After August 1, Officials in Hong Kong Could Bar Anyone from Leaving the City

March 17, 2021

A proposed amendment to Hong Kong’s immigration law gives “extraordinary power” to Hong Kong officials to prohibit anyone from leaving the city, including foreigners. It raises the concern that the government is instituting a de facto exit ban on its residents.

Photo: International coverage on the proposed amendments.

Why it matters: Implementation of the amended law could render irrelevant the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act by preventing activists from leaving. Residents of other nationalities could risk being barred from leaving as well.

⬇ 2 min. read

How urgent is this?  Critical. Without any possible opposition in HK’s Legislative Council, the draft amendment is already read thrice. It will be brought to the main chamber for a vote. The Security Bureau also wanted to enact the amendments by Aug 1, 2021.

What are the experts saying:

  • The Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) noted that while the bill is aimed to address non-refoulement claims (HK’s version of asylum applications), the way it is written “authorises the Director [of Immigration] to prohibit any person, including Hong Kong residents, from leaving Hong Kong.
  • Furthermore, HKBA  raised the alarm that the bill “does not set out the grounds on which the Director would be permitted to exercise this extraordinary power. Nor does it provide any safeguards against abuse.
  • HKBA: With existing restrictions in place to prevent a person from leaving Hong Kong with respect to national security, public order, and public health the proposed bill “does not identify any reason for the extraordinary power” to impose a travel ban.
  • And: The power to decide whether or not it is “necessary and proportionate” to impose a travel ban should be “vested in the Courts, not the executive”.  The proposed bill lacks “sufficient precision” and its provision to vest the “general discretionary power” in immigration officials “will not meet the constitutional standard” when it comes to restrictions on fundamental rights.

The other side:

The bigger picture: With China tightening its grips on Hong Kong, the city’s residents are actively looking for ways of exit. Non-residents are also affected. CNN wrote that “Westerners are increasingly scared of traveling to China as threat of detention rises”; UC Irvine professor Jeff Wasserstrom explained his fear, “I used to assume that if I couldn't go to the mainland, I would just go to Hong Kong more often. Now I feel that actually Hong Kong isn't safe, either."

The unusual scrutiny at border crossing, towards residents and foreigners alike -- and including the use of hostage diplomacy -- is a continuation of Beijing’s relentless and intolerant attitude towards people they consider “trouble makers”.

What can the US do?  Time is of essence. Congress should fast-track the bipartisan S.295 | H.R.461 Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which seeks to designate as Priority 2 refugees those Hongkongers who were 2019 & 2020’s active protesters The bill should be signed into law well ahead of the August 1 date to avoid it being made irrelevant for the intended beneficiaries in Hong Kong.