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A taxi drives past a big banner featuring the Hong Kong National Security Law in Hong Kong, on June 29, 2020.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Pro-democracy groups are urging Canada to modify immigration and refugee rules to accommodate a possible exodus of Hong Kongers as China’s parliament passed national-security legislation Tuesday for the former British colony.

Hong Kong Watch, a Britain-based watchdog group, is pressing Canada and other Western countries to provide safe harbour elsewhere in the world for residents of the Asian financial centre.

China’s national-security law has stoked fears among democracy activists in Hong Kong and some foreign governments that Beijing is further eroding extensive autonomy promised when Britain transferred control back to China under a “one country, two systems” formula in 1997. Critics say the new law will severely limit opposition politics and freedom of speech in the city.

Hong Kong Watch’s proposals include modifying work and study visa programs in welcoming countries to make it easier for Hong Kong residents to work and study abroad – and offer a pathway to citizenship – if needed. Hong Kong Watch, which counts as a patron Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a critic of China’s policies in the territory, likens this to a lifeline or insurance policy for pro-democracy activists there.

“Now is the time for the international community to convert statements of support into meaningful action,” Lord David Alton, a supporter of the campaign, said in a statement. “The natural place to start is ensuring that Hongkongers have a viable insurance policy in the face of a further crackdown on their rights.”

Separately, Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a Canadian umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates, is asking Ottawa to reduce barriers to Hong Kongers seeking a new life here. They’re asking the government not to use any arrest, charge or conviction for protesting in Hong Kong as a rationale to deny visas or asylum claims.

Alliance Canada Hong Kong is also asking Ottawa to provide asylum and travel documents to well-known democratic activists in Hong Kong whose freedom of movement is restricted by authorities there. And it’s urging the government to amend refugee-sponsorship programs so the Hong Kong Canadian community can more easily share responsibility for asylum claimants.

The federal government isn’t making any promises about changing the rules governing Hong Kong migrants. Émilie Simard, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said “all eligible asylum claimants receive a full and fair hearing on the individual merits of their claim” at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“Canada has always been a welcoming society and we will continue to open our doors to newcomers, including those fleeing persecution, terror and war,” she said.

Hong Kong Watch said it’s been talking to the Department of Global Affairs about a proposal to create a special visa program for young Hong Kongers.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already promised he would provide a path to citizenship for approximately three million qualifying Hong Kongers after Beijing officially adopts the new security law. This helps Hong Kong residents born before the city was transferred to China, but doesn’t aid those aged 22 or younger.

Close to 50 Hong Kongers – many of whom took part in the massive demonstrations that began last year – are seeking asylum in Canada, citing harassment and brutality at the hands of police in the former British colony and fear of unjust prosecution.

In response to the new law, the United States began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defence exports and restricting the territory’s access to high technology products.

Amnesty International and other human-rights groups have documented arbitrary arrests, brutal beatings and torture committed by Hong Kong police since mass protests began in mid-2019 over proposed legislative changes that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. This civil disobedience later evolved into demands for greater democracy and autonomy.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said the national-security law for Hong Kong is boosting interest in immigration to Canada. The new law will end up driving many young, well-educated Hong Kong residents to Canada and other Western countries, he predicted.

“This is probably going to be the greatest human capital harvest in recent memory,” Mr. Kurland said.

He said he expects Canada will not intervene with special measures to expedite refugee claims or visas unless there is a dramatic spike in danger for Hong Kongers. “The day China either has bullets in the street in Hong Kong or disappears large number of people later found in Chinese prisons, that’s when we have to look closer at an urgency operation.”

Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, said COVID-19 restrictions on international travel are preventing Hong Kongers from leaving right now, but she said a possible exodus could begin once borders reopen.

With reports from Reuters and Associated Press

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