UK offers potential pathway to British citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens
Last week the Prime Minister announced he was ready to offer 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens the right to live and work in the UK with a pathway to British citizenship, should China cut freedoms by introducing new laws.
Who are British Nationals Overseas?
The PM’s offer was for Hong Kong citizens with status as a British National Overseas (BNO). They are individuals who were British overseas territories citizens through their connection with Hong Kong and registered as a BNO before 1 July 1997 (with some exceptions).
This covers a limited and declining number of Hong Kong citizens who applied for BNO status as it was their only way to a passport at that time and/or who retain some links to the UK. If an individual is not already a BNO, an application cannot now be made to become one. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens currently hold BNO status.
What are BNOs eligible for?
In total, there are six different types of British citizenship, many of which are remnants of the British empire. The BNO status was created on 1 July 1987 as part of the 10-year lead up to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Importantly, BNO status is not full British citizenship, but an entitlement to a status which had to be applied for by way of registration. Those with BNO status do not have a right of abode or an automatic right to live and work in the UK. BNOs are subject to UK immigration controls in the same way as other non-EEA nationals.
Instead, as a BNO you can hold a British passport (a travel document) and get consular assistance with protection from UK diplomatic posts. This is problematic as China does not recognise dual citizenship and therefore consular assistance is not provided to BNOs in the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong or Macau. Given current circumstances in Hong Kong, protestors who are a BNO cannot get assistance from the UK consulate, putting them at risk of extradition to mainland China.
Why the attention on BNOs now?
In May 2020 the Chinese government announced a notable new security law for Hong Kong which would effectively increase their control over the region and undermine the region’s autonomy. In response to this, the Home Office announced:
‘If China follows through with its new national security law, the UK government will explore options to allow BN(O)s to apply for leave to stay in the UK, if eligible, for an extendable period of 12 months. Hong Kong BN(O)s currently have the right to enter the UK for six months.’
There are a number of MPs pushing for government to go further by providing BNOs with a right of abode in the UK or automatic British citizenship similar to that offered to Ugandan Asians in the 1970s following Idi Amin’s order for them to leave the country. So far, the government has rejected these calls.
The reality of proposals by the UK government
There have been different messages from the Prime Minister and government ministers as to the scale of the offer to provide BNOs with a pathway to citizenship. While Boris Johnson has stated that the offer would extend to all 2.9million who hold BNO status, rather than just the individuals who currently hold BNO passports, this was not echoed by Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, last week.
If we put into context what the government is offering - BNOs may be eligible for UK immigration permission granted in periods of 12 months, leading to permanent residence in the UK and British citizenship. The only way in which BNOs would be eligible for settlement in the UK under the current provisions of the Immigration Rules would be having resided in the UK for a continuous total period of 10 years. This means that individuals would have go through the administrative process and bear the extremely high costs of extending their leave a staggering 10 times to reach the point of settlement. Based on current Home Office application fees and associated costs for a UK immigration application (Immigration Health Surcharge and costs of enrolling biometrics), the estimated total cost for a BNO to continue to reside in the UK and be in a position to apply for settlement would be over £20,000. You cannot help but think such proposals would not be a viable option for many BNOs seeking sanctuary.
There is of course time for changes in approach and offerings by the government. It is important to note that the Prime Minister has only put this forward if the Chinese government proceeds to enforce its proposed new law. Given the position of many in the international community, there is no doubt that there will be many diplomatic and strategic conversations going on for the coming weeks and months.
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