On Sunday, the historic Hong Kong British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) visa programme will open; a fitting end to a week of celebrations and activism marking the 180th anniversary of the founding of modern Hong Kong.
The scheme will allow Hongkongers who hold British National (Overseas) citizenship, an offer that was made to people who were British citizens by connection with Hong Kong in 1997, and their close family members to apply to come and stay in the UK for up to 5 years.
This is the right thing to do and will make a huge difference to many Hongkongers who no longer feel safe in their city, which has changed dramatically in recent years.
It’s also an important part of the UK’s response to support Hong Kong citizens who have faced almost two years of ever-escalating brutality and oppression from their government, particularly those associated with the pro-democracy or protest movements.
Beijing has threatened retaliation, suggesting it could prohibit Hongkongers from holding dual citizenship, but for many the situation in Hong Kong has become untenable and they are undeterred.
Civil and political freedoms have been deteriorating in Hong Kong since protests broke out in March 2019. What began as concern over a proposed extradition bill, which many feared would see suspects extradited to China, has snowballed into a broader fight over the city’s values and future.
Over the past two years Beijing’s ruling communist party has been increasing its influence in the city, transforming Hong Kong from the vibrant global business hub it once was to a region that is effectively operating as a police state.
With the imposition of the broad and draconian National Security Laws, freedom has become a tragic façade, and pro-democracy lawmakers willing to stand up for fundamental rights have been ousted.
The BN(O) visas will allow Hong Kongers to flee this Orwellian nightmare and build a new life in the UK. This is undoubtably the right thing to do as we in the UK have a moral duty to support those Hongkongers who feel they must escape the brutal Hong Kong authorities.
But we shouldn’t feel like this is a one-way street; the economic, intellectual and cultural contribution these citizens can make to the UK could be significant.
Moreover, we must also be cautious that this isn’t the end of our commitment to Hongkongers. While some of those who come to the UK are likely to be wealthy, educated individuals, others will struggle to pay the additional costs of emigrating such as the Immigration Health Surcharge.
The UK government needs to ensure that these individuals are properly supported. These are people who have been through so much already. They have watched their city – not dissimilar to many in the UK – their freedoms and their lives crumble.
No one should be prevented from escaping China’s totalitarian regime because of an arbitrary price tag.
Of particular concern is that the overwhelming majority of those associated with the protest movement, and as such those most under threat from the punitive National Security Laws, are young people.
Under the new visa scheme 18–24-year-olds, who are not already BN(O) citizens, can only apply for the new visa if they are applying with BN(O) family members.
In order to help these brave young people, I would ask the Home Secretary to ensure arrangements are made for young Hongkongers who are applying for the visa without their families, including exploring establishing a separate scheme for 18–24-year-old non-BN(O)s if they are unable to apply for the BN(O) visa with their families.
The government also needs to give greater consideration to how to integrate newly-arrived Hongkongers for example by supporting those who want to learn English and those that need to find schools for their children.
Hongkongers have been fighting for the freedoms that we take for granted. They deserve our support and I’m delighted that this new BN(O) scheme will help so many brave Hongkongers. But more than that, they will be a great addition to our country and should be welcomed with open arms.