Advocate urges Canada to do more to help people in Hong Kong

Canada unveiled new work, study and residency permit programmes this year, but group says more support needed.

Supporters hold a rally in solidarity with Hong Kong protesters, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in September 2019 [File: Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters]

Toronto, Canada – Yeung says his native Hong Kong is unsafe.

That is why the 22-year-old, who recently completed a computer science degree at the University of Toronto and now works at a local healthcare tech firm, hopes to make Canada his permanent home.

With continuing political turmoil and a crackdown on dissent back home, Yeung – who asked to be identified only by his last name due to fears of retribution – said he plans to apply for Canadian permanent residency as soon as a new expedited programme becomes available.

“Applying to permanent residency is actually my first priority right now,” he told Al Jazeera.

The Canadian government in November announced new immigration measures to entice Hong Kong people to come to Canada to study and work, and broadening the pathway to permanent residency for those already in the country.

Canada’s “open” work permits for Hong Kong people, which will allow residents to get job experience in Canada, were officially made available on February 8.

But the new pathway to permanent residency will only be introduced later this year, the Canadian government says, prompting concerns from some immigration advocates who say more easily accessible programmes are needed for people from Hong Kong, especially those seeking asylum.

Crackdown on dissent

China imposed a national security law in Hong Kong last year, saying it was necessary to prevent outside interference and threats of separatism in the semi-autonomous territory.

But the move drew widespread criticism and rights groups said it was part of an effort to crack down on demonstrations calling for more freedoms for Hong Kong.

A spokesman for Canada’s immigration, refugees and citizenship department told Al Jazeera that Ottawa is concerned about the national security law and supports the right of Hong Kong people to protest peacefully.

“The ties that bind Canada and Hong Kong run deep. With many young Hong Kong residents casting their eyes abroad, we want them to choose Canada,” Alexander Cohen said in an email.

“That’s why we’ve made extensive efforts to help Hong Kongers come to Canada.”

But Alex Ra-Lee of Alliance Canada Hong Kong (ACHK), an advocacy group, said “the new policies [in Canada], while quite generous for those with a university education, do little in the way of humanitarian support for Hong Kongers fleeing persecution”.

Asylum process

To be considered for Canada’s permanent residency programme, a Hong Kong resident needs to have a minimum of one year of work experience in Canada and meet language and education requirements, or have graduated from a recognised post-secondary school in Canada.

Meanwhile, people living in Hong Kong currently cannot travel to Canada due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Those rules can only be sidestepped if the applicant has a job offer in Canada or meets “a travel exemption”, which can include foreign workers supporting the Canadian economy in vital sectors such as healthcare. International students returning to Canadian campuses or family members trying to “reunite with loved ones in Canada” can also be exempted.

Ra-Lee said Canada provides little support for asylum seekers trying to leave Hong Kong, which he explained has become a difficult process, and urged the government to process asylum applications in Hong Kong as opposed to waiting for someone to arrive at the border.

“Many Hong Kongers are having their passports and other travel documents seized by Chinese authorities, which makes it perilous for them to try and leave Hong Kong,” he said.

Protesters gather for a rally in Victoria Park in Hong Kong in 2019 [File: Isaac Lawrence/AFP]

Tensions with China

Canada is not the only country to offer Hong Kong people more immigration options in recent months.

In late January, Britain announced a new visa that it said would allow Hong Kong people to live and work in the country, and offer them a pathway to citizenship. The British government said last month that about 7,000 Hong Kong people had taken up the offer.

Last week, the United Kingdom also said it had earmarked 43 million pounds ($59m) to help Hong Kong residents resettle in the country.

The immigration programmes come amid heightened tensions between Western nations, including Canada and the UK, and China.

Last month, several countries imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of its Muslim Uighur minority in the western Xinjiang province. The Canadian government and its allies have also spoken out against the ongoing detention of two Canadians in China, where they face espionage charges.

Canada says it does not have data yet on the number of people who have applied to its new work and study permit programmes.

Separately, the government reported that an average of around 2,500 study permits and 900 work permits have been issued annually to applicants from Hong Kong over the past five years.

Ra-Lee said he thinks 100,000 to 200,000 people would apply for the new study permits in Canada because the country “has always been an attractive option for students from Hong Kong”. He added, however, that Ottawa must also think about providing support for newcomers to settle in the country.

In the meantime, many people – including Yeung – are waiting. “There is no hope for recovery [in Hong Kong],” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera