The UK has experienced two defining immigration events since the Second World War: the 1948-1971 Windrush era and the EU’s post-1992 introduction of freedom of movement. A new visa scheme for Hong Kongers with British National Overseas (BNO) status could now pose a third.
Following Beijing’s imposition of a punitive national security law on Hong Kong in June last year, the UK government introduced a visa that allows Hong Kongers to live and work in the UK for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
The security law, which the British government believes violates the agreement that transferred the former colony to China in 1997, has already seen Hong Kong’s opposition figures arrested and sweeping new restrictions imposed on school curriculums and the media. As a result, many Hong Kongers no longer feel safe, and the UK Home Office estimates that anywhere between 9,000 and 1,050,000 million could move to Britain within the next five years (with a number between 258,000 and 322,400 being most likely).
Yet while the UK’s new visa scheme could have as great an impact as Windrush and freedom of movement, the circumstances of its introduction also pose particular challenges.
Dr Peter Walsh from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, believes that the strongest past comparison is with the British offer of sanctuary to the Ugandan Asians following their sudden expulsion by Idi Amin in 1972. But he also believes that the similarity only goes so far. Not least since Ugandan Asians came as asylum seekers, whereas the Hong Kong scheme is for holders of BNO status only.
Hong Kongers could only apply for BNO status until the 1997 handover, meaning that many young people involved in the protests against the national security law won’t qualify, while many others simply may never have signed up. The scheme covers the dependents of BNOs, but Fred Wong from the recently formed Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (HKARC) told the New Statesman that many Hong Kongers already in the UK are ineligible. They will instead be forced to seek asylum, he says, which is a much less certain process.
Another difference is that the number of Hong Kongers who may eventually come could greatly exceed the approximately 30,000 Uganda Asians who came in the 1970s.
“We think that the government is underestimating the scale of people they are allowing to come and the level of support they will require,” Wong said. “There seems to be a lack of direction and resources from the top.” The government’s lackadaisical approach means it may not capitalise on the opportunities this scheme poses, such as addressing the skills gap and integrating Hong Kongers into society, as well as alleviating the problems that Hong Kong arrivals will face.
“Any influx of immigrants over a short period of time creates problems [for immigrants and the government], it doesn’t matter who they are,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute, told me. “If the government has a clear plan then… the problems will become a lot more manageable.”
The government is yet to publish a comprehensive plan to address housing, integration, education and mental health support, as well as the potential for social tension with other Chinese communities. In a statement to the New Statesman, the government said it has “written to all local authorities in England to update them on the new immigration route for BN(O) status holders and will be communicating further with those areas which may see higher numbers arriving to support their planning”.
But Johnny Patterson, policy director for the charity Hong Kong Watch, believes that the government must take a more active approach to integration. “Not everyone from Hong Kong is the stereotypical upper middle class banker who speaks great English,” said Patterson, “at the moment it looks like the government are delegating [integration] off to civil society.”
Along with two other community organisations, HKARC has made a series of recommendations in a report to the Greater London Authority. These include creating JobCentre workshops, information hubs and extending apprenticeship schemes to Hong Kongers, as well as providing mental health support with Cantonese-speaking therapists for those suffering post-traumatic stress after months of pro-democracy protests and clashes with police. It also highlights the opportunities for the UK, such as the high number of nurses in Hong Kong who’ve said they are willing to emigrate.
One such Hong Konger who wants to work in healthcare is Miss Sze. After protesting the suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong, the 28-year-old left her family behind to move to London in October 2020. “The Hong Kong situation is really bad,” she told me. She thinks one of the main problems that Hong Kongers will face in the UK is housing and that many will look to cities other than London for more affordable costs of living.
The political consequences of previous mass immigration also shows the importance of integration and clear communication with the public. In 2004, the UK was the only major economy to accept immigration from new EU member states in Eastern Europe without a transition period. At the time, the Home Office estimated that net immigration from these countries would be between 5,000 and 13,000 per year. But by 2013, Eurosceptics were able to point to 1.07 million extra people from Eastern Europe living in the UK compared to 2004 – the biggest inflow in British history – as fuel for their argument.
In order to maintain the current support for the Hong Kong visa, Professor Tsang believes the government must plan for public service provision and communicate with the public. Without doing this, issues such as the housing crisis and the poverty of public services could be erroneously blamed on migrants.
The government says that the scheme is motivated by the UK’s “historic and moral commitment” to BNO citizens of Hong Kong. It’s a policy that offers help to those in need, but immigration on this scale also requires careful and long-term planning. The current international travel restrictions have given the government time before the main arrival of Hong Kongers begins. It’s vital that it uses that time to make a success of what could be a defining migratory moment for the UK.