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Protesters holding umbrellas face off police officers in anti-riot gear in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019.

Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Canada has begun accepting Hong Kong pro-democracy activists as refugees, a sign that this country is opening its doors to those fleeing Beijing’s crackdown on civil rights in the former British colony.

In a Sept. 1 letter, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada notified a married couple from Hong Kong, both in their early 30s, that the refugee protection division has determined they are “Convention refugees” and their claims for asylum have been accepted.

Under Canadian law, a “Convention refugee” refers to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and is defined as someone who cannot return to their home “due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion” or other factors.

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The Globe And Mail spoke to the Hong Kong couple, who originally arrived in Canada last December, but is withholding reporting certain details of their cases because they fear retribution against themselves or families back in Hong Kong by agents of the Chinese Communist Party. The Globe is also granting them confidentiality for the same reason.

The Hong Kong man, 33, who has been accepted as a refugee, said he was a very active protester in the pro-democracy movement in the Asian city, including with a well-known political party that put pressure on the local government to implement universal suffrage. He and his wife, 30, also took to street protests in 2019 amid mass demonstrations that followed efforts by Hong Kong’s leadership to enact legislation that would allow extradition to mainland China.

The man said he was on the front lines of demonstrations in 2019 and ran a warehouse to produce defensive equipment for protesters. He said he was at one point detained by Chinese authorities – they were not wearing uniforms – and Hong Kong police followed him and searched his home, but he was never charged.

He said near the end of his time in Hong Kong, fearful for his safety, he ended up hiding in a cave under a building.

Now, with asylum in Canada, he said: “It feels now like I no longer need to hide, and I am finally somewhere I can live safely.”

He said he is very thankful for Canada’s decision, a country he said shares common values with Hong Kongers.

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who is not representing them, said he believes these two Hong Kongers are among the first pro-democracy activists to be granted asylum. He said he believes a few others may have already obtained refugee status as well.

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“These are the first of a small number,” Mr. Kurland, based in Vancouver, said. “This is like the starter’s gun.”

He said accepting refugees from Hong Kong, however, is an indictment of the Asian city’s justice system, which still retains the legacy of institutional frameworks from Britain, despite Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China under a one-country, two-systems formula.

“By implication, the Canadian refugee determination system has put the Hong Kong judicial system into disrepute. The person has no internal flight alternative, and cannot reasonably rely upon Hong Kong’s judicial structure for protection.”

The Globe reported earlier this year that close to 50 Hong Kongers – many of whom took part in the massive demonstrations that began last year – have already applied for asylum in Canada, citing harassment and brutality at the hands of police in Hong Kong and fear of unjust prosecution.

Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong said Canada must do more than just “accept a handful” of asylum seekers from Hong Kong, where a harsh new security law was imposed by Beijing this summer – one that criminalizes dissent and opposition.

“Processing a handful of asylum claims from those fleeing Hong Kong is not commensurate to the crisis that is unfolding there,” he said. “Canada needs to do more to provide a path for those seeking asylum from the imposition of China’s draconian new national security law.”

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Mr. Chong said Canada should work with allies, such as Britain, to admit many more Hong Kongers fleeing. There is no reason why Canada couldn’t follow the British lead by offering a path to citizenship to Hong Kong residents, he said.

Hong Kongers coming to Canada would enrich the country because “they are highly educated” and would provide immense economic benefit, he added.

Avvy Go of Toronto’s Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic said it’s urgent to act now to help the people of Hong Kong.

“The situation is getting worse. More and more people have been arrested. It is clear the Hong Kong government is not going back down. ... We need [to] act now before they arrest more people and their passports are seized," she said.

Mr. Kurland said he still expects a surge of immigration from Hong Kong and more refugee claims. Canada has not yet unveiled special measures to facilitate migration from Hong Kong. He said Ottawa appears to be keeping this in abeyance until “things turn urgent and you see a wave of claimants from Hong Kong."

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, an international champion of human rights, urged the Trudeau government to grant asylum to any Hong Kong resident seeking to escape China’s draconian national security law.

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“I wouldn’t be limiting it to two. This has been such a serious assault on democracy for the national security legislation that impacts on everyone … and puts anyone in Canada who supports them at risk so we need to have a response that says we are here to protect those who we are able to protect and to facilitate their coming to Canada,” he said.

The Hong Kong couple accepted as refugees received the support of a Canadian group called New Hong Kong Cultural Club.

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