Asylum seekers in Asia

Tighter Hong Kong visa rules may affect more foreign visitors than only Indians

Senior immigration official calls new restriction a first step in bid to cut down on city’s false asylum seekers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 December, 2016, 12:02am

More nationals from countries whose asylum seekers flee to Hong Kong may need to register online before visiting, a senior immigration officer revealed to the Post, as the authority reviewed a similar requirement it would soon impose on Indian visitors.

Immigration department assistant director Ma Chi-ming also urged Indian visitors not to enter fake data to try to enhance their chance of entering Hong Kong to seek economic asylum as they would bear legal consequences.

The online registration platform opened from Monday as Indian passport holders who planned to visit the city from January 23 next year must obtain prior approval from the department.

Indian nationals to face tighter rules on visiting Hong Kong

It marks the first time Hong Kong has implemented such a restriction to a third country. The aim is to curb Indian nationals seeking refugee status.

Ma, in charge of visas and policies, said the measure would be reviewed soon after its launch and considered a pilot scheme.

“We picked India as a testing point as it was one of the major source countries,” he said. “We do not rule out extending the scheme to other countries in the future.”

Among the current backlog of 10,335 refugee applications in the city, 80 per cent are claimants from India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia. At present, only Indian and Indonesian nationals may enter Hong Kong without an entry permit.

Asked if Indonesian visitors would be targeted next, Ma said he could not give a firm answer.

We do not rule out extending the scheme to other countries in the future
Ma Chi-ming, Immigration Department

“Many Indonesian asylum seekers in the city were domestic helpers who overstayed,” he said, adding that some other nationals were abusing the visa-free travel scheme to seek economic asylum. He added the department would review each country separately.

To continue enjoying the current 14-day visa-free arrangement, Indian passport holders must now show an approval slip to transport staff before boarding a plane or ship to the city.

They are to supply personal information during their online registration, including their travel history and local itinerary. The automated system then assesses risks and issues a result instantly.

Ma admitted the computer could not fully screen out problematic applicants. But he noted even successful registrants would still need to pass through border control upon arrival.

“If we doubt travel purpose at the counter, we can still refuse [entry],” he continued. “Giving fake information on the registration form is liable to prosecution.”

Those who use a false instrument could face 14 years in jail.

Ma refused to divulge how the system assessed the risks an applicant could pose. But he said the department had evaluated the backgrounds of Indian asylum seekers in the city and had come up with “a group of combined factors” to review travellers.

He believed 90 per cent of registrants could be approved instantly. Those who are declined could apply for a visa directly from the department in a process that would take up to a month.

The pre-arrival registration is valid for six months during which the registrant may visit Hong Kong multiple times.

Last year, the number of Indian tourists to Hong Kong surged to 561,625 – up 22 per cent compared with 2013.

In the first 11 months of this year, 474 615 Indians visited the city.