‘Startling inaction’ by Hong Kong Immigration Department over unregistered births, watchdog Ombudsman finds
Report released after nearly three years of investigations shows most cases involved ‘complicated family problems’ and overstayers
The “inaction” of Hong Kong immigration authorities over cases of parents failing to register the births of their children in time, as required by law, was “startling”, the city’s government watchdog said on Monday.
In a study released by the Ombudsman which looked into 151 reports between 1990 and 2015 of births that went unregistered for more than a year, it was found the Immigration Department did nothing in almost half of the cases.
The report noted most involved “complicated family problems” and “some mothers were afraid of revealing their identities as overstayers, while some even denied giving birth”.
The findings were reached after a probe by the Ombudsman that lasted almost three years. It was prompted by a 2015 tragedy in which a 15-year-old daughter of an expatriate fell to her death from their home in Repulse Bay in Southern district.
It was later discovered that the girl and her younger sister were born in Hong Kong but had been living without any identity record because their parents had refused to register their births to cover up the fact that their Filipino mother was an overstayer.
The incident sparked public concern over the well-being of children without a birth registration and the department’s diligence.
In its report, the Ombudsman found the department had done nothing in 70 out of the 151 cases, while it only issued reminders for others.
During the period, “[the department] had never investigated these 151 cases … let alone institute prosecution,” the report stated.
“In certain cases, the birth was only registered more than or nearly 20 years later,” the report stated.
“It is indeed worrying to think about what those innocent children had gone through in childhood and the first 20 years of their lives, how they received education and participated in group activities, and what their future would be.”
Under the Births and Deaths Registration Ordinance, births in the city have to be registered with the department within 42 days. A reminder would be sent every three months to parents who have not done so, and if there is still no compliance after nine months, they would be contacted over the phone by the department.
The Ombudsman recommended the department step in after six months if the births remained unregistered and refer such cases to its investigation division.
The watchdog also suggested establishing a mandatory notification system among various government departments in the event suspected cases of unregistered births were detected.
In a statement, the department said it accepted and would follow up on the points raised.
The department noted an improved system had already been in place since May 2015 after the Repulse Bay death, under which officers would try to contact parents by means available to register the birth of their children.
For outstanding cases after nine months, the department would log the particulars of the parents in question into its system. When such parents use the department’s services, such as applying for an identity card or travel document, authorities can be alerted and would follow up with the parents on the birth registrations.
Upon non-compliance, the cases would be referred to the investigation division.
Between May 2015 and December 2017, there were 401 cases of unregistered births for six months or longer. Of those cases, 352 have since been registered. Some 32 cases have been logged into the department’s system and would be forwarded to the investigation division.
The department also said it had set up a liaison mechanism with the Social Welfare Department, the Education Bureau and police.
At the end of February, the department also launched a special duty team to enhance its system.
As of the end of May, the team has handled 611 cases of unregistered births since it was formed. Among them, 501 have been subsequently registered and three others were later confirmed to be cases of premature death.
For the remaining 107 cases, the department was able to get in touch with parents in 96 of them.