Hong Kong politics
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Security chief John Lee has promised that a new immigration law aimed at asylum seekers will not allow authorities to block people from leaving Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

Hong Kong security chief vows new immigration law aimed at asylum seekers will not let authorities bar residents from leaving city

  • Wording of law sparks worries it gives authorities carte blanche to stop residents from leaving city; asylum seekers’ advocates say it makes flawed system worse
  • But Security Secretary John Lee has swatted down talk of emigration bans as mere ‘rumours’, while defending the law as necessary

Hong Kong’s security minister has promised that a new immigration law that some had feared could bar residents from leaving the city will only apply to inbound travellers, such as the illegitimate asylum seekers at whom officials say it is aimed.

However, wording to that effect was not included in the Immigration (Amendments) Bill 2020, which was passed by the establishment-dominated Legislative Council in a 39-2 vote on Wednesday following a two-hour session scrutinising its contents. 

The bill contains language granting the director of immigration the power to decide whether “a passenger or a member of the crew of a carrier may or may not be carried” on a given vessel, sparking concerns it would give authorities carte blanche in determining who is allowed to enter – and leave – the city.

Authorities, however, have said the bill is merely an effort to plug a loophole exploited by what they characterised as bogus non-refoulement claimants taking advantage of the city’s form of quasi-asylum.

The bill had touched a nerve among advocates for asylum seekers and those concerned about possible government overreach. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
The bill has touched a nerve at a time when talk of emigration has intensified in the wake of Beijing’s imposition of the national security law and its drastic overhaul of the city’s elections, while also drawing condemnation from advocates for asylum seekers, who say it makes an already-problematic system even worse.

Brushing aside “rumours” of potential travel bans, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu pledged on Wednesday that the arrangement would only target “inbound flights to Hong Kong, but not outbound flights departing the city”.

That promise, he said, would be spelled out when the Security Bureau finalised the details of its own regulation, which will come under the amended immigration law and will also be subject to lawmakers’ scrutiny.

No interpreters, indefinite detention? Hong Kong immigration bill draws critics

“The freedom of Hong Kong people to travel will not be affected,” Lee said, adding that the arrangement would comply with the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and its Bill of Rights, both of which guarantee residents’ freedom of movement.

But even following Lee’s promise, some critics remained sceptical as to whether the government would keep its word after declining to formalise the protection in the wording of the statute itself.

“There is a way to make the protection legally binding. Yet [the government] chose to just go around telling the press,” said barrister Chow Hang-tung of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, part of an alliance of outside groups also scrutinising the bill.


From asylum seeker to banker: Zimbabwean in Hong Kong pays it forward

From asylum seeker to banker: Zimbabwean in Hong Kong pays it forward

Pro-democracy activist Tang Kin-wah, from the Confederation of Trade Unions, also accused pro-establishment lawmakers of failing to grill the government on the issue, which has raised eyebrows among business groups and the city’s Bar Association.

The Bar Association previously warned in a consultation paper that the current phrasing of the bill would grant the director of immigration “extraordinary power” that would be incompatible with the Basic Law – a charge vehemently denied by the Immigration Department and the Security Bureau.

The government has said the issue could be addressed in the subsidiary legislation, but has stopped short of making the exact promise Lee made on Wednesday. 

HK$120 billion Hong Kong budget sails through Legco in record time

Speaking in the Legco chamber, Lee accused “various individuals and groups” of twisting the provisions, “spreading rumours and fooling people’s hearts”. 

The amendments will also give the immigration director the power to request travellers’ information from airlines, which Lee said was necessary to comply with the advance passenger information system set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation in 2018.

The government also viewed the bill as a way to block suspected bogus asylum seekers from reaching Hong Kong.


Fugitive Hong Kong activist Nathan Law granted political asylum in UK

Fugitive Hong Kong activist Nathan Law granted political asylum in UK

Pro-establishment lawmaker Elizabeth Quat pointed specifically to the outside groups scrutinising the bill, accusing them of fearmongering. Her colleagues have pointed out that the cost of handling non-refoulement applications totalled almost HK$7 billion (US$902 million) over the last eight financial years.

Human rights lawyers and advocates, meanwhile, have raised concerns about other aspects of the bill, which would also empower immigration officers to deny non-refoulement claimants access to interpreters and allow them to carry firearms in a detention centre.

Claimants would also face having their cases thrown out if they refused to take part in medical examinations demanded by authorities, as the law would allow officers to disregard any outside medical reports supporting their claims.

Lawmakers grill legal aid chief over help to woman injured in protest

“For a system already suffering from systemic unfairness, the bill makes it more difficult for refugees,” said human rights lawyer Mark Daly, who took issue with the lack of proper opposition scrutiny in the legislature.

The Justice Centre, an NGO helping some of the city’s most vulnerable groups, including non-refoulement claimants, said it too was saddened by Wednesday’s outcome and a Legco debate marked by what it described as “xenophobic and even racially charged language”.

“Asylum seekers come to Hong Kong as a last resort, typically fleeing life-threatening situations or persecution, and primarily seek safety and survival,” the NGO’s spokesman said.

“The Immigration Amendment Bill passed today will increase the chances that those most in need of protection will slip through the cracks.”