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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 16:20 GMT
HK immigrants lose right to stay
Mainland Chinese seeking right of abode in Hong Kong march in Hong Kong
This woman learned her 16-year-old daughter must leave
After a lengthy legal battle, Hong Kong's highest court has ruled against most of a group of 5,000 mainland Chinese citizens seeking the right to stay in the territory.

Some of the migrants wept openly as they heard that only around 200 of them would be eligible to remain.

Sooner or later our system will flush them [illegal immigrants] out

Secretary for Security, Regina Ip
The Hong Kong Government says the rest will have to return to the mainland before the end of March.

The verdict from the Court of Final Appeal is a victory for the authorities in Hong Kong and the mainland which want to control and restrict the numbers of mainland Chinese settling in the territory.

The Secretary for Security, Regina Ip, told the BBC that she did not think the government would need to round up the migrants.

"Sooner or later our system will flush them out," she said.

"They have nothing to gain by hanging around not being able to work. They are much better off going back to the mainland."

What can I do in the mainland? They will put me in jail.

Chinese mainland citizen
Outside the court, there was confusion and despair. One person said: "I definitely don't want to go back to mainland China. Since I have been here three years I have been working illegally.

"What can I do in the mainland? The mainland customs will put me in jail."

Long battle

Since the former colony was returned to China in 1997, the issue of how many mainland Chinese residents are given right of abode in Hong Kong has been one of the most contentious facing the territory.

Chinese woman reading the court ruling
The ruling allows 200 people to remain in Hong Kong
The migrants have been fighting against deportation for two-and-half-years.

In June 1999, the Chinese Government overruled a Hong Kong court decision earlier that year which granted residency rights to anyone with a Hong Kong parent.

The controversial re-interpretation followed a request from the Hong Kong authorities, who said they feared being swamped by an influx more than one-million mainlanders.

The court ruled that only those in Hong Kong before the territory's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 have an automatic right of abode, while those who applied before the first court ruling in 1999 may stay at the discretion of the immigration department.

According to a lawyer for the migrants, Rob Brooke, another 300 people who were not involved in the case could also benefit.

Most of the claimants are relatives of mainlanders who moved to Hong Kong. They were prevented from joining them by China's tight immigration policies and either entered Hong Kong illegally or entered on tourist visas and overstayed.

Strong police presence

Police stepped up security near the Immigration Tower and other government facilities ahead of the decision.

About 150 police stood guard outside the courthouse Thursday. Officers said between 500 and 600 officers were on standby in case of trouble.

In August 2000 a group of residency claimants tried to set fire to themselves in Hong Kong's immigration headquarters.

One residency claimant and a senior immigration officer were killed.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt
"Some... may go into hiding to avoid deportation"
See also:

12 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
HK leader says freedom is safe
02 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Families face Hong Kong uncertainty
19 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese stowaways nabbed in HK
10 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: China
13 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
China warns Hong Kong
01 Jul 98 | Hong Kong Handover Anniversary
Hong Kong: Who was wrong?
12 Feb 99 | Asia-Pacific
Hong Kong tries to reassure China
31 Dec 97 | Events of the year
Hong Kong handed over to China
28 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mainlanders in HK 'should stay'
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