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31 January 2022

Welcoming Hong Kongers will help reset the UK’s approach to immigration

The government’s openness to Hong Kong nationals shows that controlling immigration need not always mean less immigration.

By Sunder Katwala

Today – 31 January – marks not only two years since Brexit, but also a year since the UK opened its British National (Overseas, BNO) visa scheme allowing people from Hong Kong to live, work and study in the UK. The arrival of the Hong Kongers may prove to be one of the most important British migration stories of the 2020s – and an opportunity to reset how we think about making migration and integration work in the UK.

The new visa route was the first big migration choice of post-Brexit Britain. The UK created the scheme in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s National Security Law, which was unpopular in Hong Kong. It allows those with BNO visas to live and work in the UK, with the possibility of becoming UK citizens after six years. The fact it was a popular decision with both politicians and the public (64 per cent of those polled by YouGov supported the decision to give British passport-holders in Hong Kong a permanent right to abode in the UK), shows how having control of immigration policy can sometimes mean choosing to say yes, rather than no. It matters, therefore, that the government has taken more proactive initial steps on Hong Kong than any previous wave of migration. This could be the foundation for a more positive approach to citizenship and integration more broadly.

It is also promising that those who come from Hong Kong will be a diverse group, reflecting the different reasons why people migrate to the UK: to study and to work, to invest and to seek sanctuary and protection. Some Hong Kongers may have strong and established links in the UK, with little need for further official support. Others have felt forced to leave their homes to an unfamiliar place, with little notice or preparation, and may have similar support needs to refugees who have claimed asylum.

[Hear also: Hong Kong democracy after one year of the National Security Law]

Nobody knows quite how many Hong Kongers will come. Almost 90,000 people are estimated to have applied for the new visa by Christmas, broadly in line with the Home Office’s estimate of around 250,000 arrivals over five years. Indeed, predicting future migration flows can be difficult – which is important given a central reason for the loss of public confidence in the handling of EU migration after 2004 was the failure of government to anticipate, prepare for or respond quickly to the scale of arrivals.

The strategy going forward on the BNO one-year anniversary is best articulated by Daniel Korski, chair of the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers, who said, “The real work starts now to make a success of helping Hong Kongers to settle in the UK.” That can be about practical steps, such as finding work and somewhere to live; and while many Hong Kongers speak English, some may need advanced courses to secure jobs reflecting their qualifications and professional aspirations. Welcoming Hong Kongers should be about the fullest opportunity to be part of Britain’s cultural and civic life.

Making welcoming work is a two-way street – it works best when it is an active partnership between the welcomers and the welcomed. That is how the UK can both maximise Hong Kongers’ contribution to Britain – and their positive contact and engagement with the communities that they join. 

Waves of migration since the Windrush generation have often been challenged – but can also be seen as a story of how we eventually work out how to live together. Welcoming the Hong Kongers offers post-Brexit Britain a chance to be proactive about migration and integration – and to choose to get it right from the start.

[See also: Nathan Law: From Poland to the UK, “freedom is under threat”]

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