Hong Kong migrants flee to UK to start a new life, fearing China breakdown

Beijing's strict new security law on the Chinese territory caused thousands of Hong Kong citizens flee to the UK, leaving their country and past life behind.
February 02, 2021 | 13:17
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In this July 7, 2019, file photo, thousands of protesters carrying the British flag march near the harbor of Hong Kong. Thousands of people from Hong Kong are fleeing their hometown since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the territory in the summer 2020. Many 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. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the sometimes painful 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.

According to AP news, some 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.

“Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about U.K. 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.”

Mike, a photojournalist, said he plans to apply for the visa and move to Leeds with his wife and young daughter in April.

His motivation to leave Hong Kong came after the city’s political situation deteriorated following the anti-government protests and he realized that the city’s police force was not politically neutral. The police have been criticized by pro-democracy supporters for brutality and the use of excessive violence.

Mike said moving to Britain was important as he believed the education system in Hong Kong will be affected by the political situation and it will be better for his daughter to study in the U.K.

Mike agreed to speak on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of fear of official retaliation.

Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the U.K. becomes extremely low, with no language or education 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 U.K. government.

Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the U.K. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals.

Cindy, a Hong Kong businesswoman and the mother of two young children, arrived in London last week.

In Hong Kong she had a comfortable lifestyle. She owned several properties with her husband and the business she ran was going well. But she made up her mind to leave it all behind as she felt that the city’s freedoms and liberties were eroding and she wanted to ensure a good future for her kids.

Cindy, who spoke on the condition she only be identified by her first name out of concern of official retaliation, said it was important to move quickly as she feared Beijing would soon move to halt the exodus.

Hong Kong residients now eligible for special UK visa

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A British National Overseas passports (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. China said Friday it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a valid travel document or form of identification amid a bitter feud with London over a plan to allow millions of Hong Kong residents a route to residency and eventual citizenship. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

According to BBC, the UK launched the new visa after China imposed a new security law.

Those who apply and secure the visa will be able to apply for settlement after five years and then British citizenship after a further 12 months.

Beijing has previously warned the UK not to meddle in domestic issues.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move honoured the UK's "profound ties of history and friendship" with the ex-British colony.

About 7,000 people from Hong Kong have already been allowed to settle in the UK since July, the Home Office said.

Although there are 2.9 million citizens eligible to move to the UK, with a further estimated 2.3 million dependents, the government expects about 300,000 people to take up the offer in the first five years.

The 7,000 who have already arrived were allowed to settle before the scheme began by being granted Leave Outside the Rules, which gives the government discretion over immigration rules on compassionate grounds.

Mr Johnson said: "I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BNOs to live, work and make their home in our country.

"In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy - values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear."

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian called the scheme a violation of China's sovereignty and gross interference in Hong Kong and China's internal affairs, the country's state-affiliated news website The Paper reported.

"The British side disregarded the fact that Hong Kong returned to China 24 years ago," he said.

China will no longer recognise the BNO passport from Sunday. It is not yet clear what this move will mean.

Those eligible for the new visa can apply online and will need to book an appointment to attend a visa application centre.

And from 23 February, BNO status holders who hold an eligible biometric passport will be able to use an app to complete their application from home.

The visa fee to stay for five years will be £250 per person - or £180 for a 30-month stay - and there is an immigration health surcharge of up to £624-a-year.

Nathan Law, a pro-democracy campaigner who fled Hong Kong and now lives in exile in the UK, welcomed the announcement.

"It's a commitment to the historical agreement to Hong Kong and I think it's important that we offer safe exit for the people who are facing political suppression in Hong Kong," he told the BBC.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said this was to give applicants greater security amid fears they could be identified and targeted by the authorities.

"Safeguarding individuals' freedoms, liberty and security is absolutely vital for those individuals that go through this process," she said.

The BNO status was created before the UK handed responsibility for Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

Before Hong Kong was returned, the UK and China made an agreement to introduce "one country, two systems", which meant, among other things, rights such as freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press would be protected.

The agreement signed in 1984 was set to last until 2047.

But the UK has said this agreement - known as the Joint Declaration - is under threat because the territory passed a new law in June that gives China sweeping new controls over the people of Hong Kong.

China has said the law is necessary to prevent the type of protests seen in Hong Kong during much of 2019. However, the law has caused alarm both in Hong Kong and abroad, with opponents saying it erodes the territory's freedoms as a semi-autonomous region of China.

'Why should I leave?'

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Residents of the UK's former colony believe China is undermining Hong Kong's rights and freedoms (Photo: Reuters)

Although the British government admits that as many as one million people could apply for the visa over the next five years, it thinks only a few hundred thousand will actually do so.

It believes most people will choose to remain in Hong Kong, BBC reported.

Some residents will not want to leave behind elderly parents or learn a new language; the British weather is certain to dissuade others.

Many do not want to abandon the territory to its fate.

"There is a certain number of people who do not want to leave, particularly the young. They would rather die in Hong Kong," said Mr Lo.

"I have a lot of clients who fight with their kids because the children don't want to emigrate. They say: 'Why should I leave? I should try my best to change this place'."

There is also the difficulty of finding work in Britain, as the country tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and Brexit.

And if enough come, new arrivals could face resentment from British people who oppose too much immigration.

"In the cold light of day, many will decide to stay in Hong Kong," said Mr Bloomfield, whose company is called British Connections.

Regardless of how many apply, the British government said it had no choice but to offer Hong Kong people an escape route.

"This is not a question of numbers," said a Home Office spokesperson.

"The government is committed to giving British National (Overseas) citizens in Hong Kong a choice to come to the UK, fulfilling our historic commitment to them."

Britain believes that when China imposed its national security law on Hong Kong earlier this year, it breached the terms of the handover agreement signed by the two countries.

The space for expressing opinions that the Chinese government does not like has certainly narrowed since the law came into effect in July.

In the end, the number of Hong Kong residents emigrating to Britain might depend on how much more Beijing decides to squeeze.

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