UK not prepared for Hong Kong migration

British officials estimate 300,000 Hong Kongers could arrive in the next five years.

It could yet become one of the biggest policy decisions of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

The U.K. prime minister’s offer of a route to citizenship to potentially millions of Hong Kongers — in response to China’s imposition of a draconian national security law on the former British territory — was a major statement about the U.K.’s post-Brexit foreign policy. But its domestic ramifications could also prove to be highly significant and the Labour opposition is warning the government needs to do much more to prepare.

Although the numbers likely to use the new visa route — which opened at the end of January — are uncertain, potentially hundreds of thousands of people from one of Asia’s most dynamic cities could be set to start new lives in post-Brexit Britain.

Some experts have spoken in terms of a wave of migration that could mean social and economic change for the U.K. on a similar scale to the accession of Central and Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004. That event — which triggered the movement of close to 600,000 Poles and thousands more from other countries to the U.K. over the following eight years — transformed the labor market and boosted the economy but also fuelled anti-immigration politics that played a significant role in the Brexit vote.

Others predict the numbers coming from Hong Kong to the U.K. will be significantly lower than that — and either way, the demographic impacts and political context are very different. For one thing, the policy has cross-party backing and majority support among the public, according to polling.

“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty,” said Alan Manning, former chair of the government’s independent Migration Advisory Committee from 2016 to 2020. “In particular, in this case, how the political situation in Hong Kong is going to evolve, over which the U.K. has very little power. … The very big numbers [that some predict] are really what you would get if there is absolute meltdown and anarchy in Hong Kong. That’s really in the hands of the Chinese government.”

Economic impetus
The Home Office’s central estimate is that nearly 300,000 Hong Kongers will take up the new visa route over the next five years, out of a total 5.4 million people potentially eligible to come — 2.9 million British Nationals Overseas (BNOs), 2.3 million of their dependents, and 187,000 18-to-23-year-olds who have at least one BNO parent.

Manning said that if he had to estimate, he would predict the numbers would be toward the lower end of the government’s projections.

“I would be very surprised if it was comparable to EU accession” of Eastern bloc countries, Manning said.

To start, the total number eligible to come is significantly smaller than the population of the “EU-8” eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004, making their residents eligible to live and work in the U.K. “In the case of the accession countries, the U.K. was an attractive place because these were poorer countries,” Manning added. “Hong Kong is a richer country. There is not that economic impetus to migration, which is a very powerful one.”

Another historical comparison has been drawn to the migration of tens of thousands of Asian citizens from Uganda and Kenya to the U.K. in the late 1960s and early 1970s — when many residents were expelled or forced out by punitive policies.

Again, the situation this time is different, Manning said. China appears to actively want to prevent Hong Kongers from leaving. Therefore, much will depend on whether a significant number of people outside politics and activist circles begin to feel that life in Hong Kong is intolerable.

“The take-up of the [BNO] passport might be quite a lot bigger than the actual use of it,” Manning said. “So that it’s just there as an option in case things get really bad.”

‘Immediate threat’
Simon Cheng, founder of the expatriate community group Hong Kongers in Britain, said that whether his fellow citizens decide to come will depend on factors such as age, political involvement and career prospects. He agrees with the Home Office estimate that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers could arrive over the next five years, he said.

Younger people on “the frontline of pro-democracy protests” would be most likely to feel an “immediate threat,” he said. Many others are “not on the frontline but dissatisfied with the political reality in Hong Kong.”

Cheng’s group carried out a small survey of 315 Hong Kongers and found that those inclined to move to the U.K. were mostly working professionals, often in fields like financial services. Nearly three-quarters had a university degree.

The Home Office has estimated that tax receipts from new arrivals, many likely to work in well-paid sectors, suggest a net benefit to government finances of between £2.4 and £2.9 billion over five years.

The Labour party says the government is neither doing enough to prepare the British society for the arrival of Hong Kongers nor making it easier for the least well-off among them to use the visa program.

In a letter to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government shared with POLITICO, three shadow ministers said they are “increasingly concerned that there appears to have been little or no planning done for the integration of BNO visa holders into British society.”

The letter was signed by Stephen Kinnock, shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific; Holly Lynch, shadow minister for immigration; and Steve Reed, shadow secretary of state for communities and local government.

“This is a significant movement of people which presents many opportunities but also challenges that will need to be managed effectively,” they wrote, adding that government should work with local authorities to head off problems for Hong Kongers in “settling, integrating, accessing the labour market and using public services.”

Unless the government reduces financial barriers, the BNO visa route will only be available “for the rich,” they warn, pointing to the fact that a family of two adults with two children would need to pay almost £16,000 up-front to meet the requirements.

The nature of the work many Hong Kong migrants will do and the fact they will be coming from a major global city means that those who do settle are very likely to gravitate toward the U.K.’s urban centers — London above all. According to property investment firm BuyAssociation, Liverpool and Manchester have also seen “strong interest” from prospective Hong Kong migrants.

Perhaps the most relevant precedent is the 1990s migration to Vancouver, Canada, which became a popular destination for hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers uncertain about their future ahead of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.

“They were nervous about what the future held and wanted to have an option,” said Manning. “But then things didn’t turn out so badly, quite a few actually went back.”

The ties forged with Canada by that migration make it another potential destination, along with Taiwan, which topped a Foreign Policy magazine survey of Hong Kongers’ preferred destinations should they leave home. Canada and Australia both scored better than the U.K.

However, Cheng said that tensions between China and Taiwan would make it a less appealing destination, and predicted that historical ties — and the BNO passport route — would make the U.K. a popular choice for those seeking a new life.

A government spokesperson said that while the cost of the Hong Kong BNO visa had “been set lower than many other visa routes,” it was “only right that those who benefit from our immigration system contribute to its cost.”

They added that the government was working to “ensure appropriate plans and support are in place to welcome Hong Kong BN(O) status holders and their immediate family members to the UK,” and working “closely” with local authorities “to prepare education, work and housing for new arrivals”.

Published: 1 March 2021

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