FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint press conference held with New Zealand Prime…
FILE - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint press conference held with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 28, 2020.

SYDNEY - Australia is considering offering safe haven visas to Hong Kong residents following China’s imposition of sweeping national security laws. Australia has said it is disturbed by the developments in Hong Kong and has received a request from Britain to share the burden if there is a widespread exodus from the territory.  The moves have been strongly criticized by China. 

Britain has asked Australia and its other Five Eyes alliance partners, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., to help if people are forced to leave Hong Kong.  The U.K says it would offer asylum. 

Hong Kong residents fearing political persecution can already apply for protection under Australia's existing humanitarian program.  Several government lawmakers in Canberra have been fiercely opposed to Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong protesters. 

Prime minister Scott Morrison says new resettlement plans are being drafted. 

“We are considering (it) very actively and there are proposals that I asked to be brought forward several weeks ago, and the final touches will be put on those and they will soon be considered by cabinet to provide similar opportunities and we think that is important and very consistent with who we are as a people,” Morrison said.

In 2015, Australia granted emergency visas to 12,000 people fleeing the conflict in Syria. 

Bin Lin, a professor of Chinese Law at the University of Sydney, wants a similar move to help Hong Kong. 

“The Australian measure obviously would show international solidarity with Hong Kong people and it would be helpful to provide some support for the people in Hong Kong, and I think overall it would be good,” Lin said.

Beijing has criticized Australia for interfering in its internal affairs.  

China’s new security law for Hong Kong makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city's autonomy. There is a penalty of life imprisonment for the crimes of secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.  A Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Canberra said the laws would benefit Hong Kong. 

Creating a special resettlement scheme for asylum seekers from Hong Kong would further inflame tensions between Australia and China, its biggest trading partner.   

Australia’s vocal demand for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in the city of Wuhan, has antagonized China.