Britain opens visa scheme for millions of Hong Kongers

Hong Kong | Sun, January 31, 2021 | 09:47 pm

A new visa scheme offering millions of Hong Kongers a pathway to British citizenship will go live later on Sunday as the city’s former colonial master opens its doors to those wanting to escape China’s crackdown on dissent.

Everyone with a British National (Overseas) passport and their dependents will be able to apply for a visa online from Sunday afternoon to enable them to live and work in the United Kingdom. They will then apply for citizenship after five years. The immigration scheme is a reaction to Beijing’s decision last year to enforce Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law to snuff out large and frequently violent demonstrations against democracy.

Ahead of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, Britain accused China of tearing up its pledge that the financial hub would preserve crucial freedoms and autonomy for 50 years. London argued that it had a moral responsibility to preserve its former colonial subjects. This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the program, “We have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy,” China has responded to the visa offer with fury.

BN(O) passports were confirmed on Friday that they would no longer be accepted as a valid travel document or ID document. As Hong Kongers tend to use their own passports or ID cards to leave the area, the change was largely symbolic. But Beijing said it was prepared to take “further measures” raising concerns that authorities might try to prevent Hong Kongers from leaving for Britain. How many Hong Kongers will take up the offer is not clear, especially as the coronavirus restricts global flights and causes a painful economic malaise for most of the world, including Britain.

But a BN(O) passport is available for a large number of people—about 70% of the 7.5 million population of Hong Kong. Since the national security law was enforced last July, applications for BN(O) passports have skyrocketed more than 300 percent, with 733,000 registered holders as of mid-January. In the next year, Britain estimates that up to 154,000 Hong Kongers will arrive and up to 322,000 over five years, bringing an expected “net benefit” of up to £ 2.9 billion ($ 4 billion). A legacy of Hong Kong’s return to authoritarian China is the BN(O) passport.

At the time, many Hong Kongers wanted Britain to grant them full citizenship, but the move was opposed by China. The BN(O) was a compromise, giving Hong Kongers born before 1997 the right to stay for six months at a time in Britain, but without the right to work or settle. Now, as authorities execute mass arrests against democracy supporters and move to rid the restless city of dissenting views, it has become one of the few ways out for Hong Kongers to aspire to start a new life overseas.

With her husband and three-year-old son, Stella, a former marketing professional, plans to relocate to Britain imminently. “The national security law in 2020 gave us one last kick because the provisions are basically criminalizing free speech,” she told AFP, requesting to use only her first name. Those wishing to transfer have to prove, under the visa system, that they have ample funds to support both themselves and their dependents for at least six months. Already in Britain, Hong Kongers who are interested in helping others move claim that many of the early applicants appear to be trained middle-class individuals, often with young families, who have enough liquidity to fund their move.

Nic, an activist with a group called Lion Rock Hill UK, told AFP, calling for anonymity, “Most people we spoke with are families with primary school or nursery age kids,” Even before the new scheme came to existence, some Hong Kongers began leaving the city. Britain said earlier this week that about 7,000 individuals have passed under a different Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) scheme over the last six months. They will also be eligible to apply for visas on the road to citizenship. “The BNO is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers,” Mike, a medical scientist who recently moved to Manchester with his family, told AFP.

He said many Hong Kongers were afraid that China would prevent residents from leaving the territory. “So it is better to leave as soon as possible, “So it is better to leave as soon as possible.

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