Fleeing Hong Kong: increasing numbers of Hongkongers seeking safety abroad
Despite Hong Kong being one of the world’s safest cities, a number of its residents still claim asylum
With the mass migration of people displaced by war and instability moving inexorably to the top of the global political agenda, and as angst in official quarters over Hong Kong’s asylum system grows, data compiled by the UN has shed light on the small but rising number of people fleeing persecution here in Hong Kong.
On the eve of Monday’s United Nations World Population Day, figures analysed by thePost reveal a growing number of Hong Kong residents seeking – and, in some cases, getting – refugee status overseas. UN statistics showed that there were last year 33 refugees from Hong Kong.
According to the UN refugee agency’s most recent Global Trends Report, that number has more than doubled since 2011, when there were fifteen refugees from the city.
The rise is even more obvious in the number of asylum seekers – meaning pending cases. Whereas in 2011 there were only five people asking for protection abroad, that number stood at 79 in 2015, the highest in five years.
The Geneva-based agency’s reports, which are released every year, show the same happening with people from the mainland. Last year there were 212,911 refugees from the mainland along with 57,705 asylum seekers. That means a significant increase since 2011, when there were 190,369 refugees and 10,617 seeking asylum.
Legal experts and scholars believed most cases of Hong Kong residents claiming protection elsewhere were likely to be related to issues faced on the mainland. Increasing civil unrest and fears of Beijing eroding Hong Kong’s rule of law as well as the presence of organised crime in the city might also be pushing some to seek protection abroad.
“Some cases may include people who were resident in Hong Kong, but coming through from the mainland,” said Kelley Loper, director of the human rights programme at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.
A spokesperson for the UN said that the “origin” of a person in their reports refers to nationality, area of birth or area of residence. The definition might vary slightly between countries of asylum, which are the ones providing the data, he noted.
A refugee, according to the UN convention, is someone who left their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and who are unable or too scared to get protection in their home country.
Refugees include individuals recognised under the 1951 Refugee Convention and other protocols, individuals granted complementary forms of protection and those enjoying temporary protection.
Asylum seekers are people who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined on.
The rising number of asylum seekers from Hong Kong coincides with an increasingly acrimonious attitude towards people from abroad seeking protection in the city.
UN data shows that Canada, the United States and Australia seem to be the countries of preference for asylum seekers from Hong Kong.
Canada, for instance, confirmed that they have received protection claims of people alleging persecution in Hong Kong. According to statistics provided to the Post, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada –an independent federal administrative tribunal that decides on claims for refugee protection made in the country – last accepted a claim from people at risk of persecution in Hong Kong in 2013.
Since 2009 until March this year, the board accepted two other cases.
A spokeswoman for the Canadian tribunal said it did not provide public statistics on the reasons why individuals made protection claims.
But according to information made publicly available by the board, loan-sharking, which triad societies are known to be involved in, was one of the issues involved in a specific claim or group of claims related to Hong Kong in past years.
Another document mentions periodic denials of entry to Hong Kong for activists, legislators and other people usually holding critical views of the mainland, which have raised concerns of whether Hong Kong is enforcing a Beijing-imposed political list.
The latest issue analysed by the board was dated January 2015. It involved documents required by Chinese nationals from mainland China to enter and exit Hong Kong and Macau, including how the documents are processed by border officials.
Australia also confirmed having received protection claims from Hong Kong citizens.
“In 2015, applications for protection were received from 69 people identifying as residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” a spokesperson from the country’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection said. But no one from the city was granted a protection visa last year, meaning that those people were either rejected, or have not heard back yet.
The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions from the Post, referring only to publicly available data, whichdoes not include any information about Hong Kong citizens.
UN statistics show that the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands are among other countries that received asylum claims from Hong Kong citizens over the years.
According to the UN database – which includes information stretching back to 1992 – there were dozens of refugees from Hong Kong between 1994 and 1996. These numbers might be explained by the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and concerns ahead of the 1997 handover.
According a story published by the Post on June 20, 1989, a veteran Canadian-Chinese politician called on his government to accept “political refugees” from Hong Kong.
“Canada itself will have to seriously contemplate the relocation of Hong Kong political refugees… The people of Hong Kong are not afraid simply for their economic future. They are afraid because their political future is tied to a country that has absolutely no regard for its own students,” said Gordon Joseph Chong, a member of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party at the time, referring to the Tiananmen protests.
A year before the handover of Hong Kong to China, the Post also published a story about the Australian immigration department planning to deal with a possible flood of Hong Kong refugees fleeing any “serious crisis” after the switch.
But, according to available figures, such turmoil seems never to have materialised.
The number of people from Hong Kong seeking asylum elsewhere started to rise in 2008, followed by a decrease in 2011 and a new surge in 2012.
The Hong Kong Security Bureau said it did not have information on city residents seeking asylum elsewhere.
Although Hong Kong is considered one of the safest cities in the world, it is known for the presence of triad gangsters, which run a wide-range of illicit and threatening activities.
The city has also felt growing social tension and an increasingly challenging political situation, with many calling for universal suffrage and criticising Beijing’s influence on the city’s affairs.
In September 2014, thousands took to the streets and blocked some of the city’s main roads in a civil disobedience movement known as Occupy Central. During that 79-day protest, police arrested 955 people. Another 48 were arrested afterwards.
As of April this year, a total of 216 had faced or were about to face judicial proceedings. Among them, 119had to bear legal consequences, including 77 who were convicted.
Renewed and wide concerns over the ‘one country, two systems’ – a principle that grants to both Hong Kong and Macau a high degree of autonomy and freedom – gained traction since five local booksellers, who have dealt in banned books critical of the Chinese Communist Party, went missing in Thailand, the mainland and Hong Kong in late 2015.
Three of them reappeared in recent months saying that they had decided to cooperate with investigations on the mainland. But Lam Wing-kee, who only returned to Hong Kong in June, revealed that he was abducted and detained by a secretive central investigation team while crossing the border to neighbouring Shenzhen on October 24 last year.
The fifth bookseller, Gui Minhai, has not reappeared in the city. He vanished some nine months ago from his house in Thailand and has been accused of ordering colleagues to deliver 4,000 banned books across the border since October 2014.
Gui, who is a Swedish national, was paraded on state television earlier this year saying he had surrendered himself to mainland authorities over a drink-driving accident in the mainland, in 2004. His current legal situation is unclear.
Scholar Loper said people like the five booksellers would have grounds to seek asylum abroad.
“I think the five booksellers could make a convincing refugee claim in another country,” she said. “They may indeed have a well-founded fear of persecution on political grounds if returned to Hong Kong, since they may not be ‘safe’ from further return to China – and may not be able to receive adequate protection from the Hong Kong authorities.”
Officials from Hong Kong met authorities from the mainland this week to discuss the current cross-border communication system, with Chinese public security chiefs warning that Lam could face tougher legal action for skipping bail and refusing to return to the mainland. According to the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, both sides agreed to inform each other within 14 days if they detained the other’s residents for criminal investigation.
Lam has aired concerns about his security since returning to Hong Kong, saying he has been tailed several times. Hong Kong police did not offer him immediate protection.
On Friday, police said there was no evidence that Lam’s safety was at risk. But “in view of his worries and the serious public concern over the incident, police have decided to provide Mr Lam with personal protection,” it said. The terms of the arrangement were not revealed.
Lam said this week that he was considering moving to Taiwan.
Leading human rights lawyer Mark Daly agreed with Loper: “With respect to the booksellers it may be a sad commentary on the development of ‘one country, two systems’ but, yes, I think they could make out a claim for protection in another country.”