Immigration goes distance in virus calls

Local | Cissy So 29 Jun 2020

The immigration department has received more than 15,700 requests for help from Hongkongers stranded abroad since January as countries imposed travel restrictions.

At one point, it received 400 cases in the space of an hour and had to expand manpower significantly from 26 people to more than 500 to help answer phone calls, reply to e-mails or provide assistance on the ground abroad.

Because of flight restrictions and immigration control measures, many of those stranded have used the assistance to Hong Kong residents unit's 24-hour hotline at 852-1868, which the department had been operating since the beginning of the year.

The hotline has a total of 46 lines available to deal with surging demand.

"Flight restrictions and immigration control measures always take effect a day after an official announcement. It often catches tourists off guard and leaves them stranded. This is when they call us for help to get home," senior immigration officer Leung Hing-wah said.

Leung said due to an increasing number of cases from different time zones, staff needed to work around the clock.

"Whenever we receive a request for help, we have to contact the Chinese embassy or related institutions in that country to understand the latest epidemic situation," Leung said. "At the same time, we reach out to different bureaus to see if we can arrange flights to bring back stranded residents."

Leung has participated in a number of large-scale rescues, such as the earthquakes in Kumamoto and Hokkaido in Japan.

He also participated in the operation to repatriate Hongkongers who were stranded on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, for which three charter flights were arranged to bring around 200 people back to Hong Kong.

The department has also arranged airlifts for residents stranded in places like Wuhan, Peru, Morocco, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

With the increased workload, the department has set up a special command center on another floor at the headquarters to accommodate more staff.

Chief immigration officer Kwong Wai-yin thanked staff for their work.

"Without a concerted effort, it would be impossible to effectively solve all the problems we face," Kwong said.

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