Sinlung /
29 April 2021

Hong Kong Passes Law That Can Stop People Leaving

Bar association and activists decry Beijing-type immigration act with ‘exit ban’ powers

people waving goodbye at Hong Kong airport
There are fears that Hong Kong’s new law, which sailed through the legislature, gives the government unfettered powers on who comes in and out the territory. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Hong Kong has passed a new immigration law that includes powers to stop people entering or leaving the city, raising fears of Chinese mainland-style “exit bans” in the international business hub.

The legislation sailed through a legislature now devoid of opposition, as Beijing has quashed dissent and sought to make the semi-autonomous city more like the authoritarian mainland after huge and often violent democracy protests.

Activists, lawyers and some business figures have sounded the alarm over provisions in the bill, including one allowing 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 bar association (HKBA) said the bill’s wording gave “apparently unfettered power” to the immigration director.

Labour activists and legal critics said the legislature had ignored concerns about the law’s broad wording, and they feared exit bans could now be used in Hong Kong. “When they have this power, absolute power, you don’t know who they will use it on,” said one barrister, Chow Hang-tung, from the pro-democracy Hong Kong Alliance.

Hong Kong’s government said the immigration bill was needed to address a backlog of non-refoulement claims and to screen migrants travelling illegally before they left for the city. The security bureau said the bill would only apply to flights into Hong Kong.

However, the wording of the bill does not limit the government’s powers to those arriving in the territory or to immigrants, and legal experts say it could also be used against people trying to leave Hong Kong.

“Exit bans” are often used in mainland China against activists who challenge the authorities, and have also affected business figures. One example is Richard O’Halloran, an Irish national who has been prevented from leaving Shanghai for two years because of a legal dispute involving the Chinese owner of the Dublin-based company he works for.

Under Beijing’s direction, Hong Kong’s government has become more authoritarian since the 2019 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 national security law on Hong Kong last year, arguing it was needed for a return to stability and would not affect freedoms. But its broad wording and subsequent application has criminalised much dissent and radically transformed a once politically pluralistic city. Many of Hong Kong’s prominent pro-democracy figures have been arrested, detained or have fled overseas.

The city’s formerly raucous legislature has been cleared of pro-democracy opponents, who resigned en masse late last year after three of their colleagues were disqualified for their political views. Since then, the government has fast-tracked a number of laws with limited scrutiny and dissent in the legislature.

Wednesday’s immigration bill received 39 votes in favour and two against. It was passed shortly after lawmakers approved a budget in record time, with just one dissenting vote.

Beijing has also announced a new plan – nicknamed “patriots rule Hong Kong” – to vet anyone standing for office and reduce the number of directly elected seats in the legislature to a small minority.

Critics of the immigration bill say it will make it easier to detain and deport refugees. Hong Kong approves only about 1% of refugee claims, one of the lowest rates in the world, and there is a huge backlog. Refugees are not able to work while their applications are being processed and live in often miserable conditions.


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