On July 9, the federal government announced its safe haven scheme to allow Hongkongers currently in Australia to stay for five more years and offered a pathway to permanent residency.
The initiative was introduced after China imposed a controversial new national security law on the special administrative region, which came following months of anti-government protests.
The Morrison government enacted the Migration Amendment (Hong Kong Passport Holders) Regulations 2020 on August 21, which enforced the five-year extension on specified current and future temporary visas.
But, there is confusion among Hongkongers in Australia as the government is yet to announce details of the permanent residency pathway that would be available as early as 2025.
Despite the government’s initiative, the number of refugee and humanitarian visa applications lodged by Hong Kong residents is on track to surpass the record total set during the 2019-20 financial year.
According to information obtained by SBS Cantonese under the Freedom of Information Act, there have been 54 applications lodged during the first two months of the 2020-21 financial year, compared to just 14 during the same period last year.
The stats show there have been between 498 and 514 applications lodged for refugee visas between July 2010 to August 2020, with more than 40 per cent of them coming since the beginning of the last financial year.
There were spikes of 27 lodged applications in October 2019 and March 2020, while there were 17, 9, and up to 16 applications lodged in April, May, and June 2020, respectively.
The number reached a ten-year monthly high in July this year with 34 applications, while there were a further 20 applications submitted in August.
The figures suggest that Hongkongers may be opting to seek refuge immediately, instead of waiting for the federal government to announce further details regarding its pathway scheme.
‘Things might change’
Elvis* is a Hongkonger studying at an Australian university. He was recently charged by Hong Kong police with three offences, including rioting and unlawful assembly, after taking part in anti-government protests.
He told SBS Cantonese that he is now preparing to lodge a refugee visa onshore.
He said before the federal government announced details of the safe-haven scheme, he was hopeful that any new initiative would provide assistance, asylum, and permanent residency to those who participated on the “front-line” during the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement last year.
But despite his expectations, he feels the scheme only provides “ordinary” Hong Kong residents the option to migrate to Australia, which has left him “disappointed and bewildered”.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge in July reaffirmed that Hongkongers can apply for asylum at any time.
“Of course, they’re always eligible at any stage to apply for a humanitarian visa if they can prove that they would suffer persecution when they returned,” he said.
Elvis is eligible to apply for the five-year visa extension upon graduation and subsequently qualifies for the permanent residency pathway. But he is insistent on applying for a humanitarian visa instead, as he believes it is a “very long wait until permanent residency is an option” as part of the safe-haven promise.
He fears that “things might change” during the waiting period, especially as Australia looks to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
He said he’s worried that Australia would soon be more reliant on China to rebuild its economy and could consequently cause a “softening” of the program so to “befriend” Beijing.
“What if the bilateral relationship between China and Australia improves in five years? Would Australia change the scheme in any way? I don’t want to risk it,” he said.
He said many Hongkongers who took part in the anti-government protests feel a strong sense of helplessness and are “stuck in the middle” between powerful countries.
‘Lack of clarity’
Migration lawyer James Wardlaw, who is assisting Hongkongers apply for humanitarian visas, said the five-year safe haven extensions for certain visa holders were “a good start to provide some immediate relief” to people worried about returning to Hong Kong.
But he warned that the “lack of clarity” regarding the permanent residency pathway meant that those who fear for their safety now “could not simply wait for five years for a pathway that does not exist”.
“The major reason why people decided not to wait for other permanent visa options to be announced was that the Department of Home Affairs has traditionally been very critical of people delaying lodging a protection visa,” he said.
“For example, the department will often say if you did not apply for protection at the time you feared returning and do so two years later, this means that your evidence lacks credibility.
“We, as lawyers, often argue that people will try to seek safety through permanent visas first and leave protection visas as a last resort. However, the department delegates often don’t agree with this.”
In July, Mr Tudge emphasised that despite offering Hongkongers an extended temporary visa, the government could not guarantee permanent residency if “there’s a serious security issue or a character concern in relation to that person”.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs would not confirm whether Hongkongers currently eligible for the five-year visa extension would be guaranteed to be allowed to apply for permanent residency, nor was the department able to reveal the timeline for any announcement of the pathway.
“There are no plans to change or suspend these regulations, which only came into effect three weeks ago,” the spokesperson told SBS Cantonese.
Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong has raised concerns about the “lack of clarity around proposed pathways when this policy was announced,” her spokesperson confirmed.
Originally posted 2020-10-06 16:30:32.