Total closure of the HK-mainland border may not be enough to keep out the deadly coronavirus

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Even if the government fully sealed shut its borders from the mainland, human trafficking and smuggling activities still run the risk of bringing more coronavirus cases to Hong Kong.

Photo: People wearing masks in Hong Kong for Wuhan coronavirus outbreak by News Service. License.

As Hong Kong continues to wage war against the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, legislators from both the pro-establishment and pro-democracy camps have called for a total closure of the city’s border with mainland China. An estimated 5 million people had left Wuhan before the city was locked down, but the government does not have a clue about the number of Wuhan citizens that have arrived in Hong Kong since the outbreak. With signs that the virus is highly infectious, even in the incubation stage (unlike SARS), it is only understandable that the entire city is in a state of panic. 

While Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor rejected a complete border closure as inappropriate and impractical, she announced some contingency measures to cope with the public health crisis, such as reducing cross-border transport services and closing border checkpoints. Although the movement of people through official border crossings poses a clear risk to public health, these are not the only places through which people travel into the city. Smuggling activities between Hong Kong and the mainland are a real problem, and the impact that unmonitored entrants may have on efforts to contain the virus is a cause for concern. 

In its Annual Report for 2018, the Immigration Department expressed concern over human smuggling into Hong Kong via the mainland. One of the serious crimes that the  police’s Organized Crime and Triad Bureau devotes force-wide resources to is human smuggling and trafficking in persons. In 2018, the Immigration Department carried out nine joint operations with mainland law enforcement agencies and the Hong Kong police which targeted cross-border criminal syndicates, and arrested 440 people, 150 of which were core members of smuggling syndicates.

As a matter of public health, the unchecked use of illicit routes to travel to and from Hong Kong leaves the city vulnerable at large albeit on a smaller scale. According to the World Health Organization, “migrants may represent vectors for introduced and transmitted diseases in the host country” for diseases of public health significance. Migrants include “irregular migrants” which “are also referred to as illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugee claimants in various national jurisdictions, and may include individuals who have been smuggled or trafficked into the country.” Yet, at present, there is no way of tracking the travel histories and health conditions of those entering the city illegally as well as of those assisting them to do so.

Despite the efforts of enforcement authorities to combat smuggling, unofficial routes in and out of the city continue to operate. In March 2019, the Immigration Department along with mainland authorities busted a smuggling syndicate that arranged for Vietnamese nationals to illegally enter Hong Kong via mainland China.

Indeed, triad and smuggling syndicates have a firm grasp of these routes through their illicit activities. For example, the police believe that a smuggling syndicate led by a triad gangster smuggles electronic products from Hong Kong to the mainland on a daily basis. In early January, three boats carrying suspected smuggled frozen meat destined for the mainland were intercepted by authorities within 24 hours of each other. On 17 January, customs officers intercepted a fleet of eight vessels, seizing 146,000 kilograms of suspected smuggled frozen meat. The true scale of smuggling activities is unknown.

The ability of some to come and go freely undetected may jeopardise anti-epidemic measures. A closure of all border checkpoints may not in effect be a total closure of the border at all. While closing all checkpoints would aid in containing the spread of the epidemic, there may also be value in conceptualising disease control from a human mobility perspective and not just from a geopolitical one.

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