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People march in support of Save12, the campaign to save twelve Hong Kong pro-democracy activists detained for trying to flee Hong Kong by boat, in central Taipei on Oct. 25, 2020.

CHRIS STOWERS/AFP/Getty Images

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole is calling on the Canadian government to urgently adopt special measures that provide a safe haven for Hong Kong residents facing persecution under a harsh national security law imposed by China on the former British colony.

Mr. O’Toole said Canada must also be prepared to support the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong. This would include evacuation assistance if it becomes necessary for Canadian citizens to flee the Asian financial hub as Chinese security forces continue their crackdown on civil rights.

Special immigration and refugee measures are also needed to provide a “lifeboat” for non-Canadian Hongkongers who are being harassed by Chinese security forces and Hong Kong police, he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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“We have to have special provisions,” Mr. O’Toole said. “There is a need for us to provide a refugee route for pro-democracy activists who are now living in a police state and cannot access the process of satisfying the requirements, when dealing with Canadian consular services, to use Express Entry or any other way they can visit Canada.”

It’s been more than three months since Beijing enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security, which criminalizes opposition and dissent in Hong Kong. Western countries including Canada have accused the Chinese government of breaking a treaty with Britain that pledged to leave human and civil rights in Hong Kong untouched for 50 years after the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.

This new law spells trouble for the multitude of Hongkongers who have opposed Beijing’s efforts to erode rights in the Asian city, including the more than 7,000 charged in connection with past protests or those under surveillance by Hong Kong police.

Canada’s arm’s-length Immigration and Refugee Board recently granted asylum to two Hong Kong activists, as The Globe first reported, but their case was unusual in that they came to Canada in late 2019, and neither face charges back home for taking part in pro-democracy protests. More than 45 other activists who arrived before the coronavirus pandemic have also applied to be accepted as refugees.

Mr. O’Toole’s call for immediate action to help Hongkongers comes days after the House of Commons committee on citizenship and immigration voted unanimously to investigate measures to provide a haven for them.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who put forward the motion, said the Trudeau government is doing nothing, and Hongkongers are growing desperate.

“It’s been all talk and no action," she said. “The Liberals always find the right words to say but they never follow up with action.”

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There are several hundred thousand Canadians of Hong Kong origin living in Canada and 300,000 Canadian citizens living there now.

Mr. O’Toole said action is needed especially after China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, recently warned Ottawa against granting asylum to pro-democracy dissidents from Hong Kong. Mr. Cong said last week that such action could jeopardize the “health and safety” of 300,000 Canadians living there.

“I have actually met a few people in Canada who cannot return to Hong Kong because they fear for their lives, and knowing what we know about the situation there, I think we have to offer them safe haven,” Mr. O’Toole said.

One problem facing Hongkongers trying to flee now is pandemic travel restrictions that prevent them from boarding an aircraft bound for Canada. Before COVID-19, they could travel to Canada as a tourist and ask for asylum upon arrival – but not any more. They are fearful of declaring their intention to seek asylum while in Hong Kong, where they could be monitored, or are being watched by police, or already face charges for pro-democracy demonstrations.

Another option is for them to apply as economic immigrants through Ottawa’s Express Entry program, but that is a difficult route. Express Entry is for high-talent immigrants and it also requires a certificate from Hong Kong’s police, who are under the thumb of Beijing’s Ministry of Security.

The NDP’s Ms. Kwan hopes Ottawa could set up a system similar to that established by successive governments to help persecuted gay Iranians and Chechens reach Canada. Such a process would allow designate non-governmental organizations to play a role in helping arrange documents for Hongkongers' passage out of the Asian city, perhaps via a third country.

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She also recommends that Ottawa loosen family reunification rules so that a greater number of family relations in Canada could easily sponsor arrivals from Hong Kong. It’s harder for Canadians to sponsor relatives to immigrate to Canada if they are not a spouse, partner or children.

Canadian supporters of Hong Kong dissidents say the problem with using programs such as Express Entry is that applicants from Hong Kong do not generate sufficient points to merit acceptance.

Robert Falconer, a research associate at the University of Calgary School of Public Policy and an external adviser to Alliance Canada Hong Kong, said there could be a solution. If Canada is concerned about China seeing it grant asylum to many dissidents from Hong Kong, and would prefer to bring them in as economic migrants, he said, perhaps there could be a special code that applicants can add to their Express Entry applications. The code would artificially raise the point total so they can be accepted.

Mr. Falconer said groups such as Alliance Canada Hong Kong could be empowered to distribute these codes to dissidents in Hong Kong.

“For all appearance, they would come in as economic-stream immigrants,” he said.

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