Vera spent several nights sitting behind her locked front door waiting, she says, for “the knock” to come. The Hong Kong democracy activist feared it would signal her arrest for involvement in the city’s protest movement and, probably, a prison sentence.
But the knock never came. Instead, Vera — not her real name — took matters into her own hands: she sold her HK$7m ($900,000) flat at the end of last year, packed her belongings and hopped on a flight to London, landing in the UK in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. Her 6,000-mile journey was smoothed by rules which allow her early entry into the UK’s British National (Overseas) visa scheme.
Weeks later Hong Kong authorities rounded up a group of 53 politicians, academics and activists, many of them her friends. They were detained over their participation in a primary election — which Vera helped organise — to select which candidates the city’s democratic parties would put forward in a now cancelled general election.
“When I was in Hong Kong, I was really worried either I or people around me would be arrested,” says Vera who hopes that a recent change in UK immigration policy will allow her to stay in the country. “I couldn’t sleep . . . I really didn’t want to leave. But I felt really nervous when I was still there.”
The 58-year-old office manager travelled to London with her two sisters and their children. Yet Vera and her family are not alone. Thousands of people are taking similar flights, part of a migration wave that has shocked even those who have made it their business to assist Hong Kong citizens to live and invest overseas.
The spark was a decision taken by the British government in the middle of last year when it pledged a path to citizenship for up to 3m Hong Kong residents who hold or are eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport. The UK gave Hong Kong citizens the passport at the time of the 1997 handover to China — a consolation prize and travel document which implied, more than it actually provided, a link to Britain.
Before last July it had not included a right to stay in the UK. Now it does.
That U-turn was made in response to China’s introduction of a national security law that has paved the way for a broad crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. Opposition politicians have been rounded up and jailed, teachers and journalists sacked and students and civil society brought to heel following the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019 that caused turmoil in one of the world’s largest financial centres.
Between January 31, when applications for the visa scheme opened, and the end of March, 34,300 BNO passport holders and their families applied, according to the UK Home Office — 5,600 have so far been granted. The scheme is already one of the UK’s biggest humanitarian initiatives of the past 50 years, having overtaken the admission of 28,000 Asians fleeing persecution in Uganda and Kenya in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The UK government expects up to 300,000 Hong Kong residents to use the programme in its first five years — around 10 per cent of those eligible.
The scheme is sharply at odds with other aspects of the UK’s immigration system, which has in recent years sought to make it harder for most migrants to come to the UK. But in post-Brexit Britain, the stream of Hong Kongers — stereotyped as well off and highly qualified — could boost the UK economy, say advocates.
Yet any large influx of Hong Kong citizens is likely to spark questions over whether the UK is ready to welcome such numbers and what that might do to long-term relations with Beijing. There are also doubts over whether those who most need safe haven — the young students at the forefront of the 2019 protests and mostly born after 1997 — will qualify. The question of whether China will let them go is equally significant.
“I don’t see myself as emigrating,” says Vera, adding that leaving her home had not been easy, “I’m fleeing from danger. [And] we have to be prepared that when escaping danger, life is going to be difficult and tough.”
It is not just people directly involved in the protests who are looking to take up the UK’s invitation. Others, fearful about the city’s future, are also looking to relocate. For the first time since the Sars outbreak in 2003, the city’s 7.5m population fell in 2020, with a net outflow of 39,800 people.
Neil Jensen, a mortgage specialist at St James’s Place Wealth Management in Hong Kong, is helping a group of six families buy homes on an estate outside Nuneaton, a town about 45km from the central English city of Birmingham. Five of the six paid upfront in cash. Jensen, who used to help wealthy Hong Kongers buy investment properties, says his business has fundamentally changed. The Nuneaton purchases are not investments. The families plan to move.
“It’s not a typical destination, these are real provincial towns,” Jensen says. “They don’t have a job lined up or family there, I couldn’t give you their rationale. They had seen a new housing estate online and picked it out, they even knew which block they wanted.”
Samuel Chan, managing director of education consultancy Britannia StudyLink, has had to double his company’s office space in recent months to accommodate a steep increase in demand from Hong Kong families looking to place children in British schools.
“[The passport offer] has been a catalyst,” Chan says, adding that the company now also offers tax and housing advice to those leaving for the UK. “It is a staggering increase, our industry has changed forever.”
He says his company helped about 800 pupils secure school places for September 2020, but expects that number to rise by almost 40 per cent this year. Chan says that until recently the company had only been asked three times by clients to help buy properties in the UK, but since the passport scheme opened, that number has risen to 150.
Other estate agents have similar stories. Between July 2020 and April this year, Benham and Reeves estimates the number of London properties purchased by Hong Kong residents increased by 144 per cent to 1,932 compared to the same period 12 months earlier.
The economic benefits of the scheme for the UK have been central to the government’s message. The Centre for Economics and Business Research, a think-tank, predicts an economic boost of between £12bn and £40bn depending on the numbers of those eligible who actually come to the UK over the next five years. The estimate is based on each new arrival’s average economic productivity were they to join the labour force.
