The immigration minefield grows bigger

December 01, 2017 18:02
Last year, 57,305 mainland immigrants, or 157 per day, arrived in Hong Kong for settlement, some 5 percent more than are supposed to be coming here under current arrangements. Photo: HKEJ

The utter stupidity and dysfunctionality of Hong Kong’s immigration policy have been highlighted yet again with the government’s belated revelation that last year 57,305 mainland immigrants, or 157 per day, arrived here for settlement, in other words, some 5 percent more than are supposed to be coming here under current arrangements.

However, the immigration malaise stretches way beyond the issue of mainland immigrants into policies concerning the importation of labor.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the arrangements under which 150 mainland immigrants are allowed to settle in Hong Kong every day. They do so under a system that began during the colonial era, which was designed as a family reunification scheme.

However, Hong Kong has no say and no ability to verify the credentials of those entering the SAR as this process is entirely controlled on the other side of the border. The British agreed to this scheme under pressure from Hongkongers who were genuinely distraught over family separation and accepted Chinese control at a time when it was even difficult for ordinary PRC citizens to obtain passports. The government of the day accepted this one-sided arrangement as the price to pay for facilitating reunions.

From the early days it became apparent that the scheme was being abused by the PRC authorities who used it to facilitate the entry of agents to Hong Kong and also because of corruption in the system. The colonial government, however, decided to turn a blind eye to these problems.

Unsurprisingly, the post-colonial administration has decided not to hear nor see anything that demonstrates the scheme’s faults nor will it dare challenge the Beijing authorities and request having a say in who is being sent to Hong Kong.

In addition to this scheme, there are other avenues for mainland immigration for exceptionally talented or exceptionally wealthy individuals. These make greater sense, although some discussion is required over how this works.

Elsewhere, the immigration system is downright bizarre as Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that has a racist policy of discouraging those from minority ethnic groups from obtaining citizenship and thus more fully embracing their new home and there is nothing resembling a policy for new immigrants, aside from some half-hearted educational initiatives.

When it comes to the rather pressing issue of allowing people with badly needed skills to come to Hong Kong from overseas, the system is both discriminatory and largely useless.

Large multinational companies with substantial human resources departments can bring in more or less anyone they like. They have the contacts in government to ease the way and enough people to handle the mountain of paperwork. Smaller businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry (where staff shortages are chronic), find it almost impossible to battle their way through the bureaucracy or to wait the endless months required to secure a visa.

The only other way of bringing staff into Hong Kong is via the domestic helper system with all its draconian restrictions that include no right to change employer, the need to live with the employer, etc., etc. The resulting abuse of this system, and its exploitation by shameless agencies, is well known.

Then there is the outstanding matter of discrimination; a recent court ruling has put the government on notice that human rights are breached if the right of entry is denied to spouses of same-sex marriages. Instead of trying to enhance Hong Kong’s image as a world city, the government has decided to appeal this ruling in the hope that discriminatory policies will be able to remain in place.

Meanwhile, worker’s organizations have understandable concerns over changes to the immigration policy that could lead to fewer jobs and lower wages for local workers. Given the bias in the system towards employers, they have grounds for fears of this kind. However, these fears could be alleviated by giving labor unions a substantial role in helping to formulate new and more sensible policies, alongside provision of higher minimum wages and stipulations that these wage levels should apply to overseas workers.

This immigration issue is a minefield in Hong Kong, as it is many other places; yet the government seems to think the best way of dealing with it is just to wait for the mines to explode.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author