In January of this year, a pathway to British citizenship opened up for British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport holders from Hong Kong. The new scheme, first announced in July last year in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, enables up to 3 million BNOs and their dependents the ability to make the UK their home. This guest blog by Johnny Patterson, Policy Director at the charity Hong Kong Watch, details what needs to be done to better support those relocating to the UK from Hong Kong and how civil society has already mobilised in response to the government’s new policy towards Hong Kongers.
It has been a hard year in Hong Kong. Not only has the city shared in the global struggle to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, but China has also systematically unpicked the city’s rights safeguards.
‘China’s latest decision to undermine Hong Kong’s electoral system and stifle democratic voices renders it in ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration,’ wrote the Foreign Secretary a few weeks ago.
Rights in Hong Kong are guaranteed by a treaty signed between Britain and China in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The British government’s view is that the National Security Law, the mass arrests of democracy campaigners, and the subsequent electoral reforms imposed from Beijing on the city stand in breach of the treaty.
It is because this treaty has been broken, and the government recognises that it has duties to Hong Kongers under the treaty, that the UK has decided to offer a pathway to citizenship to British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport holders.
Providing a warm welcome
An unprecedented visa offer has been made to up to 3 million BNOs, along with their dependents. This means that pretty much every Hong Konger who was alive before the handover in 1997 can access a pathway to citizenship in the UK and can bring their children. It is the right move at a bleak time in the city: the UK stepping up to its historic obligations to Hong Kongers.
Yet, having made this offer, it is vital that resources are put aside—both by civil society and government—to ensure that Hong Kongers are met with a warm welcome.
Civil society and government must combat the misconception that all those who move to the UK will be financial professionals who already speak good English. While some of those who move will no doubt fit into this category, Hong Kong is a diverse and economically unequal society and many of those who relocate may not be middle class. They will need help getting up on their feet and we should be allocating resources to ensure that there is language provision in place, proper signposting to schooling and other civic services, support available on navigating bureaucracy, and mental health provision for those who are still reeling from the trauma of Hong Kong’s recent history. It is important to note, there is no recourse to public funds under this scheme, except in cases of destitution, and so community support will be essential.
Another challenge which civil society and the government must be aware of is the narrative. Public opinion so far has been largely positive about the government’s generous offer to BNOs. Many British people understand the historical ties and moral responsibility we have to Hong Kong, and often regard Hong Kongers as entrepreneurial, creative, dynamic people who share our values. However, as the UK’s geopolitical positioning towards China becomes more strident, whether that is because of events in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, or because of the Chinese regime’s handling of Covid-19, and as unemployment in the UK rises and our economy struggles, there is a danger that we see a spike in aggression towards ethnic Chinese people in Britain.
Ironically, many of the Hong Kongers who move here will have been the victims of the very political events which may be fuelling Sinophobia. It is vital that a coordinated effort is put in place to ensure that all ethnic Chinese in Britain can be at home here. That must start with efforts to tell a positive story about the benefits of the BNO policy, and of the merits of being a country which provides refuge to those who need it.
A coordinated response
When facing these narratives and practical challenges, the response must be coordinated across civil society, local authorities and government, with each bringing their respective expertise to the table.
As yet, the government’s plan has been limited. They only appointed a minister, Lord Greenhalgh, to the brief a few weeks ago. But it is imperative that they now take this issue seriously. Home Office estimates suggest that, once the pandemic restrictions start to lift, there will be tens of thousands of people starting to move to Britain.
The civil society response to date has been impressive. In less than nine months, several initiatives have emerged. The Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (see @hongkongarc on Twitter) has been set up for Hong Kongers (particularly protestors) in urgent need of assistance. UK Welcomes Refugees are also looking to set up similar support networks, and Winston Marshall of the band Mumford and Sons is launching a buddy-system which aims to pair Hong Kongers with local Britons to help people get up on their feet.
The social entrepreneur, Dr Krish Kandiah, recently launched a platform to welcome Hong Kongers to the United Kingdom: UKHK is a one-stop shop hoping to provide all the info BNOs need when they arrive. He’s also mobilising Chinese and UK churches to help make people welcome.
The former Number 10 Deputy Policy Director and venture capitalist, Daniel Korski, has also convened a network of sympathetic actors as an umbrella group to coordinate a response to the new policy, appropriately named a ‘Welcoming Committee’.
I have been moved by civil society standing ready to help coordinate a response. The government should jump at the opportunity to have such willing partners in rolling out the red carpet to new arrivals.