The Canadian government is rolling out three new streams of measures to help Hong Kong residents come to Canada, and stressing no one charged under the widely condemned national security law imposed by China or similar contentious laws will be barred from coming to Canada.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino made the announcement on Thursday as the remaining pro-democracy lawmakers in the former British colony prepare to resign en masse over new crackdowns that they say sound the “death knell” for democracy there.
“No one will be disqualified from making a legitimate asylum claim in Canada by sole virtue of having been charged under the new national security law,” he told journalists, noting crimes that would not be recognized under Canadian law won’t be a barrier.
“We see a silver lining — a silver lining for young Hong Kongers.”
The new measures announced target young, educated Hong Kongers and were billed as part of the government’s plan to increase skilled immigration to fill jobs in key sectors including healthcare and technology.
The first avenue will see quick, open work permits issued for three years for Hong Kongers who have graduated from either a recognized Canadian or overseas post-secondary institution in the last five years. If approved, their spouse or partner as well as children can also apply to come with them.
The second avenue is the creation of two new pathways toward permanent residency.
One will be for Hong Kong residents living in Canada who have graduated within the last three years from a “recognized Canadian learning institution” and have completed at last of their courses in Canada.
The other permanent residency stream will target Hong Kong residents in Canada who graduated from either a “recognized Canadian learning institution” or an overseas post-graduate program, and have spent one year working in Canada in the last five years.
The final avenue announced makes two procedural changes to existing asylum laws.
One waives the one-year waiting period for a failed asylum applicant from Hong Kong to apply for another assessment of their claim.
The other makes it clear no charges laid under the national security law or against pro-democracy protestors in massive protests against the Chinese regime dating back to last summer will be considered legitimate grounds for disqualifying applicants without other charges that are recognized in Canada.
Raquel Dancho, Conservative immigration critic, said the measures don’t go far enough.
“Conservatives have called on the Trudeau government to put in place a clear, expedited path for pro-democracy protestors and political refugees fleeing Hong Kong for Canada, to make it clear that only the Canadian government will determine who does and does not get admitted to this country,” she said.
“It is clear the Trudeau Liberals have failed to stand up to China’s Communist regime. Canada needs to do more than offer Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists an economic immigration system crippled by years-long backlogs and beset by ongoing delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, threatened the Canadian government last month against granting asylum to pro-democracy protestors from Hong Kong, billing them as “violent criminals.”
He then proceeded to suggest the 300,000 Canadian passport holders living in Hong Kong could be at risk if Canada were to do so.
While the new measures do not specifically expand asylum opportunities for Hong Kongers, they do make it clear the Canadian government is working to ensure charges targeting political opponents of the Chinese regime are not a factor in processing asylum claims.
Mendicino would not say whether he believes Canadians living in Hong Kong are at an increased risk of arbitrary detention by authorities there than they were before the announcement, but noted the government is “gravely concerned” about the situation on the ground.
Jeff Nankivell, Canada’s consul general to Hong Kong, told the special Canada-China relations committee earlier this month that Canadian businesses and citizens choosing to remain in Hong Kong must understand there are new risks to doing so.
“I spend a lot of time talking about our concerns with the national security law and the risks,” he said.
“When we talk to audiences in Canada about Hong Kong, it’s our responsibility to give an accurate picture … we are giving what we hope is an accurate representation.”
“We have warned Canadian businesses that there are new risks since the national security law came in.”
Beijing has repeatedly shown over the last year that it has no intention of observing the legally binding treaty that transferred control of Hong Kong to China from the U.K. in 1997. Under that agreement, Hong Kong residents were to retain their civil rights, including freedom of expression and democracy.
Yet Western countries including Canada have done little to punish China for breaking the treaty.
While the Canadian government has issued condemnation after condemnation, it has repeatedly refused to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for the imposition of what they bill as a national security law granting broad powers to stifle opposition voices and criminalize dissent, even from abroad.
Canada has instead frozen its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and stopped allowing the export of sensitive technologies to the region, noting the new law effectively means such extradition or export requests must be treated as if they were coming from the Chinese regime itself.
Members of Parliament on the Canada-China relations committee have heard repeated testimony from witnesses on the need to speed up asylum processing to get activists out of Hong Kong, and the need for Canada to take strong action against China for breaking a binding international treaty.
The committee has also had testimony about the challenges facing many in Hong Kong who are looking to flee the crackdown there given many countries have imposed strict immigration restrictions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Canada, for example, has banned foreign nationals entering on non-essential business.
In order to claim asylum, a person needs to be able to get to the country where they are claiming that.
Financial costs have also been repeatedly cited as a steep barrier for Hong Kongers who are not wealthy.
Mendicino said in the House of Commons last month that the Liberals have imposed sanctions on China over Hong Kong, which does not appear to be entirely accurate.
According to Global Affairs Canada, “Canadian sanctions are imposed under the United Nations Act (UNA), the Special Economic Measures Act (SEMA) or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act” and China is not on the government’s list of sanctioned countries under those laws.
As well, while Global Affairs Canada describes export controls such as those banning the transfer of military technology to Hong Kong as “related measures” but sanctions themselves.
In fact, the government’s list of countries subject to export and import restrictions under sanctions legislation does not include either China or Hong Kong, nor does the section on financial prohibitions.