Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the decision to leave behind their hometown and move to Britain since Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the Chinese territory last summer. Their numbers are expected to swell to the hundreds of thousands.
The moves are expected to accelerate now that 5 million Hong Kongers are eligible to apply for visas to Britain, allowing them to live, work and study there and eventually apply to become British citizens. Applications for the British National Overseas visa officially opened on January 31, though many have already arrived in the UK.
These people are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony in 2019. Others say China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most say they don’t plan to ever go back.
“To uproot ourselves like this is definitely not easy. But things got uglier last year, the government was really driving us away,” said a businesswoman and mother of two young children who didn’t give her family name because she feared repercussions for speaking out against the Chinese government.
“Everything we value – freedom of speech, fair elections, liberties – has been eroded. It’s no longer the Hong Kong we knew, it’s no longer somewhere we can call home,” she said.
Britain’s government said some 7,000 people with British National Overseas passports — a travel document that Hong Kongers could apply for before the city was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 — have arrived since July on the previously allowed six-month visa. It estimates that over 3,00,000 people will take up the offer of extended residency rights in the next five years.
“Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about UK immigration, maybe less than 10 a month,” said Andrew Lo, founder of Anlex Immigration Consultants in Hong Kong. “Now we receive about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it,” he said.
Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the UK becomes extremely low, with no language or educational qualification requirements. British National Overseas passport holders need to prove that they have enough money to support themselves for six months and prove that they are clear of tuberculosis, according to the UK government.
Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the UK. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week the visa offer shows Britain is honouring its “profound ties of history” with Hong Kong, which was handed over to China on the understanding that it would retain its Western-style freedoms and much of its political autonomy not seen on mainland China.
Beijing on January 29 said it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a travel document or form of identification, and criticized Britain’s citizenship offer as a move that “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It was unclear what effect the announcement would have because many Hong Kongers carry multiple passports.
“This is a really unique emigration wave, some people haven’t had time to actually visit the country they’re relocating to. Many have no experience of living abroad,” said Miriam Lo, who runs Excelsior UK, a relocation agency. “And because of the pandemic, they couldn’t even come over to view a home before deciding to buy,” he added.