Closing the Immigration Gate

‘The Hong Kong of today was created by immigrants. Surely someone must notice the irony.’ South China Morning Post, 30th March 2013

With the majority of new immigrants coming from Mainland China and the Philippines, the Hong Kong government has expressed its fears of over-stretched resources through differential treatment of these two populations. The Court of Final Appeal has ruled to deny foreign domestic helpers the right to apply for permanent residency; a right open to all other foreigners in Hong Kong following 7 years of consecutive residency in the territory. Gaining status as a permanent resident enables access to social services including education. With over 300,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, predominantly of Filipino and Indonesian origin, the government has expressed concerns that dependents of this large faction of society would place extreme pressure upon Hong Kong’s resources.

How can one justify the implementation of constraints upon the applicability of the right of abode? The BBC has outlined the government’s rationale –speculating that “125,000 helpers would be eligible to apply for abode, and if each had a spouse and two children, that number of potential new residents could reach 500,000 ”. With a population of approximately 7 million people, the potential population increase evidently would result in a significant re-structuring of the territory’s demographics. Whilst it is easy to understand the difficulties that may arise as a consequence, one must not forget –Hong Kong has one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world. With a HK$64.9 billion fiscal surplus (approximately £5.5 billion) for the year 2012/13, fears of economic resources being overly stretched remain unsubstantiated. Be that as it may, the population’s size has been and currently remains to be the most vulnerable of resources –small, and declining.

Controversy centred around the Vallejos v. Commissioner of Registration case –in which a Filipina foreign domestic helper challenged the restrictions in place that prohibited her from seeking permanent residency, despite having lived in Hong Kong for over 17 years. The court initially ruled in her favour, deeming the restrictions to be in violation of Hong Kong Basic Law. The decision has however been subsequently overturned. Local newspaper, the South China Morning Post, has deemed the decision of the Court of Final Appeal to be ‘sheer idiocy and prejudice’. Jennifer Pak of the BBC presented the argument that if permanent residency was granted to foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, there were widespread fears they would ‘swarm the territory’. However, consider now that this is not the only immigration controversy surrounding Hong Kong today.

Women from Mainland China are arriving in Hong Kong in their thousands to give birth in the territory. This grants their children the right to claim residency and access to already seemingly overstretched social services and resources. In 2010, one in three children born in Hong Kong were born to mothers from the Mainland without Hong Kong resident spouses. Chief Executive Leung Chin-Ying has clearly stated government’s position on the matter –that ‘such offspring are not the solution to the problem of our ageing population’. With an infant mortality rate 13 times lower than the Mainland, the appeal is evident.

However, local residents protest that the influx of visitors is creating a significant strain on hospitals that can no longer accommodate local residents, with beds already filled by women from across the border.

Attempts to alter the situation have been drastic. One hospital in Hong Kong has tripled its fee for Mainland mothers without Hong Kong spouses using its emergency services to deter ‘gate-crashing births’. They report a staggering 40% decrease in bookings since announcing the policy. The government has also implemented policies to restrict the use of public services. This is most evident with the introduction of the ‘zero quota’ policy, which declares, ‘all public hospitals will not accept any bookings by non-local pregnant women for delivery in Hong Kong from January 1, 2013 onwards’. By giving birth in Hong Kong, Mainland mothers’ babies are granted the right of abode. What’s more, parents are given the opportunity to circumvent the one child policy, claiming rights not available to them in their country of origin. Coupled with better-equipped hospitals and high standards of health care, the benefits are seemingly clear. Perhaps similarly, foreign domestic helpers also seek the benefits of a system that more than provides for its citizens. Is the treatment of residency battles in both contexts equal? Should it be? In both situations, the state has clearly embarked upon protectionist policies in order to safeguard its national sovereignty and the interest of its residents. However, is it justifiable for a state to implement these measures of self-protection if these regulations are not applied in equal measure to all potential candidates? Trapped in an ethical dilemma, this position poses a significant problem for ‘Asia’s World City’, a nation that prides itself on multiculturalism.

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