Hongkongers in Exile Seek Political Asylum Amid National Security Crackdown at Home

2020-12-10
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Hongkongers in Exile Seek Political Asylum Amid National Security Crackdown at Home UN High Commissioner for Refugees Michelle Bachelet speaks to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 9, 2020.
AFP


Pro-democracy activists who have fled Hong Kong amid a city-wide crackdown on peaceful dissent, political participation, and civil liberties say there is a growing need among the city's seven million residents for welcoming immigration policies, including political asylum for those fleeing political persecution in the wake of recent protests.

On the eve of Human Rights Day 2020 on Thursday, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned that a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1 was having a "chilling effect" on the city.

"I am concerned about the rapidly shrinking civic and democratic space, especially since the passage of the national security law," Bachelet told reporters in Geneva.

She said a string of political prosecutions in recent months "risk causing a wider chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms."

"We believe that peaceful protest should never be criminalized," Bachelet said, in reference to a slew of recent convictions of activists using "illegal assembly" and national security charges.

Ah Y, 18, was sent to live in the U.S. by his family in May, as soon as he graduated high school, skipping bail following his arrest for taking part in last year's protest movement for fully democratic elections and against the CCP's denial of the city's promised freedoms.

"I thought it was best for me to leave Hong Kong, for myself, but it's as if I'm now the bad guy," he told RFA in a recent interview.

"I really miss Hong Kong. I miss my family, I miss my friends," he said. "I can see that there are still protests in Hong Kong, but I can't take part."

"Sometimes I feel a bit useless," Ah Y said.

Added to the massive emotional cost of exile, Ah Y is still unable to work for a living, as he entered the U.S. on a tourist visa.

'I can breathe free air'

Lau Hung, who fled to the U.K. at the age of 19 in late June, just before the national security law took effect, and is currently on the wanted list of the newly minted national security police in Hong Kong.  

"It's really obvious that if I hadn't left when I did, I would have been persecuted by this awful Hong Kong government, which could mean being arrested, charged, and imprisoned," Lau told RFA.

"In the UK, I can breathe free air, I can enjoy freedom of speech, and I can express my political views freely," said Lau, who was arrested for possession of an unassembled air pistol near Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) as protesters gathered to oppose plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to allow the rendition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.

"Hong Kong is my home and I will never forget my home," he said. "I will carry on fighting for the freedom of the Hong Kong people."

Home Secretary Priti Patel met with Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law in London on Wednesday, Law's first meeting with a U.K. minister since he arrived in Britain in July.

"The United Kingdom will stand by the people of Hong Kong and keep our promise to protect and uphold their freedoms,” Patel said in a statement accompanied by an image of the roundtable meeting.

The U.K. says Beijing has repeatedly broken a 1984 treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, undermining the city's promised freedoms and political autonomy by expelling pro-democracy members from the legislature, and says it has opened up a pathway to residency and eventual citizenship for around three million Hongkongers who hold the British National Overseas (BNO) passport.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said the U.K. seems to want to publicly recognize the seriousness of the human rights situation in Hong Kong.

Current affairs commentator Lau Yui-siu analyzed that the U.K. has deliberately put up a high profile in response to the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong.

"The most important thing is that they believe that the issues surrounding democracy, freedom, and rule of law in Hong Kong are of international concern," Lau said.

"The last time [Nathan Law] met Pompeo, the situation in China and the United States was very different from what it is now. Since then, Beijing's crackdown on human rights in Hong Kong has intensified, with arbitrary arrests and charges being made."

Simon Cheng was granted political asylum in the U.K. in June, a few days before the national security law took effect.

A grueling process

A former employee of the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, Cheng was detained by China's state security police at Hong Kong's West Kowloon Railway station, then taken back to Shenzhen where he was tortured and interrogated for 15 days under "administrative detention."

Cheng described a fairly grueling asylum application process, involving two interviews of four hours and then eight hours in length.

