Hong Kong passed a new immigration law that includes powers to prevent people from entering or leaving the city, raising fears of mainland China-style “exit bans” at the international commercial center.
The legislation passed through a legislature now devoid of opposition, as Beijing has cracked down on dissent and sought to make the semi-autonomous city look more like the authoritarian continent after huge and often violent democratic protests.
Activists, lawyers and some business figures have sounded the alarm over the bill’s provisions, including one that allows the city’s immigration chief to bar people from boarding planes to and from the city. No court order or appeal is required. The city’s bar association (HKBA) said the bill’s wording gave “seemingly unlimited power” to the immigration director.
Labor activists and legal critics said the legislature had ignored concerns about the law’s broad wording and feared that exit bans could now be used in Hong Kong. “When they have this power, absolute power, you don’t know who they will use it with,” said a lawyer, Chow Hang-tung, of the Hong Kong Pro-Democratic Alliance.
The Hong Kong government said the immigration bill was necessary to address a backlog of non-refoulement claims and to screen migrants traveling illegally before leaving for the city. The security office said the bill would only apply to flights to Hong Kong.
However, the wording of the bill does not limit the powers of the government to those arriving in the territory or immigrants, and legal experts say it could also be used against people trying to leave Hong Kong.
“Exit bans” are often used in mainland China against activists who defy authorities and have also hurt business figures. An example is Richard O’Halloran, an Irish national who has been prevented from leaving Shanghai for two years due to a legal dispute involving the Chinese owner of the Dublin-based company he works for.
Under Beijing’s leadership, the Hong Kong government has grown more authoritarian since the 2019 protests. Faith in official assurances that the city is not becoming like the mainland has been shaken by the recent crackdown.
Beijing imposed a comprehensive national security law in Hong Kong last year, arguing that it was necessary to return to stability and would not affect freedoms. But its broad wording and subsequent application have criminalized much of the dissent and radically transformed a once politically pluralistic city. Many of Hong Kong’s prominent pro-democracy figures have been arrested, detained or fled abroad.
The city’s previously noisy legislature has been acquitted of opponents of democracy, who resigned en masse late last year after three of their colleagues were disqualified for their political views. Since then, the government has accelerated a series of laws with limited scrutiny and dissent in the legislature.
Wednesday’s immigration bill received 39 votes in favor and two against. It was passed shortly after lawmakers passed a budget in record time, with just one vote against.
Beijing has also announced a new plan – dubbed “the patriots rule Hong Kong” – to vet anyone running for office and reduce the number of directly elected seats in the legislature to a small minority.
Critics of the immigration bill say it will facilitate the detention and deportation of refugees. Hong Kong approves only about 1% of refugee claims, one of the lowest rates in the world, and there is a long delay. Refugees are unable to work while their applications are being processed and live in often miserable conditions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism