The government has proposed amending the law to increase penalties against those found to be smuggling people into Hong Kong from various South Asian countries. It denied that it was smearing asylum seekers or had used the term “fake refugees”.

The move came just a day after over 90 organisations and 70 individuals released a joint statement through NGO Justice Centre, calling for the Hong Kong community and government to work together to end discrimination towards refugees.

At a Legislative Council Security for Panel meeting on Tuesday, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said that the number of non-Chinese unauthorised entrants to Hong Kong now stood at almost 420 a month – a sixfold increase since 2011. “They make non-refoulement claims, and the situation of them committing crimes is worsening, which disrupts public and social order,” Lai said.

Lai Tung Kwok Legco
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok. File Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Lai said that the government is planning to amend the definition of unauthorised entrants under the Immigration Ordinance so that those smuggling people from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal would face harsher penalties. Following the amendments, those found to be smuggling people into the territory could face up to 14 years in prison and a fine of HK$5 million.

Under the current laws, unless the smugglers are from mainland China, Vietnam or Macau, they may only be charged with assisting others to enter illegally, which carries a sentence of three years in prison and HK$25,000 fine. However, Lai said this was insufficient to deter smugglers.

Lai added that it was important to tackle the problem at its source when carrying out a comprehensive review of the non-refoulement claims policy. The amendments are scheduled to be submitted to the Legislative Council in May.

Chan Kam-lam
Chan Kam-lam. Photo: LegCo screenshot.

Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung was concerned that the amendment would affect non-refoulement claims made by those who were from the relevant countries, RTHK reported. Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo said that the government and the pro-establishment camp were working together to create a “fake refugee” problem and that the government has a duty to explain its actions to the international community.

fake refugee DAB
A DAB campaign on the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui last Friday. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Pro-Beijing DAB lawmaker Chan Kam-lam said that illegal entrants had affected public order, and that organisations which were petitioning against the smearing of asylum seekers were eager to see chaos in society. Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun suggested that building closed camps could decrease the allure of coming to Hong Kong.

hong kong refugees
Photo: HKFP.

Lai said that the government did not use terms such as “fake refugees” and denied smearing non-refoulement claimants. He said that those non-refoulement claims would be dealt with in accordance with the law and that they would not be affected by the amendment. He also said there were complicated legal and resource-allocation issues that came with building camps and the government will keep an open mind towards different suggestions, Commercial Radio reported.

On Tuesday, non-official member of Executive Council Anna Wu Hung-yuk said that she did not think the government should withdraw from the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Speaking to reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, she said that the number of refugees in Hong Kong was not at a level such that it was out of control, Ming Pao reported.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.