Fr Mella joins sit-in for the right of abode in Hong Kong denied for 25 years

In 1999, Beijing reinterpreted Hong Kong’s Basic Law to deny children born in mainland China to Hong Kong parents the right to reunite with their families. Since then, the PIME missionary has been fighting to resolve an issue that touches 60,000 people. The denial goes against what the Chinese government itself has said.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Fr Franco Mella, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), has joined a sit-in protest at Admiralty’s government headquarters that began more than three weeks ago to demand that the children of Hong Kong residents born in mainland China be granted the right of abode.

This is the latest battle by the well-known human rights advocate, who set up his tent at the protest venue because “25 years have passed since Beijing decided to take away the right of abode to the children of Hong Kong citizens born in China.”

“If Hong Kong is part of the Chinese homeland, as the authorities in Beijing say, why can't some people move to live from one part of the country to another?" wonders the 75-year-old missionary.

The issue dates back to the years right after the 1997 handover, when Great Britain ceded Hong Kong to China.

“At that time, a group of people born in China to Hong Kong parents asked to be reunited with their family," Fr Mella explained. “Local authorities took the matter to court,” which “granted the right of abode only at the last appeal, with a sentence on 29 January 1999; thus, 3,700 people obtained Hong Kong residence papers.”

Hong Kong authorities were not happy with the ruling, so they asked the central government to reinterpret the Basic Law, the city's constitution, and things changed.

“Another 15,000 people applied for abode in Hong Kong, but were denied. We have been fighting this battle ever since," the priest added.

The protest movement continued until 2011, when the governments of Macau and Hong Kong declared that only children under the age of 14 could move from mainland China.

“At the time, local authorities told us that they would later provide for those over 14 years of age," Fr Mella noted. But this never materialised.

"In 2019, the transfer of children under the age of 14 was completed, so we went back to ask when everyone else would be granted the right of abode as well." The answer from local authorities was always the same: "Beijing has not decided yet.”

"Today, compared to 25 years ago, there is no longer the same urgency to come to Hong Kong because many things in China have changed," Fr Mella explained.

“In the meantime, the children of Hongkongers have aged, some are even 50-60 years old. It would be important if they were allowed to be reunited with their parents.”

The PIME priest said that he will continue the battle. "Lately, the two governments, Hong Kong and Beijing, continue to reiterate the need to invest in free movement between the three Chinese provinces north of Hong Kong and the city. So it's absurd that children can't be reunited with their parents.”

There seems to be no real logic for denying this right. “Those who returned to China 25 years ago to await the court's decision have been denied Hong Kong residency papers, even though only a short time earlier they were given to 3,700 people who had simply declared that they were entitled to them,” the missionary explained.

At present, some 60,000 people are affected by the matter.

For Fr Mella, this is not his first sit-in. In the past, he took part in protests demanding the release of about 2,000 members of the pro-democracy movement, mostly students.

"The police told me to stay here where I pitched my tent," he said.

After visiting a jailed member of the Umbrella Revolution (the 2014 peaceful protest movement calling for universal suffrage), police immediately enquired about his intentions.

"They asked me if I was really taking part in the sit-in in front of government buildings. They are very interested in everyone's actions," said Fr Mella.

"We usually try to raise awareness in the population by talking about the situation of our brothers and sisters in prison before the Chinese New Year, which this year falls on 10 February," the clergyman noted.

“We shall see if after the current action for the right of abode ends on 29 January, we can stage another sit-in in front of the prisons," he added.