How a British Passport Offers Escape for Hong Kongers: QuickTake

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As China has tightened its control over Hong Kong with a national security law introduced in June 2020, the UK has offered some residents of its former colony a potential route out: a proposal to allow longer stays in Britain and even a pathway to future citizenship. Tough Covid quarantine regulations in Hong Kong have added to the pressure to leave. While some 3 million or more could qualify under the program, so far only a fraction of that total have applied.

It has to do with giving expanded rights to Hong Kong residents with unique documents known as British National (Overseas), or BN(O), passports, and to those considered to be eligible for them. The UK created the passports before handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997. They allowed holders to visit the UK visa-free for up to six months, but didn’t automatically confer the right to live or work there. Holders also weren’t eligible to access public funds.

Former UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons in July 2020 that a new “bespoke immigration route” would allow holders of BN(O) status to come to the UK without the six-month limit. They would be allowed to stay and work in the UK for five years. After that period, they could apply for settled status and, after a further 12 months, for citizenship. Family dependents would also be allowed into the UK and there would be no ceiling on the numbers allowed to apply. Applications were opened from January 2021.

3. How successful has it been?

The number of applicants for the BN(O) program between January and March 2022 jumped 25% from the previous three months, climbing to 19,500, according to data from the UK Home Office. The increase came as the omicron variant of the coronavirus tore through the Asian city, killing thousands. Still, overall applications were down 57% from the shorter first quarter of 2021, when 34,300 people rushed to apply after the program began on Jan. 31 that year. Since then, some 123,400 people have applied. As a comparison, Hong Kong had an outflow of 89,200 residents in the year through the end of June 2021, contributing to a 1.2% drop in its total population to about 7.39 million people. 

For each adult applying to enter the UK for two-and-a-half years, an application fee and health surcharge cost £1,740 ($2,196). That figure almost doubles to £3,370 for those wanting to stay for five years. In addition, they have to prove they have enough money to support themselves and their family for at least six months. Many people with significant savings and assets bet the house on their move: Of 10 people interviewed by Bloomberg News for an article in March 2022, most sold everything before arriving in the UK, cashing in on savings that ranged from HK$500,000 to HK$5 million ($63,700 to $637,000). 

There were already about 350,000 holders of BN(O) passports before the security law was introduced, according to the UK Home Office. Others born before the July 1, 1997 handover were eligible, however, and the Home Office said in 2020 it estimated there were “around 2.9 million BN(O)s” in Hong Kong. That’s about 40% of the population. Those born after the handover have not been eligible but the UK government intends to expand the program in October to include those young people born on or after July 1, 1997 and with at least one parent with BN(O) status. This will allow younger Hong Kongers to apply directly. 

6. Why is the UK doing this?

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said China’s imposition of the national security law was a “clear and serious breach” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Speaking in the House of Commons in July 2020 after its introduction, he said he’d made clear that if China continued down that path, Britain would introduce a new route for those with BN(O) status to enter the UK. In an interview with Sky News the previous month, Raab said the UK was prepared to sacrifice a free trade deal with China to protect Hong Kong citizens.

7. What has been China’s reaction?

The Chinese Embassy in London said in July 2020 that the UK had previously promised it would “not confer the right of abode to Chinese citizens in Hong Kong who hold BN(O) passports.” All Chinese compatriots living in Hong Kong counted as Chinese nationals, the Embassy said. “If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges as well as international law and basic norms guiding international relations.” Two days before the program launched, China said it would no longer recognize the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document and it reserved “the right to take further actions.” 

8. Why didn’t Hong Kong people get regular British passports?

People born in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, who were both Chinese citizens and permanent Hong Kong residents, became eligible for the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) passports. While then-Conservative Prime Minister John Major cited Britain’s “continuing responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong” in a speech in the city in March 1996, at the same time there was concern within his Tory party back home about the potential scale of arrivals from Hong Kong, according to Jonathan Dimbleby in his book “The Last Governor.” The BN(O)’s bigger legacy may actually be increased acceptance of migration from Hong Kong among the UK’s allies. Several countries including the US, Canada, and Australia followed its lead in making it easier for migrants from Hong Kong to work legally and apply for residence.

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