Protesters occupy the arrival hall of Hong Kong International Airport in July 2019, with one participant waving a US national flag. Photo: China Daily

The US has offered temporary sanctuary to thousands of Hong Kong citizens who were forced to flee or were not fit to move to the United Kingdom under its sanctuary visa scheme.

Thousands of Hong Kong people are believed to have fled to the US since anti-extradition protests broke out in 2019 and authorities clamped down thereafter. Some who could face rioting or national security-related charges in Hong Kong have initially moved to places such as Taiwan and Mexico before seeking political asylum in the US.

Under the newly announced Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program, the majority of Hong Kong residents in the US are expected to be eligible, a senior administration official told Reuters news agency.

DED status could benefit 1,500 to 2,000 Hong Kong students in the US and possibly tens of thousands of others who entered the country on tourist or other visas, Samuel Chu, managing director of the Washington-based advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council, tweeted on Friday.

Chu is a US citizen for whom Hong Kong authorities have issued an arrest warrant.

In a memorandum released by the White House on Thursday, Biden directed the Department of Homeland Security to implement a “deferral of removal” for up to 18 months for Hong Kong residents now in the United States, citing “compelling foreign policy reasons.”

“Since the imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020, Hong Kong police have continued a campaign of politically motivated arrests, taking into custody at least 100 opposition politicians, activists, and protesters on NSL-related charges including secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements,” Biden said, adding that over 10,000 individuals had been arrested for other charges in connection with anti-government protests. 

“Over the last year, the People’s Republic of China has continued its assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, undermining its remaining democratic processes and institutions, imposing limits on academic freedom, and cracking down on freedom of the press,” he said.

A family pose for a photo before their flight to Britain at Hong Kong’s International Airport. Photo: AFP / Bertha Wang

Biden said offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents furthers US interests in the region. He said the US will not waver in its support of people in Hong Kong.

However, anyone convicted of a felony or two or more misdemeanors in the US or who has voluntarily returned to Hong Kong or China after the date of the memorandum will be excluded from the new measures.

UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted, “I warmly welcome the US’s big-hearted decision to announce a migration offer for Hong Kongers.” He said the UK is standing up for the people of Hong Kong, including by offering a path to citizenship via British National (Overseas) passports.

On Friday, the Office of the Commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it condemned and firmly opposed the so-called memorandum concerning Hong Kong.

An unnamed spokesperson said the memorandum smeared the National Security Law in Hong Kong, interfered in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs at large and trampled on international law and the basic norms governing international relations.

The spokesperson said the US statement was just a pretext for deceiving the world, which reflects the hypocrisy of some American politicians.

Between June 9, 2019 and February 28, 2021, a total of 10,242 people involved in the 2019 anti-extradition protests were arrested by Hong Kong Police, according to Hong Kong’s Department of Justice.

Of the 2,521 who have been prosecuted, 720 faced rioting charges while the rest were charged with participating in illegal assemblies, arson and insulting the national flag. As of April, 883 people have been convicted, 50 have had their charges dropped and 186 have been acquitted.

In November 2019, more than a thousand young people, including protesters and students, were surrounded by police on the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University for 13 days after clashes outside. As of February this year, 1,388 people related to this incident have been arrested. Some fled Hong Kong before they were charged.

Protesters face off against riot police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on November 17, 2019. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Among them, a 19-year-old student nicknamed “Hammer man” shared his experience with media about how he arrived in Mexico City and walked across the Mexican border to seek asylum in the US.

He said he got lost when walking to the US and he was deported on his second try. He succeeded on his third attempt and spent 62 days waiting to be granted asylum status.

He said he was treated well in detention and added that some US police officers were curious to know why Hong Kong people had to seek asylum overseas.

Another young person told Elmer Yuen, a Hong Kong businessman and a pro-democracy activist, in an online interview that he and his friend had been arrested during the protests but were then released.

He said after his friend was re-arrested last August, he started thinking about leaving the city. He said he left Hong Kong in March this year and walked across the US-Mexico border. He was given asylum status three months later but believed that the process could be shorter without quarantine.

A Hong Kong blue-collar worker called Sam, nearly 60-year-old, said on August 1 that he had followed Yuen’s advice to flee to the US several months ago as he believed he could not survive the high living costs in the UK. He said he was asked many questions by the US authorities when seeking asylum at that time. However, he was told by some latecomers that the procedure had been simplified.

There is no official data about how many people have left Hong Kong since the implementation of the National Security Law on June 30, 2020. Hong Kong newspapers roughly estimated that more than 100,000 people have moved out, simply by deducting the number of incoming and outgoing travelers in the past year.

Analysis showed that most people who moved to the UK were aged between 30 and 45 with children. The younger generation may not have enough cash for emigration while those aged over 50 tend to stay longer in Hong Kong for their pension funds.

Read: HKers speed up exodus as UK changes rules

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