the current Immigration Ordinance, anyone who arranges the passage of illegal immigrants to Hong Kong from the mainland, Macau or Vietnam already face 14 years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of HK$5 million.

But snakeheads smuggling other nationalities face a lesser charge of aiding a person to land or remain in Hong Kong unlawfully, which carries a three-year sentence and HK$25,000 fine.

The Security Bureau is now seeking to amend the regulation to cover illegal immigrants of all nationalities.

READ MORE: Three-year-old girl among 21 South Asians intercepted on smuggling boat off Hong Kong airport

“The ordinance commenced in 1979 when there was a flow of Vietnamese and mainland Chinese. But things have changed over the decades,” the government source said.

“We need stiffer penalties as the trend of syndicates arranging the smuggling of South Asians into Hong Kong is alarming.”

The number of non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants intercepted doubled last year to 3,819 with almost 60 per cent from Vietnam. The rest came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. More than 400 were arrested in January alone this year. Many of them snuck into Hong Kong by boat.

According to the Immigration Department, Hong Kong is now saddled with a backlog of 11,082 applications on asylum and torture grounds that need to be screened. Half of the applicants are illegal immigrants.

The department arrested 232 claimants for taking up jobs last year, which they are not allowed to while waiting for their applications to be processed.

READ MORE: Several people-smuggling rackets operate in Hong Kong to bring South Asians to the city, police say

The influx of asylum seekers, especially from the Indian subcontinent, has caught the government’s attention recently and prompted a review of the asylum system. The government is already planning to impose visa restrictions on citizens of countries considered the biggest source of illegal immigration to Hong Kong.

It is understood that several people-smuggling syndicates are operating in Hong Kong, offering a one-stop service to bring immigrants from their home countries to the city via the mainland for up to HK$50,000 per head.

“A HK$25,000 fine means nothing to snakeheads as they earn HK$500,000 per boat trip,” the source said.

“We also see the amendment as a means to curb the growing number of asylum seekers in Hong Kong, as many of them sneak into the city unlawfully and lodge claims when they face deportation.”

The source said the tougher penalties would also apply to boat owners and crew members involved in people-smuggling activities.

Security panel member and newly-elected legislator Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, a barrister from the Civic Party, said while the courts had been taking illegal immigration seriously, stronger penalties were still warranted.

“Smuggling is a global problem. I believe a stiffer penalty would be more threatening,” Yeung said.