Activists fear Hong Kong’s immigration bill allows arbitrary travel bans By Reuters

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By Pak Yiu HONG KONG (Reuters) – An immigration bill on Hong Kong’s legislative agenda for Wednesday would give authorities virtually unlimited powers to prevent residents and others from entering or leaving the former British colony, they say. lawyers, diplomats and human rights groups. The government says the bill simply aims to detect illegal immigrants at the source amid a backlog of asylum applications, and does not affect movement rights. But lawyers say it allows authorities to bar anyone, without a warrant, from entering or leaving Hong Kong and does not prevent indefinite detention of refugees. The government, which has pushed Hong Kong down an increasingly authoritarian path since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, faces no official opposition after Democratic lawmakers resigned en masse last year in protest of the disqualification. from your colleagues. Most of the prominent politicians and democratic activists are in jail, charged under security law or for other reasons, or in exile. Western countries, in response, have relaxed immigration rules for Hong Kong residents and granted political asylum to various activists. Lawyers and human rights groups say the immigration bill gives authorities unlimited powers to impose “exit bans” like those used by mainland China. Beijing denies allegations that the bans are a form of arbitrary detention. “EXPANDING POWER” “We have seen the way China has restricted the movement of people within and outside the country, repressing activists and lawyers,” said Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer who is vice president of the Hong Kong Alliance , which defends democratic causes. . “They say that refugees are a target, but they are expanding their power throughout Hong Kong.” Authorities in the United States and Europe have long required carriers to provide them with detailed information about passengers and crew before the trip, under an international convention, and Hong Kong says it is simply doing the same. European Union directives, for example, specifically state that authorities cannot use data to deny entry for any reason other than “to prevent, detect, investigate and prosecute terrorist offenses or serious crimes.” They also state that any decision to restrict movement “shall not be based on any circumstance on race or ethnic origin, political opinions, religion or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, health, sex life or sexual orientation.” The Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) said in February that the Hong Kong bill, by contrast, confers “seemingly unlimited power” on the director of immigration “to prevent Hong Kong residents and others from leaving Hong Kong. Kong “. He said the bill offered no explanation as to why such power was necessary or how it would be used, or any limits on the duration of a travel ban, or any safeguards against abuse. The Security Office said the law would apply only to incoming flights and will target illegal immigrants, expressing disappointment at the “unnecessary misunderstanding” caused by the HKBA. In response, HKBA urged the government to clarify the limits of the bill. But last week, the Office said that freedom to travel was guaranteed by the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law and its Bill of Rights, and this made it unnecessary to specify in the bill that those rights would not be affected. . “HOSTILE RHETORIC” HKBA declined to comment further. The Security Bureau referred Reuters to a statement last Friday that described the idea that the bill would deprive residents of travel rights as “complete nonsense.” He said some organizations “have been trying to spread rumors with hostile and emotional rhetoric, misleading the public with malicious intent and creating conflict in society.” Attorney Senia Ng said the concerns about the bill were real and substantial because there was no specific wording to limit its scope. Asian and Western envoys fear that their citizens may be affected. “There is a deepening sense that something longer term could be at work here and we are watching closely,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. If passed, potentially as early as Wednesday, the bill could go into effect on August 1. Activists also say the bill raises concerns about the rights and well-being of refugees. Among the changes, it allows immigration officers to carry weapons and, in some cases, requires asylum seekers to communicate in a language other than their mother tongue. The government says there are currently 13,000 claimants in Hong Kong and that the bill aims to address the backlog. The selection process can take years and the success rate for applicants is 1%. During that period, it is illegal for asylum seekers to work or volunteer, and they live in limbo, on food stamps. Currently, asylum seekers can only be detained for breaking the law or for deportation, and then for a period “that is reasonable in all circumstances.” The bill removes the phrase “in all circumstances”, which according to human rights groups allows refugees considered a security risk to be detained indefinitely. The law does not state what constitutes such a risk. “Even under the existing detention system, there are already many unsolved problems, such as allegations of abuse,” said Rachel Li, a policy officer with the rights group Justice Center. “The bill does not comply with customary law principles and international best practices.”