Hong Kong must overhaul its policy on asylum seekers

Tougher penalties on snakeheads are a start but, as recent events show, there are many abusing even our legitimate system for refugees

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 12:42am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 12:42am

With an increasing number of illegal immigrants being smuggled into Hong Kong, the government is right to seek tougher penalties against those engaged in human trafficking. The new penalties may be four times as tough as now, should proposed amendments to the law be passed by legislators. The government is under mounting pressure to stamp out the influx of so-called fake refugees. The ringleaders, known locally as “snakeheads”, are said to be taking advantage of the recent foggy weather to ferry more people into the city. Last Wednesday, marine police stopped a boat carrying 21 people of South Asian origin, the youngest just three years old, in waters near Lantau Island. As many as 45 were arrested over a weekend in Sai Kung last month. The number of non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants intercepted doubled last year to some 3,800.

Currently, the immigration law imposes a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment and a HK$5 million fine for smuggling people from the mainland, Macau or Vietnam. But snakeheads bringing in people of other nationalities face a lesser charge of aiding a person to land or remain in Hong Kong unlawfully, which carries a penalty of three years in jail and a HK$25,000 fine. The discrepancy dates back to the 1970s, when illegal immigrants primarily originated from Vietnam and the mainland. Given that the non-refoulement policy for asylum seekers has been abused by migrants from as far away as South Asia and Africa, the lesser charge is no longer a deterrence.

Heftier penalties are a step in the right direction. But they would not stop abuse through legitimate immigration channels. The city is clearing a backlog of 11,000 cases for asylum, half of which came from illegal immigrants. It is understood that some visitors lodge torture and other claims as soon as they arrive at the border, prompting the government to consider tightening the visa requirements for certain nationalities.

The ultimate solution lies in an overhaul of the asylum policy. Officials must expedite the review to stamp out further abuse.