"It meant a lot to me to be able to have my case categorized as politically motivated persecution," Cheng told RFA. "I wanted to do it, so as to influence the British Home Office's understanding of the human rights situation in Hong Kong."

Since the launch of the residency scheme for Hongkongers holding the BNO passport, the Home Office has been contacting Hong Kong asylum-seekers suggesting that they withdraw their applications and use the BNO scheme instead, Cheng said.

He said the asylum process had a less certain outcome than the BNO scheme, but that Hongkongers without the passport or without the means to support themselves on arriving in the U.K. would likely still need to seek asylum.

Former protester and Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) student Elaine, 22, said the asylum process had also been a grueling one in Germany, where she fled last November around the time that riot police besieged the CUHK campus, firing 1,000 rounds of tear gas in a course of a single day.

"I have stayed in three refugee camps," Elaine told RFA. "The first one was a reception center where you had to register for various statuses; the second one housed asylum-seekers during their applications; and the third was where you went to wait for the results."

"The first two camps were in remote areas of the countryside, about an hour outside the city center," she said. "Sometimes the police would come [into the camps] and arrest people for stealing."

She said her experience was mixed, but that Germany generally had higher standards of assistance for refugees than some destinations.

"There were good and bad things about it," Elaine said. "In other countries, you don't have to live in a refugee camp to apply for asylum, but you have to make your own arrangements for a lot of other things."

'I can't go back home'

Activist Wong Tai-yeung, who helped Elaine come to Germany, was himself granted political asylum by the German government in 2018, after fleeing Hong Kong in 2017.

"I can't go back to my home, I can't see my friends," Wong said. "I haven't seen my family since then; I haven't seen my mother for three years."

"With the passage of time, I have even come to miss the horribly humid weather in Hong Kong," he said. "For some reason I want to experience it again, the lack of space, the heat and humidity, how tiring it is."

The concepts of political asylum and refugee status date back to 1933, when five countries -- Belgium, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, and Norway -- signed a deal agreeing not to deny entry to and not to deport refugees from neighboring countries.

After World War II, attitudes toward asylum began to change, and it was no longer considered a discretionary duty, but rather a national obligation to provide asylum to stateless persons or those persecuted by their own country's government.

On July 28, 1951, the United Nations adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which entered into force on April 22, 1954, defining the definition of refugees, their eligibility and rights, and the responsibilities of the state providing asylum.

The Convention was designed to deal with refugees in Europe after World War II and did not apply to refugees outside the European region.

It wasn't until the United Nations adopted the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) on Nov. 18, 1966, that the definition of refugee status was extended to all nationalities.

The Protocol came into force on Oct. 4, 1967, and is still in force today.

Support from US Congress

On Dec. 7, the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Adam Kinzinger passed the House of Representatives.

The bill, intended "to protect Hongkongers facing persecution under the Chinese government’s tightening grip of repression," would, if it becomes law, provide refuge in the United States to Hong Kong residents targeted for exercising their democratic freedoms.

The measures would ensure temporary refuge to Hong Kongers already in the U.S. who fear persecution if forced to return, expedite asylum applications from Hongkongers fleeing persecution, and remove caps on refugee admissions.

"Welcoming Hong Kongers to the United States is more than a humanitarian gesture — it’s a message to the Chinese government that if you crush Hong Kong, you may lose the very people who most contribute to its vitality," Malinowski said in a statement.

"It’s about fighting a closed and fearful system with the openness and self-confidence of ours."

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told RFA it was unable to provide data on the number of Hong Kong residents who have applied for political asylum, however, as the immigration system classifies them as citizens of the People's Republic of China.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's 2019 annual report, the number of asylum applicants from China reached 9,640 in 2019, second only to Venezuela and Guatemala.

The success rate for Chinese applicants, including those from Hong Kong, was 77.5 percent, the report said.

Reported by Carmen Wu and Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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