Cyrus Chan and Phila Siu, South China Morning Post, March 19, 2021
Some 27,000 Hongkongers have already applied for the new pathway to citizenship since the British National (Overseas) visa scheme was launched in January, with analysts believing more would follow as they feared political uncertainty in the city.
The latest figures were released on Friday as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke via video conferencing to four Hong Kong families who have moved to the country on the special visa.
Johnson told the families how glad the country was to have them and “how proud we are that you have chosen the UK to live”.
He added: “I believe strongly in the prospects the UK can offer for those who want to make their lives here, and I have no doubt that you are going to feel very much at home.”
The prime minister said the visa scheme reflected Britain’s “historic and moral commitment” to the people of Hong Kong.
“The UK has a long and proud history of embracing those who arrive on our shores seeking the inalienable rights and freedoms denied to them in their homeland,” he said. “I am very proud that we have been able to make this offer to you and other British Nationals (Overseas).”
Britain introduced the new visa last July in response to Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on its former colony, an act London described as a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement that paved the way for the city’s handover in 1997.
Up to 5.4 million Hongkongers are eligible under the programme, including holders of BN(O) status and their dependants, to stay in the country for up to five years, with the right to work and study, and to apply for citizenship after six years.
A British government estimate published last October predicted more than a million might make the move over the next five years, although that was the maximum forecast. A more realistic number was around 320,000.
The 30-minute conversation was “very positive and full of gratitude”, said Krish Kandiah, who facilitated the meeting. Kandiah is the founder of UKHK.org, a charity supporting Hongkongers in Britain.
“Everyone expressed individually a great sense of thankfulness to the government for opening this route. The prime minister is very welcoming and congratulated them for coming here,” he added.
Kandiah said the families told the prime minister that with the city undergoing major changes, the Hong Kong they left “was not the one they knew”.
Johnson heard about some of the challenges the new arrivals were facing, particularly on the job market.
“We have a GP, an architect and a teacher,” Kandiah said. “Currently, none of their qualifications is recognised in the UK. They are either trying to get recognised or applying for jobs in other fields.
“The prime minister showed a lot of passion trying to find ways to help their qualifications to be recognised. He was hearing their needs and he was very receptive. His team is going to explore what could be done.”
Some parents also expressed concern about their children’s passport status. Those born after 1997 do not have BN(O) status and hold only Hong Kong passports, which will expire within five years.
Benny Cheung Ka-hei, director of Goldmax Immigration Consulting, said the number of applications was “very high”, given the scheme only opened on January 31.
“Given that 27,000 people have already applied in less than two months, if you do the maths, there could be 200,000 in a year, and a million people in five years,” he said.
His firm had received more enquiries in recent months, with more than 100 people a month asking about the scheme, he said. Although some were concerned about finding work in Britain, all were prepared to take a different job than the one they did in Hong Kong.
Former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing, an advocate for BN(O) rights, said she knew of professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who had already moved to Britain and elsewhere.
A survey of about 5,700 people, conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and released earlier this week, showed that 21 per cent were ready to leave the city, were making preparations to do so, or had decided to but had not started planning yet.
“A lot of people are planning to leave,” Lau said. “I knew some very senior doctors who have already left. These people are sought after overseas. If you’re senior enough, you will be hired.”
The meeting between Johnson and the Hong Kong families on Friday coincided with high-level talks in Alaska between the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.
Blinken said the release of updates to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act report underscored Washington’s “deep concern” over Beijing’s decision to “unilaterally undermine” the city’s electoral system.
The action further undermined the high degree of autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong and denied Hongkongers a voice in their own governance, a move that Britain had declared to be in breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Blinken said.
Ahead of the meeting in Alaska, Washington sanctioned 24 Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials over a planned electoral overhaul in the financial hub. According to Blinken, the individuals “have reduced Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”.