Hong Kong (officially the Hong Kong Special Adminsitrative Region) began taking measures to contain and combat the COVID-19 pandemic in early February after thousands of medical workers undertook a week-long strike to demand the government close the border with China and provide workers with personal protective equipment, among others measures. From 25 March 2020, the government began to deny entry to all non-Hong Kong residents coming from overseas countries and regions by plane. Any non-Hong Kong residents coming from China, Macao and/or Taiwan (Province of China) also began to be denied entry to Hong Kong if they had been to any overseas countries and regions in the last 14 days. The government began to deny entry to all visitors from Hubei province, and any non-Hong Kong residents who have visited Hubei province in the last 14 days, to Hong Kong, from 27 January 2020 onwards.
There do not appear to have been changes in immigration detention policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Adella Namagembe, the chairperson of Refugee Union (the city’s first union run by and for refugees and migrants), told the Global Detention Project (GDP) that asylum seekers continue to be detained in immigration detention centres. Detainees are being tested for COVID-19 and are given surgical masks, hand sanitizer, handwashing soap, and toilet cleaning products.
The Hong Kong government has issued a Red Outbound Travel Alert (OTA) on all overseas countries/territories based on public health considerations in view of the health risks arising from the persistent and rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases globally. Namagembe told the GDP that deportations do not appear to be taking place.
Refugees, who are officially referred to as “non-refoulement claimants” due to the lack of a refugee policy, are given food vouchers worth HKD40 (approximately 5.15USD) and a housing allowance of HK1500 (approximately 190USD)––levels of assistance which have not been adjusted with inflation since 2014. On 26 February 2020, the Refugee Union issued a letter to the Social Welfare Department, requesting increases in housing, utilities, transport allowance, allowances and providing a clothing allowance. It also asked for the allocation of a food allowance in cash rather than through vouchers (which are only valid for one chain of supermarket in Hong Kong and which are often disregarded by supermarket staff) and for the government to lift its restrictions on what items can be purchased. Namagembe said: “Generally, we need more financial support due to the fact that we are not allowed to work, everything currently is expensive due to the COVID-19 breakout. The consumption is high because kids are at home all the time. Even adults needs to maintain their health by having a balanced diet.”
On 19 March, the Social Welfare Department replied that it had shared notices and guidelines about the health advice and preventive measures of COVID-19 issued by the Centre for Health Protection to ISS-HK, including some that had been translated into ethnic minority languages. It stated: “Upon receipt of donation of face masks and sanitising items from individuals or private organizations, if any, SWD/ISS-HK will assist to distribute these items to the needy bodies including NRCs according to the wishes of donors.” It also stated: “the Government has to emphasize that the provision of humanitarian assistance aims to ensure that claimants will not become destitute during their presence in Hong Kong, and thus the level of assistance is to meet their basic needs so as to avoid any magnet effect which may have serious implications on the long-term sustainability of such assistance and the immigration of Hong Kong.” Refugees have continued to lodge personal complaint letters, indicating the urgent need for government support to meet their basic needs, but to date have not received positive responses.
Asylum seekers are asked to report to the Immigration Department regularly. Namagembe said that the Immigration Department had lengthened the period between reporting obligations as a result of the outbreak: “Currently, all of them [asylum seekers] report to immigration on the same date every 6 weeks.” She said that the Immigration Department is checking the temperature of asylum seekers when they report.
Migrant domestic workers have been excluded from many of the government’s virus containment policies. In Hong Kong, there is a mandatory live-in requirement for migrant domestic workers. In January, the Labour Department (LD) came under fire after it issued a public notice encouraging domestic workers “to stay home on their rest day in order to safeguard their personal health and to reduce the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community.” The organization Mission for Migrant Workers (MFMW) stated that workers had subsequently been forced to stay at home on their rest days by their employers, and even asked to resign if they did not do so.
According to a recent study by MFMW and Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, 40 percent of 1,127 migrant domestic workers surveyed in March 2020 said that their labour rights had been curtailed during the outbreak. This included not being given masks or sanitizer or being forced to work excessive hours. Some workers have noted that, as a result of the government’s quarantine policies, they are also being deprived of the ability to take their annual leave (7 to 14 days), given that the compulsory quarantine period imposed by the government is 14 days. In addition, migrant workers have raised concerned about employers who return home from overseas who are subsequently required to undergo a 14-day quarantine period. The Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions has criticised the government for its lack of clear quarantine guidelines for workers and employers, including its lack of guidance on what to do if workers encounter inadequate accommodation or unlawful dismissal in relation to quarantine policies.
The Immigration Department has announced a “flexibility arrangement” for migrant domestic workers. The Commissioner for Labour has given in-principle consent for all migrant domestic worker contracts that will expire on or before 31 March 2020, to be extended up till 31 May 2020, provided that such variation is mutually agreed by both the employer and the worker and approved by the Director of Immigration. They have also given further in-principle consent for all migrant domestic worker contracts that will expire on or before 30 June 2020, to extend the period of employment up to July 31, 2020, on the same terms.
- A. Chan, “Hong Kong’s Domestic Workers: When ‘Stay at Home’ Means ‘Live at Work’,” The Diplomat, 14 April 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/hong-kongs-domestic-workers-when-stay-at-home-means-live-at-work/
- Government of the HKSAR, “Foreign domestic helpers applying to extend limit of stay to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic”, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Press Releases, 21 March 2020. https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/202003/21/P2020032000829.htm?fontSize=1
- D. Higginbotham, R. Mogul, S. Ramsay, K. Fung, “Isolation, boredom, and a 151 sq ft space: the conditions of Hong Kong’s coronavirus quarantine camps,” South China Morning Post, 4 April 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/3078278/isolation-boredom-and-151-sq-ft-cell-prison-conditions-hong-kongs
- Migrants solidarity committee autonomous 8a, “Days and Nights of Family Carers in the Epidemic—Migrant Domestic Workers: Care Work, Employment and Race (I),” Lausan, 16 March 2020. https://lausan.hk/2020/care-workers-in-the-epidemic-part-1/
- Refugee Union, “Press Release: Request for Increase in Assistance,” Refugee Union, 7 April 2020. http://www.refugeeunion.org/9988/press-release-request-increase-assistance/
- F. Sun, “Coronavirus: ‘live-in’ rule carries real risk for domestic workers sharing flats with quarantined employers, workers group says,” South China Morning Post, 22 March 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3076336/coronavirus-live-rule-carries-real-risk-domestic
- The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, “Coronavirus: Together, We Fight the Virus!” The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 2020. https://www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/index.html
- R. Wong, “Coronavirus: Hong Kong migrant domestic workers ‘vulnerable’ during outbreak – NGO,” Hong Kong Free Press, 17 March 2020. https://hongkongfp.com/2020/03/17/coronavirus-hong-kong-migrant-domestic-workers-vulnerable-outbreak-ngo/
- Government Quarantine Camp at the Chun Yeung Estate, (K.Y. Cheng, South China Morning Post, “Isolation, Boredom, and a 151 sq ft Space: the Conditions of Hong Kong’s Coronavirus Quarantine Camps,” https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/3078278/isolation-boredom-and-151-sq-ft-cell-prison-conditions-hong-kongs)