Exclusive: Data obtained by SBS Chinese under the Freedom of Information Act has found there was a sharp rise in the number of permanent residency visas granted to Hongkongers in the five months following the introduction of the National Security Law in that territory, with skilled visa grants doubling.
The security law passed by Beijing in the lead-up to July 1, 2020 - the 23rd anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong – has seen a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in the city and the stifling of anti-government protests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison rebuked the law as a "clear breach" of past agreements and announced an initiative to provide ‘safe haven’ to Hongkongers by extending temporary visas by five years and defining existing pathways to permanent residency.
The allocation of permanent visas to this group accelerated significantly since July, according to figures obtained by SBS Chinese under the Freedom of Information Act.
From July to November, the Department of Home Affairs granted 1849 permanent residency visas to Hong Kong passport holders, which marked a 26 per cent increase compared to the previous five months, when 1466 were granted.
The allocation peaked in November when 527 permanent residency visas were granted.
The figures show that applicants most often proceeded to permanent residency through the skilled visa streams.
The number of skilled permanent residency visas granted during the July to November period was 745, compared to 343 from February to June, representing a 117 per cent increase.
The greater number of successful applications during the July to November period came despite there being 15 per cent fewer applications lodged than during the five months previously.
It comes as a Home Affairs spokesperson confirmed to SBS Chinese that the average number of permanent visas granted to people of all nationalities in Australia in the final six months of 2020 decreased by about 5 per cent.
Note: The data presented in the above chart is calculated by adding up the numbers of approval in every visa category. Any figure <5 in the government's data incurs an error ±1.5.
Priority visa processing for economic recovery
SBS reached out to the Department of Home Affairs to clarify the association between the increase in successful applications and the government’s response to the National Security Law.
A department spokesperson confirmed that applicants who have critical or specialist skills in support of the government’s response to COVID-19 and economic recovery would be prioritised.
“The government is closely monitoring migration and visa settings to ensure they are consistent with public health measures, are flexible and do not displace job opportunities for Australians, so that Australia can effectively respond to the immediate and subsequent impacts of COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.
SBS is seeking further data on the prioritised visas granted to Hongkongers.
Migration wave from Hong Kong
A poll in October conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that 43.9 per cent of respondents indicated they were considering migrating away from the territory; of which 35 per cent were preparing to make a move.
The UK was their first choice of destination with 23.8 per cent, followed by Australia at 11.6 per cent.
When Hongkonger Karen Mak learned that her husband - an IT professional - was offered a job opportunity in the Australian branch of his employer in 2020, she decided to uproot her family from the place they had spent their entire lives.
She said it was a decision made out of desperation and concern for her young child, in face of the “bleak outlook” and a “backward education system” in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong's handover to China in 2046 (the Basic Law expires in 2047) is inevitable. I am more concerned that the kindergarten recruitment interviews are encouraging the culture of boasting and bragging among students,” she said.
“I have also noticed that fewer people care about being practical, and the social atmosphere is degrading.”
In March 2020, Ms Mak’s husband was sponsored by his employer to apply for a permanent residency visa in Australia.
The family of three arrived in Melbourne in August less than six months after they were granted visas.
She is “grateful” to the Australian government for granting more visas to Hong Kong residents and believes that people from the territory have a high level of qualification and international exposure, which would fulfill the Australian government's requirements for technical expertise and investment.
She believes people want to leave Hong Kong due to many issues but affirms it will only be to Australia’s benefit.
"Too many Hong Kong people want to leave now, and they are looking at countries that would issue [a permanent visa] faster. In the past two years, many of my friends have moved to the UK and Canada.
“Some of them wanted to come here but the threshold [for migrating to Australia] is higher than that of Canada, and the processing time is longer."
Australia, UK or Canada?
Immigration lawyer Richard Wong agrees with the perception that the Australian government is pushing ahead to secure more skilled professionals from Hong Kong.
He said the same is the case for the UK and Canada, which have introduced immigration measures to assist Hong Kong passport holders to relocate.
The five-year extension to temporary visas – announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July - has now taken effect, and the Department of Home Affairs confirmed with SBS Chinese in February that the specific details about applying for permanent residency will be announced in early 2020.
Mr Wong notes, however, that Hongkongers who may be thinking of applying for an Australian visa, are also aware of using a British National (Overseas) Passport to immigrate to the UK.
On January 31, the UK introduced the "5+1" immigration program for Hong Kong residents and their relatives holding British National (Overseas) Passports.
Under the scheme, those who apply and secure a special visa will be able to apply for settlement after five years and then British citizenship after a further 12 months.
The British Home Office estimates that at least 258,000 Hong Kong residents will apply for new visas within five years.
In February, Canada announced that all Hong Kong residents who graduated from local universities in the past five years, or graduates with "equivalent foreign certificates", can apply for a three-year work visa to proceed through a smoother path to permanent residency in the future.
Visa approvals 'jump from gear 1 to 5’
According to the cases he has handled, Mr Wong said approvals are speeding up for domestic visa applicants who are in medical-related occupations.
"The approval process used to be annual, but now it is monthly,” he said.
He affirmed that a similar form of acceleration in visa processing is seen for people undertaking business and investment activities in Australia. In some investment application cases, he said the applicant is usually a doctor and their spouse is a nurse.
Even for general investment immigration applications, the current approval speed is much faster than before.
“In 2017-18, applicants usually had to wait one year after they sent their application to receive the response instructions for the next step, and they usually require the applicant to deal with them one by one, such as a medical examination, an application of good citizen certificate, supplementary documents, and investment.
"But now, the application in October last year now requires the submission of documents, and the applicant is required to make an investment, obtain a good citizen certificate and perform a medical examination in one go."
Mr Wong describes the current speed of the Australian government's approval of applications for Hongkongers like “jumping from gear one to gear five" in a car.