The Hong Kong Immigration Department has hit back at what it called arbitrary criticism in a government audit report, after the department was urged to improve the way it investigates cases of bogus marriage.

The Audit Commission on Wednesday released a report into the government’s management of birth, death and marriage issues. It looked into how the immigration authorities handled non-local residents who tried to obtain residence status or services in Hong Kong through marriage.

Immigration Tower. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

The report urged the Immigration Department to step up efforts to locate suspects in sham marriage cases, citing a case in 2012 that involved a Hong Kong man and two women from mainland China.

The probe found that actions by the department to locate the male suspect were all “in vain,” including conducting five home visits in 2013. Although the special task force managed to contact the man by phone three times that year, he never attended scheduled interviews with the authorities.

It was not until early 2019 that the Immigration Department conducted a case update and found that the suspect had died in January that year.

“In Audit’s view, ImmD should review this case and draw lessons to step up efforts in locating suspects of bogus marriage cases in future,” the report read.

A couple getting married in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

In response, the Immigration Department on Wednesday night expressed “deep regrets” at the audit’s findings and recommendation. It said its officers had conducted many surprise home visits but to no avail. Officers also put the suspect’s information into their database.

The man, however, never used any service provided by the immigration department and the department eventually found his name on the Registry of Deaths.

Each bogus marriage case was unique, the immigration department said, adding its inspectors would use different investigation methods and “spare no effort” in tackling crimes linked to sham marriages.

“Regarding some people who don’t know about criminal investigation and arbitrarily criticise case handling methods of law enforcement units, [which] seriously damaged the professional image of the Immigration Department, the department expresses deep regrets,” a statement read.

Director of Audit John Chu. Photo: GovHK.

It is rare for a government department to respond to an Audit Commission report in such strong terms. Its mission, as stated on its website, isto provide independent, professional and quality audit services in order to help the Government and public sector organisations enhance public sector performance and accountability in Hong Kong.”

Responding to media enquiries, the commission said they would not comment in public on matters related to their reports. It cited a set of requirements set out in a government financial circular, which stipulated that debates on issues to be further investigated should be “avoided by both sides as far as possible.”

“To this end, Heads of the bureaux, departments and/or public organisations involved and their staff should refrain from initiating any publicity to counter the Audit findings,” the circular read.

The audit probe found that there were 2,609 outstanding cases of suspected sham marriages. Among the 2,237 cases handled by the immigration’s special task force, almost half had been outstanding for at least two years.

The Audit Commission said that while the Immigration Department had tried to clear the backlog, it should still “expedite actions” and concentrate on clearing old cases.

It also suggested the department step up checking of suspected bogus marriage cases, consider setting a deadline for opening “normal” suspected cases and conduct frequent checks on field operations.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.