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A pro-democracy demonstrator raises British National Overseas (BNO) passports during a protest against national security legislation, in Hong Kong, on June 1, 2020.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Human-rights activists and former pro-democracy legislators from Hong Kong, in self-imposed exile around the world, are calling on Ottawa to extend and expand a program that helps residents fleeing the former British colony to immigrate to Canada.

They say many in Hong Kong, where China in 2020 enacted a national security law that effectively criminalizes dissent, are still seeking to move to countries where they do not have to fear a knock on the door at 6 a.m.

In a letter last month to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser, 19 dissidents and former Hong Kong legislators asked the federal government to continue its Open Work Permit for Hong Kongers past the program’s sunset date of Feb. 7, 2023.

Canada’s program, which opened in February, 2021, 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. It also includes a new pathway to permanent-resident status for those who end up coming here.

Signatories to this letter include Nathan Law, who was ousted from office by Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled government and briefly jailed for activism, as well as Dennis Kwok, an Edmonton-born Hong Kong lawmaker removed from office by the Chinese government who then returned to Canada.

Others include activist Anna Kwok, now at the Hong Kong Democracy Council in Washington, and Joey Siu, now at the National Democratic Institute.

More than 200 Hong Kongers, including 12 children have been arrested under the National Security Law, according to a recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report. The report also sounded alarms about what it described as the “excessive number of civil society organizations, such as trade unions and student unions, which have relocated or ceased to operate” since the law was enacted.

The creeping authoritarianism in Hong Kong, the letter writers say, is even extending to children’s books.

Five Hong Kong speech therapists were sentenced in September to 19 months in jail for conspiracy to publish seditious children’s books, featuring cartoons of sheep and wolves that prosecutors had deemed anti-government.

“Many Hong Kong citizens now find themselves political prisoners in Hong Kong,” the letter-writers said. Last year Hong Kong newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, whose now-shuttered Apple Daily was a sharp critic of Beijing, was sentenced to 14 months in jail for taking part in what the government called unauthorized assemblies. He is scheduled to be tried this December under the National Security Law.

The office of Mr. Fraser offered no promises about extending or expanding the program for Hong Kongers. “The department continues to engage with stakeholders on this issue and monitor the situation actively,” Bahoz Dara Aziz, press secretary to the minister, said.

As of June 30, Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship had issued 12,835 open work permits or extensions of permits under the Hong Kong program, she said.

Ms. Dara Aziz said Hong Kongers could also use other immigration programs, including the economic immigration programs or by applying to reunite with a family member. Those who can demonstrate persecution can apply for asylum as a refugee.

The activists and former legislators say Canada’s program is too restrictive because it stipulates that an applicant must have graduated from a recognized university in the past five years in order to be eligible for permanent residency. Hong Kong Watch, a London-based advocacy group, has pointed to research by Community Family Services of Ontario that found more than 20 per cent of applicants to Canada’s Open Work Permit scheme would be ineligible for permanent residency in Canada because they graduated in 2016 or 2017.

Britain offers a path to citizenship to two-thirds of Hong Kongers: those born before the 1997 handover to China can apply for a special British National Overseas (BNO) passport. Britain is offering BNO holders the right to live, study and work in that country for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.

The letter writers urged Mr. Fraser to extend the work permit program and open it to front-line human-rights activists from Hong Kong, as well as those applicants who graduated from university more than five years ago and younger Hong Kongers who are not eligible for Britain’s BNO passport system. “They are in most urgent need of an exit path.”

They cited an estimate by Hong Kong Watch, which counts Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten as patron, that 1.9 million Hong Kongers are not covered by the immigration programs offered by Britain, Canada or Australia.

“We believe this would send the clearest signal that Canada continues to stand with the people of Hong Kong and materially supports their aspirations to work, live, and raise their children in free, open and democratic societies,” the activists and former legislators said.

With a report from Reuters