More Hongkongers are seeking asylum abroad this year following months of social unrest and the imposition of a controversial national security law, with Australia and Canada emerging as the top destinations for those fleeing the city.
As of September, 136 asylum seekers had headed to Australia, up from about 120 last year, and about 50 in 2018. Canada, meanwhile, had seen 25 Hongkongers seeking refugee status as of June, up from nine last year, and two in 2018.
There were also small numbers of applications for asylum in Britain, Germany and New Zealand, with each locale similarly registering an upwards trend.
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A total of 181 Hongkongers have applied for asylum in the five countries this year, checks by the Post found, up from 141 last year, and 62 in 2018.
Many of those fleeing abroad are believed to be linked to last year’s anti-government protests, which began in opposition to a deeply unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but soon expanded into a broader, increasingly violent movement calling for greater police accountability and universal suffrage.
At least five activists who had called for foreign sanctions against the Chinese authorities or advocated independence for Hong Kong have fled the city, either just before or just after Beijing imposed the new security law on June 30 seen as criminalising such actions.
Several hundred activists, including some arrested during last year’s protests, were also reported to have made their way to places such as Taiwan and Britain through both lawful and unlawful means.
Scholars in Hong Kong, however, were divided on the significance of the increase in those seeking asylum elsewhere.
“The message is rather clear – they do not have any confidence in the Hong Kong legal system anymore,” said Dr Wilson Chan Wai-shun, a global studies lecturer at Chinese University.
“It is indeed a kind of blow to the well-recognised judicial system in Hong Kong, as the usual rule of granting asylum and eventual refugee status for Western societies is that there must be a profound fear or threat to personal freedom owing to a racial difference, [or a difference of] political or social opinion.”
But Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said those who fled were merely trying to avoid going to jail over their actions during the protests.
“They did not expect to get caught right from the very beginning,” he said. “After fleeing Hong Kong, they will not be able to come back or visit China permanently, unless they are willing to face even stiffer sentences.”
It is not currently known how many of those who fled have succeeded in their applications, how long the process takes in each country, or whether any jurisdictions will fast-track their claims.
Earlier this month, a married couple in their early 30s who left at the height of the protests last year revealed they had been accepted by Canada as refugees.
Last week, it also emerged that a 22-year-old Chinese University student who faced a rioting charge over the unrest had been granted asylum in Germany.
The move prompted Hong Kong’s deputy leader, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, to summon Germany’s consul general, Dieter Lamle, to formally object, saying the country’s action had sent “a plainly wrong message to criminals that they need not face any criminal liability”.
Germany saw only one asylum application from Hong Kong in 2018, and another one last year. This year, two applications had been filed there as of the end of September.
Ray Wong Toi-yeung, formerly a leader of the pro-independence group Hong Kong Indigenous, said it took him seven months to secure refugee status in Germany two years ago, while it took the Chinese University student 11 months.
“The biggest difficulty throughout the process is that you have to live in a refugee camp,” he said. “The camps are remotely located and house people from different countries. There are cultural differences, and sometimes you feel isolated.”
Figures from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs showed the number of Hongkongers who lodged claims for permanent protection had climbed into double digits since September of 2019, when the city’s protests were escalating and violent clashes between radicals and police were becoming increasingly common.
Dennis Chan, a spokesman for the Australia-Hong Kong Link, which lobbies in Australia for democratic development in Hong Kong, said he had noticed a surge in asylum applications since the beginning of this year.
But he noted it might be difficult for Hongkongers to obtain asylum now, as Australia had closed its borders because of the coronavirus pandemic, and mainly accepted applications from people already within the country.
Canberra might also impose a relatively stricter evaluation of Hong Kong applicants, as the city was regarded by foreign governments as a prosperous one and less likely to be a source of refugees, Chan said.
In Britain, meanwhile, the number of Hongkongers applying for asylum rose from eight in 2018 to 13 last year. There were already 14 applicants as of June this year, including two minors.
New Zealand recorded one Hongkonger seeking asylum in 2018, two last year and three so far in 2020.
Dr Simon Shen Xu-hui, an international relations expert from Chinese University, said that since Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, most Western countries had begun equating the city with places such as Tibet and Xinjiang, where China is accused of violated human rights.
He said when individuals fled, it reflected that they either believed they faced a real danger or had lost hope.
Shen felt the sweeping security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, had created “a strong sense of hopelessness” among Hongkongers.
He expected the trend of those seeking asylum to continue, but noted other groups might also opt for “de facto asylum” by taking advantage of easier immigration schemes being offered to Hongkongers by some countries.
Last Thursday, Britain announced it would create a special class of visa in January for Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports and their close family members as a first step towards earning the right to live there and, eventually, full citizenship.
In July, Australia opened up 10,000 student and temporary visas to Hongkongers as a pathway to permanent residency.
Wong said he expected more Hongkongers hoping to leave would take the emigration route rather than seeking asylum, now that more countries had rolled out “lifeboat” schemes for them.
Haven Assistance, a group he co-founded with other exiled dissidents, was also lobbying officials and politicians in different countries to fast-track Hongkongers’ asylum applications, he added.
The United States, which did not separate Hong Kong figures from China in terms of asylum applications, for the first time included the city in its annual refugee quota proposal last month, further drawing the ire of Beijing.
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