FILE - A general view of skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Some are beginning to question Hong Kong’s diminishing viability as a global financial center.
FILE - A general view of skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Some are beginning to question Hong Kong’s diminishing viability as a global financial center.

HONG KONG - Some high profile detentions of illegal migrants have sparked a debate in Hong Kong over how they should be dealt with.

Earlier this week police busted a smuggling ring responsible for trafficking illegal migrants into the Chinese territory. Hong Kong and mainland authorities arrested 11 suspected gang members in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province during raids on more than 20 locations. They also detained 73 alleged illegal immigrants as part of the investigation, including 10 who police said were fake asylum seekers.

The migrants come from a range of Asian and South Asian nations, including Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are also not the first migrants in recent weeks to be detained for allegedly entering the territory.

Controversial declaration

One of Hong Kong’s leading politicians, Regina Ip, head of the Beijing friendly New People’s Party, created a controversy this week when she said asylum seekers should be made to live in a detention camp across the border in Shenzhen.

FILE - Former Hong Kong Secretary of Security Regi
FILE - Former Hong Kong Secretary of Security Regina Ip, second from right in front, and Michael Tien, third from right in front, from the New People's Party celebrate after winning seats on the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Sept. 10, 2012.

“It has been done before. Vietnamese boat people have been put in closed camps. The criticism from the courts is that if they are detained for an excessively long period, they ought to be allowed to roam freely in the city, and that has given rise to a lot of law and order problems in Hong Kong,” she said.

Ip said if made to live in a detention camp, the number of people seeking to come to Hong Kong would also fall, and the government would be able to process the remaining asylum applications more quickly. More than 11,000 people have applied for asylum in Hong Kong.

Not everyone is backing the idea, including the territory’s top official.

Pressure on the administration

Hong Kong chief executive, CY Leung said the issue of asylum seekers has “exerted a lot of pressure on the administration,” but that the establishment of a detention camp in Shenzhen would take too long.

Ip’s proposal has prompted criticism from human rights advocates, who are worried about the liberties of the migrants. 

“It’s not clear to me and I don’t think it’s ever been articulated, why the mass deprivation of this highly vulnerable group of individuals would in any way lead to a quicker processing of their claims,” said Isaac Shaffer, protection claimant services manager at the Justice Center Hong Kong.

Police say many migrants pay thousands of dollars to fly into Shenzhen, where smugglers take them to Hong Kong by boat or over land.

Victims of traffickers

Two weeks ago a boat of migrants, traveling through fog in the middle of the night, was stopped by authorities. Police said the boat carried 22 illegal immigrants from Pakistan and India, including a three-year-old girl.

Yuk Kai Law of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor said many arrive in Hong Kong with massive debts owed to their traffickers. “So they’re happily indebted when they arrive in Hong Kong and they have to work for almost seven months without any salary payment,” he said.

It typically takes the Hong Kong government more than two years to process each application for asylum, at an expected cost of tens of millions of dollars each year.