Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday (28) approved a new immigration law that allows the government to ban people from entering and leaving its territory. The fear is that local authorities will use the new measure in a manner similar to what is done in China, preventing opponents of the regime from leaving the city.
The bill passed 39 votes for and two against, reflecting how tight the seat of the pro-democracy opposition is in the former British colony. The government is still working on a change in the electoral system, to ensure that only what the law calls pro-Chinese patriots rule Hong Kong.
The new legislation will take effect on August 1, but activists, lawyers and some businessmen have raised concerns about a clause in the law that allows the immigration chief to ban people from boarding planes to leave or arrive in the city.
Legal experts say the new law will empower the territory’s authorities to prevent anyone without a court ruling from entering or leaving Hong Kong, opening the door to exit bans often used in mainland China against activists who challenge the lawsuits. authorities.
“When they have this power, this absolute power, you don’t know who they’re going to use it in,” Hong Kong pro-democracy alliance lawyer Chow Hang-tung said.
The government responded that these fears were absurd. Authorities say the legislation is only aimed at tracking illegal immigrants amid a backlog of asylum claims and does not affect constitutional rights to freedom of movement.
The security department said the law would only apply to flights to Hong Kong. However, the text does not limit the powers of the government to those arriving in the territory or to immigrants, and can therefore also be applied to anyone leaving or arriving in Hong Kong.
“We are facing more and more challenges, in particular to prevent the increase in the number of illegal immigrants and for complainants to abuse the system,” Homeland Security Secretary John Lee said, adding that travel rights remained guaranteed.
The guarantees, however, come amid a climate of mistrust after local authorities last year imposed a national security law that severely punishes any act deemed to be subversion, terrorism, separatism or collusion with foreign forces – including with the possibility of life imprisonment.
“It is concerning that in rushing forward this bill, the government has chosen to ignore civil society groups who have raised legitimate concerns,” said lawyer Michael Vidler.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said in February that the bill did not explain why such powers were needed, how they would be used, and did not include any limits on the length of travel bans, nor any guarantees against them. abuse.
Campaigners also say the new legislation raises concerns about the rights and well-being of refugees, allowing immigration officials to carry arms and, in some cases, requiring asylum seekers to communicate in another language. than their language.
The government says there are currently 13,000 refugee claims in Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing MP Elizabeth Quat said the number of refugees was “a threat to peace and stability” and that the city needed to cure this “cancer”.
The sorting process can take years and the order success rate is 1%. While awaiting a decision, refugees cannot work or volunteer. .
Currently, asylum seekers can only be arrested if they break the law or are deported. The bill adds that the authorities can also detain a refugee if “the person poses a threat or a risk to the security of the community”, without specifying what constitutes such a risk. Human rights groups say it expands the scope of indefinite detention.
David, 25, was granted asylum after arriving from an East African country four years ago. He said he was detained for 92 days during the process and the new bill could lead to an even worse experience for new refugees. “It is very scary to be there without knowing how long you are going to be staying,” said David, who asked Reuters news agency not to use his full name.
Returned by the United Kingdom to the control of China in 1997, Hong Kong has a certain autonomy compared to Beijing, with its own political and judicial system.
Officially, this arrangement should have been valid until at least 2047, but in recent years the central government has introduced measures of an authoritarian nature that have limited individual freedom and the role of the pro-democracy opposition in the territory.