Let illegals go back to Philippines, says Manila minister

All Filipino prisoners could leave the territory if an inmate transfer deal could be agreed, in effect granting illegal immigrants an amnesty, the Philippine Foreign Secretary, Domingo Siazon, said yesterday.

Mr Siazon said his Government was seeking an agreement allowing all prisoners to return home, and acknowledged that those convicted for overstaying or other immigration offences would go free because they would not be regarded as guilty under Philippine law.

More serious criminals would serve out their terms in the Philippines.

'We have about 200 Filipinos in jail here. Many of them are immigration-related offences and what we are hoping is that the Hong Kong administration will be able to consider giving them amnesty or transferring them to the Philippines,' he said.

But a government spokesman said last night this approach would not be acceptable.

'One of the key features of the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Bill - which will govern the transfer of prisoners between Hong Kong and other countries - is that the conduct in respect of which the sentenced person to be transferred is imprisoned must be criminal in both the sending and receiving jurisdiction,' he said.

Mr Siazon, who said he did not have time to meet Filipino domestic helpers, believes the maids' future in Hong Kong is assured.

He said he understood the workers' fears that they might be supplanted by mainland women, but insisted guarantees from Hong Kong and China would prevent this.

He maintained that last month's granting of visa-free travel to Special Administrative Region passport holders was not a U-turn. It was simply the result of addressing Philippine concerns.

'At the same time we expect that by giving a no-visa privilege to Hong Kong SAR passport holders they will apply the same policy to us.' A deal to buy three Royal Navy ships in Hong Kong was 'almost as good as done' and he hoped Hong Kong companies would consider moving their bases to his country.

'I think some multinational companies are moving [because of the handover], but also because of the high cost of operation here.' Yesterday Mr Siazon held separate meetings with Hong Kong political and Philippine business leaders. He leaves for India tonight.