Australia urged to ramp up assistance to Hong Kong people amid mass pro-democracy arrests | Australian politics
The Australian government is facing fresh calls to offer increased assistance to the people of Hong Kong with just 3,000 having benefited from visa concessions granted six months ago.
The push for Australia to do more comes after Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 people, including pro-democracy politicians and campaigners, in early morning raids on Wednesday.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced in July the government would allow a range of visa holders from Hong Kong to stay in the country for five more years and then offer them a pathway to permanent residency. But the Coalition stopped short of creating a special humanitarian intake for Hongkongers who feared persecution under the sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing.
The Australian government had also vowed to attract Hong Kong’s “best and brightest” through its global talent and business innovation and investment programs.
New figures released to Guardian Australia show 2,584 Hong Kong passport holders have had their Australian visas extended. According to the home affairs department, in the final six months of 2020, there were 586 business innovation and investment program visa lodgements from Hong Kong nationals.
“The department is currently giving processing priority to business innovation and investment visa applications with highest priority being given to those in the significant investor stream,” the department said. “Priority processing is not being allocated on basis of citizenship.”
At the time of the July announcement, the government said almost 10,000 temporary skilled, graduate and student visa holders from Hong Kong in Australia would be eligible for the special arrangements, along with a further 2,500 people outside Australia and 1,250 applications on hand.
Fears about the crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong were heightened this week with the detention of the 53 individuals accused of “subverting state power” by holding primaries for pro-democracy candidates for the Hong Kong election.
The New South Wales Liberal senator, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells – a longstanding China hawk – responded to the mass arrests in Hong Kong this week by saying “it comes as no surprise to me that Beijing is taking advantage” of global political turmoil.
Fierravanti-Wells called on the Australian government and its security agencies to protect people living in Australia who may be vulnerable to pressure because of their relatives in Hong Kong.
“I am most concerned that the Communist regime will bring pressure to bear on Australians of Chinese heritage, more particularly those with extended families in Hong Kong,” she told Guardian Australia.
“Our government needs to ensure their democratic rights are safeguarded – our security agencies have a great deal of work to do.”
The Australian Greens called on the Morrison government “to, at an absolute minimum and as a first step, grant permanent protection for all Hongkongers who currently reside in Australia”.
“Morrison’s half-measure leaves Hong Kong residents on a five-year reprieve, offering no security that they will permanently be able to make Australia home,” the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson, Janet Rice, said.
“Hong Kong’s political refugees need a Hawke, but in Scott Morrison they got a Howard.”
Rice was referring to then prime minister Bob Hawke’s decision after the Tiananmen Square massacre to extend all temporary entry permits for Chinese nationals legally in Australia for 12 months, with work rights and financial assistance. Eventually 42,000 were granted permanent visas.
The Victorian Greens senator said Australia needed to offer “a pathway to permanent residency, with access to all of the social security that Australia has to offer, including access to Medicare, a right to work, and income support”.
“This must be done in concert with a full honouring of our obligations under the Refugee Convention for anyone who arrives in Australia seeking asylum,” Rice said.
“Anything less prevents people from accessing protection, and kicks the can down the road for people who brave the journey here. Hong Kong’s political activists deserve better.”
The comments follow calls from South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick for the Morrison government to widen its immigration criteria to increase the eligibility of Hong Kong residents to migrate to Australia “as soon as Covid entry limits are eased”.
Patrick said the time had come for Australia to extend the visa changes to apply to all British Overseas Nationals passport holders in Hong Kong and their dependants, subject to normal security and other checks.
“China’s demolition of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong is accelerating,” Patrick said.
“In these circumstances Australia must open our door wider to give our Hong Kong friends refuge, safety and full opportunity to enjoy democratic freedoms.”
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, on Wednesday issued a cautious statement in which she said Australia was “concerned by reports” of the arrests, renewing “concern that the national security law is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, democratic principles and rule of law”.
With relations between China and Australia already strained, any further offers to Hong Kong would likely attract further ire from Beijing. In July China accused Australia of “gross interference” for its visa offer and for suspending an extradition treaty with Hong Kong.