Why are Indians being targeted in Hong Kong’s crackdown on illegal immigration?

Yonden Lhatoo says a surge in dubious asylum claims from the subcontinent justifies tackling the problem, but collective punishment is not the answer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

How ironic that Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was in India this week with a big business delegation to woo investors just as his administration was building a case for imposing visa restrictions on the country.

Indians and nationals of other countries from which asylum seekers have been flocking to Hong Kong will have to secure an entry permit online before coming here.

The impending prospect of no more visa-free access across the board has alarmed the city’s Indian business community, and many are already complaining it smacks of racism and discrimination.

When asked about it directly in Mumbai, Leung replied: “We want to make Hong Kong as barrier-free as possible, but we are also mindful of, if you like, the side effects of providing visa-free entry when we have issues of overstaying.”

According to the government, Hong Kong is now saddled with a backlog of nearly 11,000 refugee applications that need to be screened. Some 80 per cent of them are from South or Southeast Asian countries, with Vietnam leading the pack at 21 per cent, and India and Pakistan following closely at 19 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.

From March 2014 to the end of 2015, an average of 134 Indian nationals lodged asylum claims every month – a 13-fold increase over the monthly average of 10 in 2013.

It’s obvious that many asylum seekers from India landing on our shores are “economic refugees” seeking to earn money, rather than real victims of torture or persecution back home.

Adding to a recent spate of reports about groups of visitors from the subcontinent claiming asylum after arriving in the city, the authorities on Wednesday gave details of what appears to be a particularly brazen case.

Immigration officers arrested two Indian Hong Kong residents running a local sports club after seven members of a hockey team they had invited from India overstayed their visas and then applied for asylum. The seven did not even play hockey here.

Looking at all of that, a crackdown on visas seems justified, but I can’t help feeling there’s a rather unhealthy focus on lawbreakers from the subcontinent in particular these days. One Chinese newspaper this week reported seven crimes involving South Asians over a three-day period. If you go looking for xenophobically charged angles, you’ll manage to find them.

The authorities intercepted 36 illegal immigrants from India in 2010 – last year it was about 32 a month. At the same time, they intercepted 190 a month from Vietnam, which is the source of the biggest (non-Chinese) illegal immigrant demographic.

Perhaps when Vietnamese commit crimes, they’re not as noticeable as Indians because they can blend in better with the crowd. Or most of them are quietly employed as illegal labour.

Let’s not forget that illegal immigrants are exploited by unscrupulous brokers who profit from their desperation.

These days there are organised rackets providing one-stop shops for illegal immigration to Hong Kong, complete with legal services to take full advantage of procedural loopholes that allow people to remain here for years while their applications are being vetted. And there are employers in Hong Kong who are quite happy to recruit workers from the black market labour force they provide.

There’s plenty that the government can do to tackle the problem at source, starting with clearing up that backlog.

I’m just not sure about collective punishment, though. Visa restrictions will put off genuine visitors and disturb commerce.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post