As It Happens·Q&A

Canada's Hong Kong immigration plan benefits asylum seekers too, minister says

Nobody will be denied asylum in Canada for facing charges under China's controversial national security law, promises Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino — but he could not say the same of for pro-democracy activists convicted under other laws. 

Nobody will be denied asylum for facing charges under Chinese security law: immigration minister

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino announced a new policy to fast-track immigration for educated, skilled workers from Hong Kong. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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Nobody will be denied asylum in Canada for being charged under China's controversial national security law, promises Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino — but he could not say the same for pro-democracy activists convicted under other laws. 

Canada's new Hong Kong immigration initiative, announced Thursday, is aimed largely at attracting skilled immigrants rather than asylum seekers. Any Hong Kong resident who has graduated from university in the past three years can apply to work for up to three years in Canada, and will be offered a way to transition more easily to permanent residency.

But the announcement also includes some measures for Hong Kongers fleeing persecution by China, Mendicino said.

For Hong Kongers, Canada will waive the one-year period that failed asylum seekers usually have to wait in order to have their claims re-assessed. 

What's more, no asylum claims will be rejected on the basis of conviction under Beijing's national security law, which criminalizes "secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces," and which pro-democracy activists view as a tool to quell political dissent. 

Here is part of Mendicino's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Minister Mendicino, what message should China take from your announcement today?

I was very proud to make an announcement that is aimed at recruiting and retaining young Hong Kong graduates who I hope will see an opportunity in this policy, in this initiative. I hope that they see something that speaks to their aspiration in finding work, continuing their studies and building a better life in Canada.

The question, though, is what should China see in this? 

Our announcement is focused on strengthening the ties between Canada and the people of Hong Kong, and it builds on the immigration plan, which I announced a little less than two weeks ago

Our focus is on creating jobs, on ensuring that we accelerate our economic recovery. And we think that young graduates and the young people of Hong Kong have something to contribute, not only in the long term, but today.

Take the health-care sector where our workers are, you know, [working] tirelessly around the clock. We need reinforcements. Hong Kong is also well known as a tech and innovation hub. We think that the experience that young Hong Kongers have will benefit our economy today and also address some of the long-term demographic challenges, which I've been speaking of for some time.

Your program, your arrangement, is aimed to attract people with high education who would be economically useful to Canada. But it's not an offer of help to those who may need to flee because of political persecution. How is this supposed to help those people?

Well, I dispute that for a number of reasons. One, Canada has a robust asylum system, and those claims, which are adjudicated by our independent tribunal, not a political process, has the capacity to accept claims for those who are fleeing persecution.

In addition to that, I highlighted a number of measures, which we've aligned based on our own ongoing monitoring of the situation in Hong Kong, including waving the one-year period that usually applies to failed asylum claimants. And in this particular case, failed asylum claimants from Hong Kong will not have to wait that one year. They can apply for an assessment, and that may mean, in practical terms, that they get to stay in Canada.

The other thing that I underlined today is that … no Hong Kong foreign national will be disqualified for applying for asylum by virtue of the sole reason that they've been charged under the Chinese national security law. And more than that, no one will be disqualified from Hong Kong or anywhere else by sole virtue of the fact that they've been charged under the national security law.

A few things about that. First of all, very few people have been charged under the national security law. Very many of those pro-democracy activists who've been out in the streets have been charged under previous laws that may be laws that are recognized under Canadian law. So it's not really helpful to them, is it? Why not expand it so that those pro-democracy activists have a better chance at making an asylum claim in Canada, if that's your intention?

Well, I hear you, but I want to be absolutely clear about this. No person will be disqualified from claiming asylum who is fleeing persecution, or any other immigration route, if they have not committed a crime that would be applicable under Canadian law.

OK, just to stop you there, sir, because what I'm saying is that some of the charges [that] have been levelled at pro-democracy activists might be regarded under Canadian law, even though they were used against people exercising their free speech or their democratic rights. The laws themselves would be consistent with Canadian law. So it's quite possible that many people will be disqualified because they have faced charges in Hong Kong.

In those circumstances, if somebody has been deemed inadmissible because they were deemed to have committed, potentially, an offence under Canadian law, then I think the vast majority of Canadians, if not all Canadians, would understand that. Those admissibility requirements are there to ensure that we have an asylum system that is fair, that is transparent, and that does protect those of us who are here.

But at the same time, the policies that I announced today do ensure that the national security law, which is one of the developments that we are concerned about, is not a barrier to claiming asylum. And that is an important measure and one that is responsive to some of the concerns in the community.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy legislators pose for a photo before a press conference at Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 11. They later resigned en masse following a move by the city's government to disqualify four pro-democracy legislators. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

So if someone has been charged previously, a pro-democracy activist, as having been a threat to national security — and we know those laws were used rather liberally before this new law came into place — then you would anticipate that those people would not be qualified?

Carol, I understand why you're probing on the issue. I think it's very important to remind your listeners that these are claims that are adjudicated by the Immigration and Refugee Board. We don't want politicians making these determinations. We have expert appointees who look at the merits of each of these claims. We ensure that people who are claiming asylum meet all of our admissibility requirements. And the point of situating the policies that I announced today in the broader context of our asylum system is to say that the national security law will not be a barrier.

We spoke with Dennis Kwok yesterday. He is one of the pro-democracy members of the Hong Kong legislature who were expelled, one of the four. He was born in Canada. He said that he doesn't want to have to leave. He wants to see the international community do more to make it so that he doesn't have to. And that's long been Canada's response to these situations, where the effort is put into doing everything possible so that people don't have to flee their homes, they don't have to leave. Is this, in fact, a kind of an admission that you can't change things, that the only course for these people is to leave?

Well, I can't speak for his comments, but I certainly appreciate where he's coming from. And that's why, you know, today I emphasize that this is about expanding opportunities, that it is about providing additional routes and pathways for young Hong Kongers who may be seeking opportunities elsewhere, including in Canada.

I know, sir. My question is, though, do you believe that Canada has done everything possible to make it so that people don't have to leave … Hong Kong, which is where they would like to be? … Do you think that is an admission that there's nothing more you can do?

I don't think it's an admission, but I do think that Canada continues to be a very constructive partner on the world stage. And I think that our immigration policies, including the initiative I announced today, is consistent with our tradition and our values of being an open and inclusive country that believes that we benefit from the talent and the skills, the experience and the diversity of welcoming people from all around the world.

And notwithstanding the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic, we have found ways to proceed with safe and orderly immigration, and we will continue to chart a course that builds on those traditions. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Canadian Press. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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