Australia has seen a surge in residency permit applications since the turmoil in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook

SYDNEY —  Migrant centers in Australia are being flooded with visa inquiries from Hong Kong residents worried about China’s security crackdown.

Human rights groups are worried that only people already living in Australia on temporary permits will get a safe haven unless authorities agree to lift travel bans imposed earlier this year on all non-citizens.

Canberra has said that every application will be considered “on a case-by-case basis”, but Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch Australia, called for a separate channel to handle Hong Kong immigration requests.

“Creating this flexibility might help reassure Hong Kong people who do try to exercise their rights after the national security law is imposed that there are quick pathways to safe countries like Australia if authorities come after them…Absolutely the Australian government should provide a safe haven for those likely to be targeted by Beijing,” Pearson said.

China sparked panic in the special administrative region this week when it passed a new security law that threatens indefinite detention for anyone convicted of four vague offenses of separatism, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign forces.” Life imprisonment applies in some cases.

Implemented in response to a long-running protest movement over China’s interference in Hong Kong’s political system, the laws are already being applied. On Friday (July 3), a man who drove a motorcycle into a police barricade was charged with separatism and terrorism offenses.

Riot police detain a man as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China. Photo: AFP/Dale De La Rey

The Five Eyes intelligence community of the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is believed to be considering a joint response that would coordinate immigration access to dilute Beijing’s hostility, but none appears likely to offer unrestricted admittance to visa applicants.

So far only Australia and the UK have confirmed that they will provide safe havens, and Beijing’s response was predictably harsh. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the two countries of “meddling” in its affairs and hinted that it might prevent Hong Kong people from leaving.

British prime minister Boris Johnson earlier said that 2.9 million people entitled to BN(O) passports — anyone born before Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 — would be able to live and work in the UK and could apply for citizenship after a year and settled status after five years.

Australian leader Scott Morrison said he was “very actively” working on a scheme to help Hong Kong people wanting to leave, but his first priority is likely to be the 100,000 Australian passport holders living in the city. He may also extend the visas of temporary Hong Kong residents in Australia.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said “the eyes of the world will remain on Hong Kong.” “Australia is troubled by the law’s implications for Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and on the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong, both of which underpin the city’s success.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a file photo. Photo: AFP

More than 60 Hong Kong people applied for temporary protection visas within Australia between November and April, and the number is believed  to have risen sharply in May and June.

Many are thought to be students who have been involved in protest movements at Australian universities.

Permanent residency admissions in Canada from Hong Kong rose 75.7% in January and February, but as with Australia, most applicants cannot get in until travel bans end. New Zealand and the US have similar restrictions. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau halted an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and said he was “extremely concerned about the situation.”

“That is why we are going to continue to look at steps we can take to ensure the safety of its citizens,” Trudeau said, without elaborating.

Taiwan is also offering access, but Hong Kong activists in Australia said Australia and some European countries would probably be the most attractive havens because there was less risk of retaliation from Beijing.

An anti-China student activist at the University of Queensland, July 2019. Photo: Facebook

They expected only a “few thousand” people to actually leave the city.

“This is frightening to our families because there is this uncertainty, you know, but you have to understand that leaving is not an option for most [people],” a student in Sydney told Asia Times. “How can people find a job in coronavirus conditions? Can they bring their whole families out?

“It is good to have this [sanctuary] option, but Hong Kong people need to know first they will not be changing one problem for another,” she added.