How British Passport Offers Escape to Hong Kong: QuickTake

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As China tightens its control over Hong Kong through a national security law introduced in June 2020, the UK has offered some residents of its former colony a potential path out: a proposal to allow longer stays in Britain and even a path to future citizenship. Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 quarantine regulations have increased pressure to leave. While about 3 million or more could qualify under the program, only a fraction of that total have advanced so far.

It is about giving extended rights to Hong Kong residents with unique documents known as British (Overseas) Citizenship or BN(O) passports and those deemed eligible for it. The UK created the passports before Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. They allowed their holders to visit the UK without a visa for up to six months, but did not automatically give them the right to live or work there. Fund holders were also not eligible for access to public funds.

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

3. How successful is it?

The number of BN(O) applicants between January and March 2022 jumped 25% from the previous three months, rising to 19,500, according to data from the UK’s Home Office. The surge came as the Omicron type of coronavirus tore through the Asian city, killing thousands. However, total applications are down 57% from the shorter first quarter of 2021, when 34,300 people scrambled to apply after the program began on Jan. 31 of that year. Since then, about 123,400 people have applied. By way of comparison, Hong Kong had a population of 89,200 in the year to the end of June 2021, contributing to a 1.2% decline in its total population to about 7.39 million people.

For each adult who applies to enter the UK for two and a half years, the application fee and health surcharges cost £1,740 ($2,196). That number almost doubles to £3,370 for those who want to stay for five years. In addition, they have to prove that they have enough money to support themselves and their families for at least six months. Many people with large savings and assets bet home on the go: Of the 10 people interviewed by Bloomberg News for an article in March 2022, most sold everything before they arrived in the UK, cashing in savings ranging from HK$500,000 to HK$5 million. Kong ($63,700 to $637,000).

There were already about 350,000 BN(O) passport holders before the Security Act was introduced, according to the UK Home Office. However, other people born before July 1, 1997 were eligible for delivery, and the Home Office said in 2020 it estimated “about 2.9 million BN(O)s” in Hong Kong. This is about 40% of the population. Those born after delivery were not eligible but the UK Government intends to expand the program in October to include those young people born on or after 1 July 1997 and having at least one parent with BN(O) status. This will allow younger Hong Kong residents to apply directly.

6. Why is the UK doing this?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said China’s imposition of the National Security Act was a “clear and serious violation” 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 made it clear that he If China continues down this path, Britain will offer a new route for those with BN(O) status to enter the United Kingdom. In an interview with Sky News the previous month, Raab said the UK was willing to sacrifice a free trade agreement with China to protect Hong Kong citizens.

7. What was China’s reaction?

The Chinese Embassy in London said in July 2020 that the UK had previously promised that it would “not grant the right of residence to Chinese nationals in Hong Kong who hold BN(O) passports”. The embassy said all Chinese citizens living in Hong Kong are considered Chinese citizens. “If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will violate its position and commitments as well as international law and basic norms guiding international relations.” Two days before the launch of the program, China said it will no longer recognize the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document and reserves the “right to take further action”.

8. Why did Hong Kong residents not get ordinary British passports?

Persons born in Hong Kong after the handover in 1997, who were Chinese citizens and permanent residents of Hong Kong, are now eligible for new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports. While then Conservative Prime Minister John Major referred to 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 Conservative party back home about the potential volume of arrivals from Hong Kong, according to Jonathan Dimbleby. In his book “The Last Ruler”. The BN(O)’s biggest legacy may actually be the increased acceptance of immigration from Hong Kong among the UK’s allies. Several countries including the United States, Canada and Australia have followed their plan in making it easier for immigrants from Hong Kong to work legally and apply for residency.

More stories like these are available at bloomberg.com

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