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A man holds a banner during a rally in support of Hong Kong democracy in Vancouver in August 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government is creating new immigration arrangements to help Hong Kongers stay in Canada and a work visa to encourage students and young people to settle here in the face of China’s unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties in the former British colony.

This includes a three-year open work permit for recent Hong Kong graduates or those with a history of work experience in areas Canada might value, as well as a new pathway to permanent-resident status for those who end up coming here.

Citing the national-security law that China imposed on Hong Kong this past summer, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Thursday that Ottawa will make it easier for 300,000 Canadian citizens and permanent residents living in the Asian financial hub to return to Canada at any time.

Ottawa will fast-track necessary documents and will not bar entry to Hong Kongers charged under China’s security law, which criminalizes protest and opposition. This law breaches commitments Beijing signed in a 1984 treaty with London to effect the 1997 handover. China had guaranteed local autonomy and civil rights would continue for 50 years.

“We have been watching with a lot of concern the situation that is unfolding in Hong Kong and that includes what happened [Wednesday] when four democratically elected legislators were expelled by China from their positions,” Mr. Mendicino said in an interview.

Canada has already suspended an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and banned sales of military goods to the territory, but it has been under increasing domestic pressure to help the people of Hong Kong in the face of Chinese government oppression.

“This initiative we hope will appeal to the hopes and aspirations of the young people of Hong Kong who may see in this an opportunity to find a job, continue their studies and build a better life in Canada,” Mr. Mendicino said. “We want to strengthen the people-to-people ties between Hong Kong and Canada.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa had no immediate comment but Beijing has warned Canada and other countries not to interfere in Hong Kong.

The Thursday announcement did not include any measures to make it easier for asylum seekers from Hong Kong. It also left unclear whether applicants who have been arrested or charged in connection with mass protests dating back to mid-2019 would be barred from entry because of those arrests.

Avvy Go, director of the Chinese Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said Ottawa’s measure falls short of addressing “the dire situation” of many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, who would not meet the criteria for obtaining the three-year open work permit because of their lack of educational or employment qualifications.

“Canada must open more doors to Hong Kong citizens fleeing persecution simply for standing up for their political beliefs and demanding democracy and freedom for Hong Kong,” she said.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan dismissed the minister’s announcement as “half measures with scant details” and bemoaned the lack of action for asylum seekers.

“There still remains no federal support for pro-democracy asylum seekers who are being persecuted as we speak,” she said. “In fact the border still remains closed to asylum seekers even though they continue to live under constant threat.”

Mr. Mendicino insisted Canada’s door is always open to asylum seekers and that Ottawa will not deny entry to anyone solely for having been charged under the June national security law.

“We are going to waive the usual one-year period for failed asylum claimants from Hong Kong so that they can get a faster pre-risk removal assessment, so that could potentially allow them another chance to stay in Canada,” he said. “And secondly, no foreign national would be disqualified from making a claim for asylum in Canada by virtue alone of being charged under China’s security law.”

In fact, he said, no one from Hong Kong seeking entry to Canada via any of several immigration routes will be barred for having been charged under the security law.

There have been relatively few charges laid under the new security legislation, but more than 10,000 Hong Kongers have been arrested in connection with pro-democracy protests dating back to June, 2019, and more than 2,000 face charges, often for “rioting.” Under Hong Kong law, rioting is defined as an unlawful assembly of three or more people in which any person “commits a breach of the peace.” A conviction can carry a 10-year prison sentence. Civil-rights groups have alleged such charges are politically motivated.

Mr. Mendicino was asked several times but did not clarify whether arrests or charges in connection with protests would be a hindrance to entry.

“No foreign national whether from Hong Kong or anywhere else will be disqualified from pursuing a legitimate asylum claim or any other immigration route if they have not committed any crime that would be recognized under Canadian law,” he said.

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Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The application for an electronic travel authorization, which foreigners must fill out before being granted the right to fly to Canada, asks: “Have you ever committed, been arrested for, been charged with or convicted of any criminal offence?”

Mr. Mendicino said the new work visas will encourage recent Hong Kong graduates and those with essential work experience to come to Canada to study, work and settle. Applicants must have recently completed postsecondary studies to apply for an open work permit, which will be valid for up to three years.

Once in Canada, they can obtain permanent-resident status providing they have one year of work experience and meet language requirements. Ottawa will also fast-track study permit applications for anyone from Hong Kong.

As well, the government will waive application processing fees for Hong Kong residents in Canada who want to extend their stay.

“We’re thrilled to see these concrete steps, including pathways to permanent residency, family reunification measures, waiving some fees and expedited processing,” said Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an organization representing numerous Hong Kong Canadian groups.

But she said Ottawa is focused on attracting economic migrants and offers no measures to help bring in more refugees.

The work-permit measure doesn’t do anything for older Hong Kongers – even those in their 30s – who have been a backbone of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong and also need help to leave, she added.

“Not all Hong Kong protesters are young,” she said. “A lot of older people are the support characters. They have been driving these protesters home, and that means their [licence plates] are captured on video footage.”

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