UK reveals details of special Hong Kong visa for overseas nationals

Home secretary Priti Patel says BNO visa changes were ‘proportionate response’ to China’s increasing control over the city.

The British government has outlined its pathway to citizenship for millions of overseas nationals in Hong Kong wanting to flee growing control exerted by Beijing over in the semi-autonomous city.

The changes allow holders of British National (Overseas) status (BNO) and their immediate families to apply for entry visas from January 2021, for either two periods of 30 months or a single period of five years.

After five years they can apply to settle in the UK, and for citizenship after a further 12 months.

The initial announcement earlier this month angered the Chinese government, which has also fuelled concerns that even those with British citizenship were now at greater risk.

On Wednesday, the British home secretary, Priti Patel, said China’s introduction of national security laws on Hong Kong breached the Sino-British joint declaration outlining the terms of the 1997 territorial handover, and “could not be ignored”.

Patel said the BNO visa changes were “proportionate response” to the situation and “very generous”.

Entrants have the right to work or study, but no access to social welfare. They must pass health and criminal checks, be demonstrably able to support themselves financially for at least six months and prove they hold BNO status, but do not need a current or valid passport.

The new rules vastly expand the options for BNO holders, who at present can stay in the UK without a visa for only six months.

BNO status was given to Hong Kong residents who applied prior to 1 July 1997, when the British government formally handed over the former British territory.

Early reports on the UK visa changes prompted widespread concern about young adults born between 1997 and 2002 who were no longer a dependent of their BNO parents, particularly given their age group most often rallied at pro-democracy protests and now potentially felt at risk under the new security laws.

In response, Patel said UK authorities would have discretion to grant a visa to these young people in “compassionate and compelling circumstances” if they were still dependent on their BNO parent or guardian. Alternatively, they could apply for the existing youth mobility scheme.

Hong Kong Watch’s Director, Johnny Patterson, welcomed the announcement and its provisions for young adults, but said there were still some gaps. He called for other countries to step in and “establish an international lifeboat policy”

There are also concerns about the risk to people with a particular kind of British citizenship living in or travelling through Hong Kong. In the years leading up to the 1997 handover about 50,000 Hongkongers were granted full British citizenship under the British Nationality Selection Scheme (BNSS).

However China does not recognise dual citizenship, BNO status, or citizenship gained through the BNSS, and the Guardian understands it is not possible for BNSS citizens to renounce Chinese citizenship, because the form requires a declaration that the applicant’s foreign citizenship was not obtained through the scheme.

While the catch-22 has always existed, some now fear it poses a far greater risk with the national security laws, which Beijing says can be applied to anyone, anywhere.

Leo, the son of BNSS citizens living in the UK and who did not want to publish his surname, said: “It would be unwise and dangerous for me to go back to Hong Kong, that includes connecting flights at Hong Kong airport or going on a plane owned by Chinese companies.

“I believe that if British nationals don’t renounce their Chinese nationalities, it’s quite possible that Chinese authorities would impose their laws on Hongkongers living overseas as well.”

Leo feared there may be unlawful abductions of dissidents. “Our safety is not guaranteed until the UK government imposes drastic measures to counteract the grip of the Chinese government here in the UK.”

China’s foreign ministry has previously accused the UK of breaching international law by offering BNO holders residency, and threatened “consequences”.

No statement has been made since the details of the visa were released, but overnight Chinese television demoted broadcasts of England’s Premier League matches to lesser watched channels.

Bloomberg had earlier reported a source saying it would not be broadcast at all, and aside from Sunday’s Chelsea v Liverpool listed on the lesser channel, no other games appear in CCTV’s schedule.

CCTV holds the rights to air the competition, of which there is one round remaining this weekend, with observers linking the decision to the growing hostilities.

Last year CCTV took the NBA off air after an executive expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters, and in December an Arsenal game went unaired after player Mesut Ozil, a Turkish-origin German man and practising Muslim, used social media to condemn China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Published: 23 July 2020

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