It is ironic that the story of split families fighting to settle in Hong Kong continues to make headlines now that the height of the controversy over the right of abode is a distant memory. Officials estimated that 'tens of thousands' of grown-up mainland children born to Hong Kong parents would be eligible to come here under an easing of immigration rules implemented in April. But the first two months saw only 170 permits issued. The slow space has fuelled suspicion that the government's estimate was overstated or - worse - that corruption in the application process is acting as a barrier.
Twelve years ago, officials warned a controversial right-of-abode ruling by our city's top court could see 1.67 million mainlanders flooding in. The government asked Beijing for a reinterpretation of the Basic Law which effectively narrowed the scope of the ruling and meant fewer people were eligible. That the places now available are not being taken up suggests the number of mainlanders wanting to join family members in Hong Kong is not as high as was suggested.
The latest relaxing of the rules takes us a step closer to the final chapter of the saga. The door is now open to these grown-up children as long as their parents obtained a Hong Kong Identity Card before November 2001. While some of them may have to claim welfare temporarily, the arrival of these young adults would ease the problem of an ageing population.
These applicants have been waiting for over a decade to reunite with their parents. They now see light at the end of the tunnel. But only three permits are issued on average each day. The pace is unacceptably slow. One applicant told this paper she had been asked to pay 20,000 yuan (HK$24,000) to 'speed up' the process, but she could not afford it and may have to wait indefinitely. Immigration authorities in Hong Kong merely say they trust the Public Security Bureau will be 'strict' in fighting corruption. Officials must take up the allegations with their mainland counterparts to ensure that people who have waited such a long time for the right to come here are now able to freely exercise it.