War-torn Syria is among a list of countries which are part of a Belt and Road initiative youth exchange funding scheme announced by the government. According to details released on Monday, young Hongkongers may receive grants to tour the Middle Eastern country despite the Security Bureau warning against “all travel” to the state which remains embroiled in a bloody civil war.

The Home Affairs Bureau and the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education on Monday launched the pilot Funding Scheme for Exchange in Belt and Road Countries to support registered non-profit making organisations or statutory bodies to organise, on a matching grant basis, exchange programmes in the Belt and Road countries for Hong Kong youth.

The scheme provides funding support for young people aged 15 to 29 in Hong Kong to take part in one-way, two-way or multi-way exchange activities with youth in the Belt and Road countries, “with a view to achieving the objective of people-to-people bonds.”

HK$680 Syria grants

The scheme includes every country in the Middle East, including Syria, where participants can receive a maximum grant of HK$680 per day.

The country has been at civil war since 2011. The Security Bureau issued a black outbound travel alert in April of that year, suggesting Hongkongers avoid all travel due to severe threats against travellers. Travel insurance may not be honoured for trips to countries where such alerts are in place.

“Ongoing violent clashes and explosions occurred in many cities across the country, including Damascus and its suburbs, resulting in serious casualties,” the Security Bureau states on its website. “Residents are urged to avoid all travel to the country.”

The militant group Daesh operates in Syria as well as Iraq, another country listed in the scheme.

A banner for the scheme. Photo: Gov HK.

The bureau has also issued red outbound travel alerts on four other countries included in the programme.

It urged the public to adjust travel plans and avoid nonessential travel to Egypt, Lebanon and Pakistan, listing suicide bombings as a threat. Nepal remains on the red alert list as a powerful earthquake shook the capital Kathmandu last year.

Bahrain, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam are also included in the scheme. Each are under yellow outbound travel alerts which advise travellers to monitor the situation and exercise caution.

Afghanistan is not under any outbound travel alert, but parts of the war-torn country are still controlled by the Taliban. Meanwhile, armed conflicts are still ongoing in eastern parts of Ukraine.

A Belt and Road map and list of countries included in the scheme. Photo: Gov HK.

According to the assessment criteria of the scheme, any project seeking funding support must be non-profit-making and the proposal must not include political, religious or commercial publicity for an individual or an organisation. Priority will be given to exchange tours to Belt and Road countries.

Applicant organisations must have organised no less than one exchange tour overseas, or to the mainland, in each of the past three years.

Sums of HK$100,000 to $300,000 are available for each project. The scheme is now accepting applications and the deadline is May 16.

Photo: HKFP.

The Belt and Road Initiative was a major focus for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy address in January. He mentioned Belt and Road more than 40 times during the address, and suggested that local students would be encouraged to go to Belt and Road countries for exchange programmes.

The Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education was set up in 1986 to liaise with related government departments and community organisations in promoting civic education outside of schools, and encourage all sectors of the community to actively promote civic awareness and assume civic responsibility. Members of the committee are appointed by the Secretary for Home Affairs.

HKFP has reached out to the Home Affairs Bureau and the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education for comment.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.