China has accused Australia of “gross interference” after Scott Morrison granted a range of visa holders from Hong Kong a five-year extension and suspended an extradition treaty with the city.
The prime minister announced on Thursday that Australia would allow a range of visa holders to stay in the country for longer and then offer them a pathway to permanent residency – but has stopped short of creating a special humanitarian intake for Hongkongers fearing persecution under the new national security law.
The government said almost 10,000 temporary skilled, graduate and student visa holders in Australia would be eligible for the special arrangements, along with a further 2,500 outside Australia and 1,250 applications on hand. There are also opportunities for future applicants and attempts to attract entrepreneurs.
Morrison said Australia would also suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong – following a similar move by Canada – because it believed the national security law “constitutes a fundamental change of circumstances”.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra responded furiously to the moves, saying China “strongly deplores and opposes the groundless accusations and measures announced by the Australian government”.
“The Australian side has been clanking that they oppose ‘foreign interference’,” a spokesperson for the embassy said in a statement.
“However they have blatantly interfered in China’s internal affairs by making irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong related issues. Its hypocrisy and double standard is exposed in full.”
The embassy spokesperson called on Australia “to immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs under any pretext or in any way, otherwise it will lead to nothing but lifting a rock only to hit its own feet”.
Amid increasing tensions in the relationship between Australia and China, Morrison said the government would “adjust the policy settings” to ensure that skilled and graduate visa holders would have a five-year extension, followed by a pathway to permanent residency.
Current and future students would be able to stay in Australia for five years after they graduate.
“If you’re a temporary graduate or skilled visa holder, your visa will be extended to provide an additional five years from today, in addition to the time you’ve already been in Australia, with a pathway to permanent residency at the end of that period,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“And we will also provide a five-year visa with a pathway to permanent residency for future Hong Kong applicants for temporary skilled visas, subject to meeting an updated skills list and appropriate labour marking testing.”
To encourage applicants to study and work in regional areas, Australia would offer express pathways to permanent residency after three years.
The government would also seek to attract export-orientated Hong Kong-based businesses to move to Australia, particularly where they had a strong potential for future growth and employment of Australians.
The acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, said Australia wanted to attract global talent and businesses from Hong Kong at a time when “many individuals now might be looking elsewhere, because they do want to be in a freer country, they want to be in a democratic country”.
Human rights groups had been calling on the government to announce a special humanitarian intake, similar to the Abbott government initiative in 2015 for people displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The Australia director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, told Guardian Australia earlier this week the pathway to help people likely to be targeted by Beijing “should be on top of existing humanitarian quotas, so that protection for Hong Kong people is not at the expense of others fleeing persecution in places like Syria or Afghanistan”.
But Morrison said the existing “refugee and humanitarian stream remains available for those seeking to apply through that channel – and that is available to people all around the world”.
The Australian government updated its travel advice for Hong Kong just hours before the announcement to warn that Australians “may be at increased risk of detention on vaguely defined national security grounds”.
“If you’re concerned about the new law, reconsider your need to remain in Hong Kong,” the travel advice said. Officials have had more time to assess the impact of the national security law since last week’s update, which warned the law could be interpreted broadly and people may unintentionally break it.
The travel advice for mainland China has also been updated to say Australians may be at risk of arbitrary detention – a change the Guardian understands was influenced by the case of two Canadians detained on the basis of espionage allegations.
On Thursday, New Zealand also announced it was reviewing its relationship with Hong Kong, including extradition arrangements and travel advice. Foreign affairs minister Winston Peters said the national security law “fundamentally changed the environment for international engagement”.
Morrison revealed last week that he was planning to follow the lead of his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, in offering help to Hong Kong residents. Johnson has said he would honour a promise to offer nearly 3 million residents of the former British colony, those with British national overseas status, the right to settle in the UK.
But on Thursday Morrison cautioned against drawing parallels with Johnson’s offer, noting that the UK had “a very special relationship with Hong Kong” and that Australia was not talking about such large numbers.
“We’re not talking about tens of thousands, or anything of that nature,” Morrison said. Tudge said the numbers were likely to be “in the hundreds or low thousands”.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, backed Morrison’s announcements but called for clarity on family reunions. “As usual what he has delivered falls far short of what he has promised.”
A day before the announcement, Morrison attempted to send a message to China that Australia’s visa program was a matter for Australian domestic politics. “They’re Australian sovereign issues,” he said.
Asked on Thursday whether he expected any countermeasures from China that might make it difficult for people in Hong Kong to leave to take up the offer, Morrison said: “I don’t. But if that were to occur that would be very disappointing.”
Chinese authorities argued last week that the UK had no right to grant residency to Hongkongers and vowed to take “corresponding measures” to stop such a move.