Hong Kong passes immigration bill with 'exit ban' powers

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Hong Kong passed a new immigration law on Wednesday that includes powers to stop people entering or leaving the city, raising fears Chinese mainland style "exit bans" could be deployed in the international business hub.

The legislation sailed through the city's legislature which is now devoid of opposition as Beijing seeks to quash dissent and make the semi-autonomous city more like the authoritarian mainland following huge and often violent democracy protests.

Activists, lawyers and some business figures have sounded the alarm over various provisions within the bill, including one that allows the city's immigration chief to bar people from boarding planes to and from the city.

No court order is required and there is no recourse to appeal.

The city's influential Bar Association (HKBA) warned the bill's wording gave "apparently unfettered power" to the immigration director.

"If a new power to prevent Hong Kong residents and others from leaving the region is to be conferred... It should be for the courts, not the director, to decide when it is necessary and proportionate to impose a travel ban," HKBA said in a February submission.

So-called "exit bans" are often used in mainland China against activists who challenge authorities. Opponents fear the same tactic could now be employed in Hong Kong.

"We have seen China's practice to suppress dissidents and human rights lawyers via restrictions on their movements in and out of the country," said barrister Chow Hang-tung, from the pro-democracy Hong Kong Alliance.

Exit bans in China have also impacted business figures.

One recent example is Richard O'Halloran, an Irishman who has been unable to leave China for more than two years after becoming involved in a legal dispute involving the Chinese owner of a Dublin-based company for which he works.

Hong Kong's government said the new bill was needed to address a backlog of non-refoulement claims and to screen illegal immigrants before they depart for the city.

"It will only apply to flights heading to Hong Kong," the Security Bureau said in a recent statement.

However the wording of the bill does not limit the power to arriving flights and legal analysts fear it could also be deployed against people leaving Hong Kong.

"The government is using the refugee issue as an excuse to expand their power," Chow said.

Under Beijing's direction, Hong Kong's government has swung more authoritarian since 2019's huge protests.

Faith in official assurances that the city is not becoming like the mainland has been rattled by the recent crackdown.

Beijing imposed a sweeping new national security on Hong Kong last year, arguing it was needed to return stability.

At the time Hong Kong's government said the law would not impact people's rights and freedoms.

But its broad wording and application has since criminalised much dissent and radically transformed the once politically pluralistic city.