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Protesters gesture outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts where pro-democracy activists face charges related to national security, in Hong Kong, China March 1, 2021.LAM YIK/Reuters

A Canadian government program to help Hong Kongers immigrate to this country in the wake of Beijing’s crackdown on the former British colony has received more than 5,700 applications in its first three months, roughly triple the number that usually apply in a full year.

The federal initiative to help Hong Kongers study and work in Canada was opened for applicants in February. It included 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.

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Since then, there have been more than 5,640 applications for work permits and 86 applications to extend existing work permits, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office announced Thursday.

The applications represent a significant jump from the interest shown in recent years from Hong Kong through other programs. Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Mr. Mendicino, said Canada typically received about 1,500 to 2,000 work-permit applications from Hong Kongers annually in recent years through other comparable immigration programs.

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, speaks during a press conference in Ottawa on May 13, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

An exodus from Hong Kong has been expected since the Chinese government imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in June, 2020, ostensibly to target secession, subversion and terrorism, but with vaguely defined offences that critics say effectively criminalize dissent and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

Canada and Western allies have criticized China’s clampdown as a violation of the international treaty it signed in which Beijing had pledged to allow local autonomy and civil rights to continue for 50 years after the 1997 handover.

“Canada shares the grave concerns of the international community over China’s national security legislation and strongly supports the right to peaceful protest, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. At this difficult moment, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Hong Kong,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement.

Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said the applications represent a big uptake from Hong Kong.

“That’s an outstanding number of work permits. Hong Kongers are beginning to vote with their feet,” he said.

He expects a steady stream of out-migration from the Asian financial hub in the years ahead.

Domestic workers gather on their day off in central Hong Kong on May 9, 2021. Most domestic workers have no choice but to socialize in public spaces because they have no space of their own.LAM YIK FEI/The New York Times News Service

Records show Hong Kongers have already moved billions of dollars to Canada. Last year, capital flows out of Hong Kong banks and into Canada reached the highest level on record, with about $43.6-billion in electronic funds transfers recorded by FINTRAC, Canada’s anti-money laundering agency.

The United Kingdom has announced a pathway to British citizenship for Hong Kongers who were born before the 1997 handover and qualify for British national (overseas) status. Britain is offering them the right to live, study and work in the country for five years and eventually apply for citizenship. As many as 2.6 million Hong Kongers are eligible and British authorities have estimated as many as 200,000 will embark on this path to citizenship.

A crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong that accelerated in 2020 amid the global pandemic has steadily eroded the territory’s political and social freedoms that were unique in China, a legacy of the territory’s years under British control. Earlier this year, Chinese lawmakers approved changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, further reducing democratic representation in the city’s institutions and introducing a mechanism to vet and screen politicians’ loyalty to Beijing.

Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, said the work-permit initiative has helped resettle many Hong Kongers but she also wants Canada to offer a dedicated path for political refugees from the former British territory.

She said only a select group will qualify for the Canadian work-permit program but there is a far bigger share of the population that wants to leave Hong Kong. Ms. Wong cited a September, 2020, poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies that found more than 43 per cent of Hong Kongers polled said they would be inclined to emigrate if given the opportunity.

Ms. Wong noted the Hong Kong government, under direction from Beijing, has passed new regulations coming into force Aug. 1 that give authorities the right to bar people from leaving the city. This, she warned, could lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Various defendants including pro-democracy activist Figo Chan Ho-wun arrives at a court in Hong Kong, Monday, May 17, 2021.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

“Authorities will have the ability to issue an exit ban on anyone and that’s a great opportunity for them to close the border,” she said.

“Hong Kong is in the second year of this humanitarian crisis. Canada has done little to support Hong Kongers fleeing persecution; rather we have only offered a work-permit program targeted at postsecondary graduates. It is not humanitarian relief, we need urgent actions prior to August.”

The Canadian government has resisted creating a special refugee stream for Hong Kong, saying applicants can use existing channels.

At last count, Canada has granted asylum to 18 Hong Kong prodemocracy activists, according to the New Hong Kong Cultural Club, a group of Canadian supporters of democracy in Hong Kong that has branches in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. These refugees are all people who travelled to Canada before COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions hit.

Ms. Wong said many Hong Kongers who would like to seek refuge from the crackdown in Hong Kong are prevented by COVID-19 travel restrictions from journeying here to apply for asylum.

With a report from Reuters

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