OTTAWA--Hong Kong's new security law has prompted a sharp uptick in inquiries from families looking to relocate to Canada, but Ottawa's strict COVID-19 border control measures are making it nearly impossible to get in, immigration lawyers said.
Even before the law took effect this week, refugee claims from Hong Kong in the first three months of 2020 nearly tripled to 25 compared with nine in all of 2019 and just two in all of 2018, Canadian government data shows.
Admissions of new permanent residents from Hong Kong jumped 75.7% in January and February 2020 compared to the previous year, as Beijing's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters escalated.
Claims from all countries have plunged since March amid COVID-19 closures.
Beijing imposed the legislation on Hong Kong this week despite protests from Hong Kongers and Western nations, setting China's freest city and a major financial hub on a more authoritarian track.
Canada was a preferred destination for Hong Kongers who fled the island city ahead of the British handover to China in 1997, and some 300,000 people in Hong Kong hold Canadian passports.
Most who came in the 1990s have left and interest in relocating from Hong Kong to Canada has been tepid in recent years.
But in the days since China imposed the security law, Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland has found himself consulting with people by phone, email and Zoom on how to get from Hong Kong into Canada.
"This week is the game-changing week with the new security law," said Kurland. "Now families are taking things seriously."
Moving to Canada will not be as easy as it was in the '90s. A program that allowed wealthy foreigners to buy admission to Canada was scrapped in 2014. And the border is currently closed until at least end July due to the coronavirus pandemic, with only citizens, permanent residents and others deemed essential allowed in.
"Until the travel restrictions are lifted from COVID, I can't imagine how someone would manage to even board a flight at this point," said Toronto immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges.
Desloges said that once the border reopens, Hong Kong residents could come to Canada and claim refugee status, but they would need to show that there's a serious chance of them personally being persecuted.
"So if you're a political dissident… somebody who has participated in public protests against China, that could be a very legitimate claim," she said.
Desloges said that Hong Kong passport holders granted Canadian permanent resident status in the 1990s could petition to have their status reinstated - and they'd be able to live in Canada while the case was considered.
Meanwhile, Kurland said many families he is speaking with plan to sell assets in Hong Kong to fund sending adult children to Canada on study visas, a multi-year path to citizenship.
"Hong Kong's not closed off yet ... but I liken to Berlin, where you suddenly see soldiers building a wall. It's going to take time, but you know it's coming," Kurland said. (Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa Editing by Denny Thomas and Alistair Bell)