The public has grown increasingly frustrated at the seeming impotence of the authorities to stem the tide of mainland mothers overtaxing the city's obstetrics services. Less than a month into the auspicious year of the dragon, maternity services at our private hospitals are booked to October and beyond, as are public hospital quotas for non-local mothers. As a result, the city faces the alarming prospect of an increasing number of 'gate-crashings' at accident and emergency wards by mainland women who have crossed the border without bookings to give birth.
All along, however, the authorities have had the administrative powers to crack down on a potentially dangerous situation and meet public concerns. The villains of this situation are mainland agents who help expectant mothers who want to give birth in Hong Kong. It is good, therefore, to see that in the first case of a convicted agent, the magistrate imposed a deterrent sentence. Principal Magistrate Andrew Ma Hon-cheung sent a woman to jail for two months for breaching conditions of stay while helping an expectant mainland mother. And he sentenced her to eight months for false representation to an immigration officer while accompanying a woman who demanded ambulance services as soon as she crossed the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint last month.
Ma rightly said that such an act posed a serious risk to the mother and the baby and that a deterrent sentence was called for to stop agents risking other people's lives for their own benefit. He is right, too, to have noted that many mainlanders would not take the risk without assistance from agents. He might have added that a lack of proper antenatal care greatly increases the risk of newborns needing neo-natal intensive care, which also strains medical resources.
The agent was fortunate that Ma took into account that she had operated alone, had pleaded guilty and was the first agent to be prosecuted. The maximum penalty for a breach of condition of stay is a HK$50,000 fine and two years in jail, while the punishment for making a false representation is a HK$150,000 fine and 14 years' jail.
We trust that his message is heeded and, if it isn't, that the courts will impose much heavier penalties in future cases. The Immigration Department anticipates more prosecutions soon, on top of 100 arrests for breach of stay in the last three months of last year. Keener vigilance is welcome. Mainland authorities could also do more to monitor the status of pregnant women at the border and crack down on middlemen. Once a pregnant woman is in Hong Kong, humanitarian considerations may come first. Diligent detection and swift prosecution of the middlemen is, therefore, an important deterrent to a reckless and undesirable form of medical tourism.