Blog post by Ka Wang Kelvin Lam, a MPhil student in Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he is researching migration and immigrant integration. Kelvin is passionate about doing social services in relation to the well-being of migrants, minorities and disadvantaged groups.*


Hong Kong, China’s special administrative region, has again come to global attention since 2019’s anti-extradition bill movement. With the introduction of the national security law and further suppression of dissidents afterward, sources predicted that the city will soon face mass emigration when the Covid-19 pandemic comes to an end. As many Hong Kong residents who plan to have a move will be leaving under certain levels of pressure, should they be called refugees?  


This question is not as simple as it may seem. On one hand, we tend to associate refugees with people who suffer from wars and conflicts, or severe persecution, such as genocide. But for people living in an international metropolis like Hong Kong, the concept ‘refugees’ does not seem to apply. On the other hand, it may be oversimplified to call them ‘voluntary’ migrants because many Hong Kong residents are literally ‘forced’ to move. To answer this question, we need to touch on the following sub-questions: Who is a refugee and who is a migrant? What are the differences between the two? Do Hong Kong emigrants fit into these definitions? If not, what makes them a special case?  


Refugees and migrants


We begin with bringing the textbook definitions of refugees and migrants. Refugees are people who are unable or unwilling to return to their countries of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution. As for migrants, they are defined as people who move away from their places of usual residence, either temporarily or permanently, within the country or across international borders, for various reasons. The above definitions are straightforward, but in practice, should we regard refugees simply a subset of migrants?  


Some experts have expressed their reservations. For instance, Stephen Castles and his colleagues suggested that there are considerable differences between refugees and migrants. In general, migrants are likely to have more rooms for planning and thus more resources for settlement in other countries, while refugees do not. For asylum seekers (refugees waiting for official recognition), their legal status limits their access to rights and services in the receiving society, compared with other migrants. One example is that many migrants in Hong Kong are allowed to work but asylum seekers are not. All these show that refugees are often in more vulnerable situations than migrants, still, it is also noteworthy that the boundary between the two is increasingly blurring, as today more migrants are likewise moving under strong pressure.  


Emigration of Hong Kong residents


Based on the above discussion, should we then identify Hong Kong emigrants as refugees or migrants? I will explain in the following part by taking a number of factors into consideration, namely legal status, process of planning and self-perception.  


First, it is likely that most of the Hong Kong residents who plan to migrate will be moving as ordinary as other [economic] migrants worldwide. For people we usually consider to be refugees, we expect them to seek asylum in other countries. They at times may move without any identification document when leaving home in a rush. It may also be that their passports are confiscated as they are undergoing the due process of law. In view of Hong Kong emigrants, it is true that in recent months there were a number who moved or attempted to move by seeking asylum, but these circumstances apply mainly to a small number of Hong Kong people, especially the activists in protests who are under or may face prosecution and are likely to get a heavy sentence (i.e., being sent for trail in mainland China and even facing lifelong imprisonment under the national security law). But for the majority of Hong Kong people, they are not in that kind of pressing situation and will be moving with a valid passport and/or visa. And this will become more common in the coming future with more democratic countries, for example, United Kingdom and Australia, relaxing their immigration rules specifically for Hong Kong people, in which they may be allowed to reside in these countries upon meeting certain criteria. Most of the Hong Kong emigrants, as a result, will not be recognised as ‘refugees’ in accordance with the international refugee law.  


Second, it is also likely that the vast majority of Hong Kong residents who plan to move are well-prepared in the process of migration. Refugees are in general fleeing home without adequate planning and resources, but these are likely not the case for Hong Kong emigrants. Hong Kong’s situation obviously are not comparable to the countries suffering from wars and conflicts. Living in a [relatively] peaceful environment, Hong Kong people still have ample time to plan for their migration: they can bring with them their economic resources, consult migration professionals and/or seek advice from their personal social networks to select the destinations that best fit them, among others. With a better preparedness and resource base, we do not expect Hong Kong emigrants to be as vulnerable as other refugees that we tend to perceive, if we are to call them refugees.  


Third, although many Hong Kong residents who plan to migrate are in fact moving under strong pressure (i.e., the city’s worsening socio-political situation and shrinking space for human rights), it is likely that they may not for that reason identify themselves as refugees. In terms of development, as one of Asia’s international financial hubs, Hong Kong has been placed in a leading position in its standard of living. People are well-educated and earn a relatively high level of salary. Some countries even consider Hong Kong emigrants as high-skilled migrants. In terms of culture, Hong Kong people show a strong tendency of self-reliance deep-rooted in the local culture — the ‘lion rock spirit’ which emphasised perseverance and solidarity under limited welfare provision and discouragement of welfare dependency. Many Hong Kong people will therefore bring with them resources to the receiving society and rely on their own for a living, instead of to depend on social welfare. I do not intend to stigmatise the act of receiving social welfare, what I would like to show is that Hong Kong people may not be used to it because of its unique cultural context. Similarly, to them, the concept ‘refugees’ at a cultural level still implies ‘reliance’ more than ‘self-reliance’, which makes them likely to reject the label.  




To sum up the discussion, this article addressed the question of whether Hong Kong emigrants should be called refugees by taking their legal status, process of planning and self-perception into consideration. Hong Kong emigrants are migrants for sure, but whether they are refugees or not contends. Nevertheless, Hong Kong emigrants are a special case, not because of other reasons, but that the foreseeable wave of emigration in itself is challenging our traditional and/or stereotypical perceptions of refugees — people who are in vulnerable situations and longing for humanitarian aid. No matter whether you call them refugees or migrants, the projected wave of emigration in Hong Kong still deserves attention from the international community.    



* The author can be contacted at


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

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