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Bell tolls for Hong Kong abode seekers

The countdown to midnight Sunday and the myriad of protests takes its toll on a mainland Chinese abode seeker
The countdown to midnight Sunday and the myriad of protests takes its toll on a mainland Chinese abode seeker  

By CNN's Nick Easen and wire reports

HONG KONG, China -- Time is running out for the mainland Chinese right-of-abode seekers as they step up their campaign to stay in Hong Kong.

Some say they'd rather die than go back, and worries are mounting that things could get violent, if they are not able to dissuade the government from sending them packing across the border on April 1.

In a last ditch attempt at staying, abode seekers and their supporters have conducted hunger strikes and mass protests, despite the threat of forced removal from the territory by police.

Some plan to hide from the authorities after the ruling against them eleven weeks ago by the territory's highest court, the Final Court of Appeal.

It announced that all but 200 of the more than 5,000 mainland Chinese migrants claiming the right to stay in the territory must leave.

CNN's Mike Chinoy on the January 11 ruling on mainland Chinese migrants.
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The tense wait outside the Court of Final Appeal 
HK rules out schooling for migrants (Dec. 2001)
Hong Kong's top court reverses Chinese immigrant-abode ruling (Dec. 1999) Asia
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Hong Kong's riches may have been built on wave after wave of immigration from the mainland, but since the former British colony was handed back to China five years ago, the government has tightened the tap.

January's ruling will now send thousands heading towards the border, carrying with them a perceived sense of distrust of Hong Kong's rule of law.

Whichever way it went, the ruling would have created controversy for the territory's judiciary and administration.

It was perhaps the trickiest issue to confront Hong Kong since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997.

Beyond April 1, security forces have repeatedly said that they will start repatriating thousands of migrants.

Court removal orders will be prepared and abode seekers will then be sent back seven days after the court issues the orders.

Violence over migration has already struck Hong Kong and could strike again after the sun rises on April 1.

In August 2000 a group of migrants threw firebombs inside a Hong Kong immigration office, killing two people and injuring about 50.

One was recently convicted of murder and six were convicted of manslaughter.

Judicial setback

Hong Kong
The mainland migrants' 4.5-year battle was fueled by expectations based on a January 1999 ruling by the court.  

For eight year old Ka-Hing and his twin sister Kai-Yan the days since the January ruling have passed very quickly and now they must leave Hong Kong.

The twins' have lived without residency papers since they were three years old but because of their status they were not even allowed to go to school until a few weeks ago.

Their case is one of thousands handled by Rob Brook and Krista Ma, whose office represents the majority of claimants for the right of abode in Hong Kong.

They keep a comprehensive database of all these cases, the claimants are all of different ages, some in their sixties, others so young their parents must fight on their behalf.

Brook believes the mass repatriation is the end result of the erosion of judicial independence in Hong Kong.

"January 1999 was the high point of judicial autonomy in Hong Kong (but) we've sunk back quite dramatically since then and it's difficult to see how they're ever going to get back to the point we were at then," Brook told CNN.

Yet the government told CNN the majority of Hong Kong people and the Legislative Council were supportive of the decision to return thousands of migrants to the mainland.

Past rulings

The controversy surrounding the case and the Final Court of Appeal's ruling has a complex history.

It involves several categories of mainland migrants who arrived in Hong Kong in different periods, either illegally or on overstayed tourist visas.

In January 1999 the court's stance on the issue was completely opposite to the current ruling, when it offered residency rights to anyone with a Hong Kong parent.

Hong Kong
Protests have been a feature of the court case involving about 5,000 abode seekers  

By June of that year, the government had managed to effectively overturn that ruling, through a reinterpretation by Beijing of Hong Kong's mini constitution known as the Basic Law.

This created a major controversy over the degree to which Hong Kong's rule of law is open to interference by mainland China.

Overturning the ruling damaged the credibility of the territory's top court and increased Hong Kong residents' concerns over the territory's judicial independence.

At this stage the government feared the territory would be swamped by mainland Chinese, looking for jobs and costing the taxpayer millions for new housing, jobs and services.

Original ruling

It was this original January 1999 ruling that the mainland migrants hoped the Final Court of Appeal would uphold this week.

However, this did not occur, the only concession given when the court recognized that authorities had created a "legitimate expectation" among the mainland migrants.

Those who appealed in this case were are all Chinese nationals born in China with at least one parent who is a permanent resident in Hong Kong.

They all maintained that their status should not be affected by Beijing's reinterpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's post-handover constitution, in June 1999.

Yet this was not to be the case.




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