Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in self-imposed exile have urged the US Congress to adopt urgent “life boat measures” that would give Hongkongers refugee status, before the city’s amended Immigration Ordinance — which allows for a ban on people leaving the city — kicks in on August 1.

US Congress
Rear of U.S. Congress on the Capitol reflecting pool. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In a letter obtained by HKFP they make a public plea for members of Congress to pass legislations before they retire for the summer recess to allow Hongkongers fearing persecution to apply for extended stay in the US.

Such legislation could provide “Priority 2 Refugee status” to those who protested peacefully and have a well-founded fear of persecution, the letter read. “Priority 2” is one of the US’s three admissions priorities, meant for groups of special humanitarian concern to the US, who are designated for resettlement and are given direct access to the country’s refugee system.

The letter also called for “Temporary Protection Status” for those already in the US but at risk of persecution, and extended visa permits that will allow high-skilled Hongkongers to remain in the country.

The letter, first reported by Politico, was co-signed by seven activists including Baggio Leung, who is now in the US, and Ted Hui, who fled to Australia, as well as 18 Hong Kong pro-democracy organisations based overseas, such as Hong Kong Watch.

Time running out

“While we have been lucky to receive asylum, refuge, and protection in Western countries, many of our friends, family, and colleagues have not,” their letter read. “We fear that time is running out for the United States to adopt effective lifeboat measures to help them, with Beijing’s new immigration powers due to come into force on August 1st.”

September 29, 2019 anti-totalitarian march protest US flag
Hong Kong protesters wave US flags at a march in opposition to totalitarianism on September 29, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The Immigration (Amendment) Bill 2020 will empower the government to bar a passenger or a member of a crew from boarding a transportation carrier to enter or leave the territory.

The government, however, previously said the bill’s main objective was to improve the city’s asylum application procedures and clear its backlog on the claims, through added restrictions to the procedures and easier enforcement of deportations.

The amendments will also require airlines to submit details of its aircrew and passengers ahead of arrival to align with international standards, the government said.

But even if the US legislation is expedited, Jennifer Quigley, senior director of governmental affairs at Human Rights First, told Politico that “[i]t would take months and months if not years” for refugee status approvals to come through.

Baggio Leung and Ted Hui
Baggio Leung (left) and Ted Hui (right). Photo: HKFP.

The activists’ letter echoes the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act 2021 and the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act 2021, both of which seek to facilitate giving Hongkongers asylum after they participated in pro-democracy protests in 2019.

A co-sponsor for the Safe Harbor Act Senator, John Cornyn, told Politico that the bill will ensure Hongkongers can seek asylum via the US consulate in Hong Kong, or in nearby regions.

The Freedom and Choice Act, meanwhile, includes sections that create visas for high-skilled, US-graduated Hongkongers, as well as those holding over US$5 million in assets or are owners of companies with over 50 employees.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, a spokesperson from the Security Bureau said: “[S]ubsidiary legislation to be made will state clearly that the power to direct a carrier not to carry a particular person will only apply to flights heading to Hong Kong.  We strongly object and condemn some media’s repeated attempts to smear the Amendment Ordinance by making wild and baseless claims that it will allow the [Immigration Department] to prevent people from leaving Hong Kong.  We would like to put the record straight that the allegation is totally unfounded.”

“The HKSAR Government will hold all fugitive offenders criminally responsible and make them face the sanctions of the law,” the spokesperson said. “We strongly object to jurisdictions harbouring criminal fugitives, and urge foreign politicians to stop interfering in the affairs of the HKSAR.”

Correction 24.07.2021: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Human Rights Watch as one of the co-signatories. It should be Hong Kong Watch.

Update 29.07.2021: This story has been updated with comments from the Security Bureau.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.