As China tightens its control over Hong Kong with a new national security law, the U.K. is offering 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. Almost 3 million people could qualify.
1. What’s the plan?
It has to do with giving expanded rights to Hong Kong residents with unique travel documents known as British National (Overseas), or BNO, passports, and to those considered to be eligible for them. The U.K. created the passports before handing Hong Kong back to China in 1997. They allowed holders to visit the U.K. 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.
2. What’s changing?
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons on July 1 that a new “bespoke immigration route” will allow holders of BNO status to come to the U.K. without the current six-month limit. They will be allowed to stay and work in the U.K. for five years. After that period, they can apply for settled status and, after a further 12 months with that status, for citizenship. Family dependents will also be allowed into the U.K. and there will be no limit on the numbers allowed to apply.
3. Who will be eligible?
There were about 350,000 holders of BNO passports as of February, according to the U.K. Home Office. Others born before the July 1, 1997 handover were eligible to apply before that date, however, and the U.K. Home Office says it estimates there are “around 2.9 million BNOs currently in Hong Kong.” That’s almost 40% of the population. Those born after the handover are not eligible.
4. Why is the U.K. doing this?
U.K. 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 on July 1, he said he’d made clear that if China continued down this path, Britain would introduce a new route for those with BNO status to enter the U.K. “That is precisely what we will do now,” he said. In an interview with Sky News on June 3, Raab said the U.K. was prepared to sacrifice a free trade deal with China to protect Hong Kong citizens.
5. What has the reaction been from China?
The Chinese Embassy in London said on July 1 the U.K. had previously promised “it will not confer the right of abode to Chinese citizens in Hong Kong who hold BNO passports.” All Chinese compatriots living in Hong Kong count 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.”
6. 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.”
7. How would Britain handle a large influx now?
The government doesn’t expect one. Raab told lawmakers in June that he had held talks with the U.K.’s so-called Five Eyes security allies, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on the potential for sharing the burden of migrants. He said in July he expects “a large number” of those who are eligible to remain in Hong Kong or move elsewhere in the region, while also conceding there would be little the British authorities could do if China tried to block people from Hong Kong traveling to the U.K. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his cabinet is “very actively” considering offering Hong Kong citizens safe haven, but didn’t provide details on how that would be arranged.