Hong Kong's legislature yesterday passed a new immigration Bill that has raised fears that Chinese mainland-style "exit bans" could be deployed to prevent dissidents from leaving the international business hub.
The Bill, which takes effect on Aug 1, sailed through a Legislative Council (LegCo) now devoid of opposition as Beijing seeks to quash dissenters and make the semi-autonomous city more like the mainland following huge and often violent democracy protests.
Activists, lawyers and some business figures have sounded the alarm over various provisions within the Bill, including one that allows the city's immigration director 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 influential Bar Association (HKBA) warned that the law's broad wording gave "apparently unfettered power" to the immigration chief and feared the possibility that exit bans could now be employed in Hong Kong.
"When they have this power, absolute power, you don't know who they will use it on," barrister Chow Hang Tung, from the pro-democracy Hong Kong Alliance, said after the Bill was passed.
So-called "exit bans" are often used in mainland China against activists who challenge the authorities, but have also impacted business figures.
One recent example is Mr Richard O'Halloran, an Irishman who has been unable to leave Shanghai for two years because of a legal dispute involving the Chinese owner of a Dublin-based company for which he works.
In February, the HKBA called on the government to amend the clause to make clear that it would not apply to Hong Kong residents.
But the government has dismissed the concerns as "complete nonsense", saying that the new Bill is aimed at tackling the surge in refugee claims in recent years and denied that the Bill will have any impact on local residents' ability to leave or enter the Asian financial centre.
"We are facing increasing challenges, especially preventing the number of illegal immigrants from rising and claimants from abusing the system," Security Secretary John Lee said, adding that travel rights remain guaranteed and that the government will introduce subsidiary legislation in the near term.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Elizabeth Quat told the legislature the number of refugees was "a threat to peace and stability" and the city needed to heal this "cancer".
"When they have this power, absolute power, you don't know who they will use it on."
BARRISTER CHOW HANG TUNG, from the pro-democracy Hong Kong Alliance, on the Bill.
The screening process can take years and the claimants' success rate is 1 per cent. During that period, it is illegal for asylum seekers to work or volunteer, and they live in limbo, on food vouchers.
Currently, asylum seekers can be detained only if they break the law or for deportation, for a "reasonable" period.
The Bill adds that the authorities can also detain a refugee if "the person poses, or is likely to pose, a threat or security risk to the community" and does not state what constitutes such a risk.
Rights groups say it broadens the scope for indefinite detention. David, 25, was granted asylum after arriving from an east African country four years ago.
He said that he was detained for 92 days while his documents were being processed and the new Bill could lead to an even worse experience for new claimants.
"It's pretty terrifying, being there without knowing ... how long you're going to be there for," said David, who asked for his full name not to be used due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Yesterday'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.