The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE
The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE

Hong Kong — Hong Kong’s government passed an immigration law that raises concern it could be used to prevent dissidents from leaving the city.

The bill passed on Wednesday allows the city’s immigration director to block an airline passenger or crew member from boarding a departing aircraft. The legislation, which takes effect on August 1, also expedites the handling of refugees, including speeding up the repatriation of claimants who have been rejected.

Several prominent prodemocracy activists and politicians have fled abroad from Hong Kong in recent months to escape the threat of prosecution. The city has a pursued a flood of criminal cases against dissidents, securing a 14-month prison sentence earlier this month against media tycoon Jimmy Lai for attending unauthorised protests.

The Hong Kong Bar Association expressed concern in February that the law could give “unfettered power” to impose a travel ban and called on the government to make clear that it would not apply to Hong Kong residents. The group said on Thursday it does not have anything to add to its earlier statements.

The government has dismissed the worries as “complete nonsense”, saying that the law is aimed at tackling a surge in refugee claims in recent years and denied it will have any impact on locals’ ability to come and go from the Asian financial centre.

The Civic Party said that it is “deeply shocked” that the law passed despite the public’s concerns.

The prodemocracy group said that if the legislation is intended to stem the flow of people to the city to claim refugee status, it should explicitly limit the government’s powers to arriving flights “to avoid the possibility the authorities expand their power to prohibit Hong Kong people from leaving in the future”.

Lawyer Michael Vidler of Vidler & Co Solicitors said the lack of debate before the law’s passage has fed suspicions about how it will be used. “Any legislation which has been pushed through without there being proper consultation or consideration and review in light of the input by civil society is usually going to be problematic,” he said.

The US state department says in a travel advisory for China that the country uses “exit bans on US citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law”. Two Australian journalists fled China last year after saying they had been initially banned from leaving.

Beijing has tightened its political grip over Hong Kong after historic and sometimes violent protests in 2019 through measures including the imposition of a national security law last year.

Former Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui is among the people to flee clampdown, and last month arrived in Australia. He had gone to Europe while on bail for criminal charges and then travelled to the UK.

A group of 12 Hong Kong activists was caught in August last year by the Chinese coast guard as they tried to run to democratically ruled Taiwan by speedboat. Before the voyage, 10 had been charged by Hong Kong authorities for their involvement in the demonstrations.

• Bloomberg News. For more articles like this, please visit bloomberg.com

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