The British government released new details this week of its plan to allow Hong Kong holders of British National (Overseas) passports and their dependents to relocate to Britain. In an unprecedented scheme unveiled in July, the government announced that some 3.4 million eligible BN(O) passport holders in Hong Kong would be granted leave to work and study in the U.K. beginning next year, with a pathway to becoming full citizens. For South China Morning Post, Ng Kang-chung, Danny Mok, and Stuart Lau reported that the U.K. Home Office confirmed details about the rollout of the scheme on Thursday, including the creation of a special visa class:
There will be no cap on the number of British National (Overseas) passport holders allowed to participate, and applications will open on January 31, 2021, according to a statement issued by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
[…] The new “Hong Kong BN(O) Visa” will allow the holder to enter and remain in Britain for an initial period of 30 months, extendable by a further 30 months, or a single period of five years, according to information on the British government’s website.
“You’ll be able to work and study, but you won’t be able to access public funds such as social welfare benefits,” a statement on the website reads. [Source]
The BN(O) passport was issued to residents of Hong Kong in the ten years prior to the city’s handover to China. BN(O) holders are British nationals but not citizens, meaning they do not have the right of abode in Britain. BN(O) status previously did not afford a pathway to citizenship in the U.K. After the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law, the U.K. government announced that it would establish a special visa to allow holders to work and potentially immigrate. Announcing the immigration scheme in July, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel described the offer as the U.K. “keeping our promise” to Hong Kong residents “to uphold their freedoms.”
The visa is expected to be extremely popular among Hong Kong residents. On Thursday, The Guardian’s Jamie Griersson reported that official U.K. estimates project more than 1 million people could emigrate to the U.K. from Hong Kong in the next five years:
More than 1 million people from Hong Kong could emigrate to the UK in the next five years under a new visa, including 500,000 in the first year, according to official estimates.
[…] An economic impact assessment by the Home Office gives a “high” range estimate of 500,000 people with BNO status and their dependants arriving in the UK in the first year, with more than 1 million over five years. Total immigration to the UK in the year ending March was 715,000. There will be no quota on the numbers of visas granted.
But the Home Office said this would be an “extreme” scenario. A more likely, “central” estimate calculates 123,000 to 153,000 people with BNO status and their dependants arriving in the UK in the first year and between 258,000 and 322,400 over five years.
The central assessment of the economic net impact of the arrivals is a positive boost to the UK economy of between £2.4bn and £2.9bn over five years with the majority of this in the form of additional tax collected by the exchequer. [Source]
One of the criticisms of using BN(O) status as the basis for eligibility is that Hong Kong residents born after the 1997 handover are ineligible for BN(O) passports. This demographic includes many young front line protestors who participated in pro-democracy demonstrations last year. (Of the close to 9000 arrests made between June 2019 and May 2020, over 5600 arrestees were between the ages of 18 and 30.) In her announcement in June, Home Secretary Patel appeared to account for this issue by stating that the U.K. would under certain circumstances broaden its definition of dependents to allow young Hong Kongers over the age of 18 to apply with their BN(O) passport-holding parents:
We understand there will be cases where the children of BN(O) citizens will not normally be eligible because they were born after 1997 (so are not BN(O) citizens) and are over 18 so they would not normally be considered as a dependant in the UK’s immigration system. Therefore, in compelling and compassionate circumstances, we will use discretion to grant a visa to the children of BN(O) citizens who fall into this category and who are still dependent on the BN(O). [Source]
Beijing has reacted angrily to the U.K.’s decision to grant residency to BN(O) holders. In July, the Foreign Ministry threatened to withdraw its recognition of the passports. Former Hong Kong secretary for security Regina Ip suggested that such a move might lead Hong Kong’s Immigration Department to instruct airlines to refuse tickets to BN(O) passport holders. But it is unclear whether that would have any effect on applicants’ ability to emigrate, as Hong Kong residents would still be free to travel to the U.K. on their Hong Kong SAR-issued passports. The Home Office has stated that BN(O) holders need not apply for or renew their BN(O) passports to apply for the scheme.
Still, Beijing may employ other measures to make it difficult for residents to emigrate to the U.K. Last month, Apple Daily reported that BN(O) holders trying to withdraw their retirement savings from the city’s mandatory pension fund before emigrating were barred from doing so:
The MPF, a compulsory government retirement plan, normally prevents withdrawals until the account holder reaches the retirement age of 65. However, those who plan to leave Hong Kong permanently can withdraw their contributions early.
But the exception to early withdrawals is BN(O) holders planning to settle in the U.K. this year, Apple Daily has found. Customer service officers at several MPF trustee companies – including Manulife, HSBC, AIA and BOCI-Prudential Trustees – said the BN(O) is considered only a travel document rather than proof of residency outside of Hong Kong.
A customer service officer at the Mandatory Provident Schemes Authority gave the same explanation to Apple Daily’s enquiry. [Source]
Gaining dual citizenship in Hong Kong and the U.K. does not guarantee that residents would receive British consular protection while in Hong Kong. This was explained by Kinling Lo for the South China Morning Post in an article published in July:
According to the official NPC document [on dual citizenship for Hong Kong residents], Beijing does not bar Hongkongers who are holders of dual nationality to use other passports for travel purposes, but they are not entitled to seek consular protection from their second country in the city or other parts of the country. In other words, these people would only be able to seek diplomatic protection from their non-Chinese country of choice in Hong Kong if they successfully renounced their Chinese nationality and declared their other nationality.
[…] China’s treatment of Hong Kong-British dual nationals was made especially clear in 2016 when bookseller Lee Bo, a British passport holder, went missing and was later found to be under questioning by Chinese authorities.
London expressed concern about Lee’s situation, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen”. [Source]
In addition to the U.K., other countries have made moves to admit Hong Kong residents as citizens, or at least begun considering doing so. A bill moving through the U.S. House of Representatives would provide temporary protected status to Hong Kong residents, which would allow them to obtain work permits. After Germany granted asylum to a student fleeing rioting charges this week, Hong Kong’s number two official summoned the consul general and accused the country of “harboring criminals.” In Canada, two Hong Kong activists wanted on rioting charges were recently granted refugee status, in a move that provoked angry threats from the Chinese ambassador. But the threats may have backfired. On Thursday, a Canadian parliamentary committee voted unanimously to examine providing safe haven to Hong Kong residents “facing persecution,” a sign that options for Hong Kong residents looking to immigrate may yet expand.