Douglas McWilliams, deputy chair of the CEBR, thinks those 2020 calculations are now an underestimate. “The most important thing we didn’t predict is really heavy investment in the London property market,” McWilliams says. “We assumed there would be some transfer of wealth but we didn’t take that into account.”
Bank of America estimates the potential capital outflow from Hong Kong in the first year of the scheme could be as high as HK$280.2bn (£25bn) or as much as HK$588bn over five years were most to sell an average priced Hong Kong apartment.
The arrival of the east African Asians in 1970s Britain was accompanied by panicked newspaper front pages and anti-immigration demonstrations, with far-right groups seeking to exploit it. But Johnny Luk, a Hong Kong-born former Conservative party parliamentary candidate, says he is “genuinely shocked” at how popular the scheme is politically. A YouGov survey in January of 1,671 adults found respondents supported the scheme by a margin of two to one.
“Maybe this is a class of immigration that is below the parapet,” says McWilliams, referring to perceptions of Hong Kong’s relatively wealthy economy.
Navigating asylum laws
When Margaret Thatcher agreed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Deng Xiaoping in 1984, handing back Hong Kong to China, the UK also issued Beijing with a memorandum on passports. Crucially, the BNO passports — available to those who registered for one before June 30 1997 — did not give Hong Kongers the right of abode in the UK.
That gave Beijing a stick with which to attack the scheme, labelled by the Chinese foreign ministry as a “breach of trust and justice”. The Chinese government, in February, banned the use of the BNO passport as a travel document and also for identification purposes, such as residents attempting to withdraw their pension savings.
Most wanting to leave can still use their Hong Kong passport or identity card to travel, so Beijing’s actions have had little effect up to now. Yet many fear China could make good on its threat to take further unspecified action against those who use the BNO scheme.
“I’m afraid that the government will eventually punish people who use this route to leave Hong Kong,” says one 39-year-old former bar owner who plans to settle in Brighton with his wife having decided to leave in response, he says, to the territory’s tilt toward mainland China. “We have to leave as soon as we can.”
The scheme is available only to those eligible under the original 1997 BNO agreement. Applicants must be Hong Kong residents, or former residents living in the UK, with no serious criminal convictions and be able to demonstrate they can support themselves financially for at least six months. They must pay a fee of £250 per person for a five-year visa, about one-sixth of the price most other foreign nationals would pay for the same period. Visa holders can also seek Indefinite Leave to Remain — permanent settlement in the UK — after five years, instead of the 10 years that people on many other visa types have to wait.
But the programme has been criticised for not being open to many of the young people heavily involved in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. Those born after 1997 can only apply if they are a dependant of a Hong Kong resident eligible for a BNO passport.
The UK Home Office insists there are other routes available to younger people seeking to flee Hong Kong. But many will be left to navigate the UK’s notoriously difficult asylum process.
Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong activist who was recently granted asylum by the UK, says that unlike him, many may not be able to substantiate their claims. Law was a high-profile figure in the protest movement; many of his closest associates — including Joshua Wong — have been imprisoned.
On asylum, the Home Office says: “We have a proud record of providing asylum for those who need it, where there is a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Home Office data show there were 95 applications for asylum from Hong Kong nationals in the year to March 31, against just 14 the previous year. Campaigners say there may be hundreds of further potential applicants who have entered the UK on tourist visas and are waiting to decide what to do.
Fred Wong, a representative of the Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community, a London-based group established in September, says there are several routes that Hong Kongers can follow when fleeing to the UK. The BNO passport route is the “easiest” and most “straightforward”, he says, but many of those who cannot access the scheme, especially young protesters, are seeking protection under the UK’s asylum system.
“We’ve had a few successful cases,” he says of the asylum claims. “For the ones who got rejected, we’re still trying to find out why.”
Wong, not his real name, says many in Hong Kong face a particularly stark choice. Activists and lawyers fear a new immigration bill — which comes into force on August 1 — could be used to ban the departure from the territory, or block the return, of anyone deemed to have breached national security laws.
Some detained activists are dismayed by the wave of departures. “My greatest wish is that I will still be able to see my beloved and familiar Hong Kong after being released from prison,” says Ventus Lau who was one of those arrested in January under the national security law.
Benedict Rogers, one of the founders of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based pressure group and a former Conservative party parliamentary candidate, says while “the millions of pounds in capital which may arrive with them will doubtless be a boon”, there were “common misperceptions” of Hong Kongers in the UK. “Some don’t have wealth and a few are very vulnerable.”
The UK announced in April it was making available £43m in funding to support the integration of the new arrivals, although some people involved say it will not meet the scale of the challenge. For instance many students arriving will be charged overseas fees of around £30,000 a year for higher education and will not be eligible for the loan system available to domestic counterparts.
A 29-year-old former advertising employee, who asked not to be identified, has applied for the BNO scheme from within the UK. His existing visa expires later this year. A critic of the Hong Kong government, he has found work at a start-up but worries about recognition of his qualifications — and says it is a major concern for others contemplating a move to the UK.
“A lot of people would feel [that if they] leave Hong Kong they have to leave their occupation because they expect that either they can’t find a job in the same industry or they have to compromise for a lower position,” he says.
Kezia Daley, senior associate and immigration specialist at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, says some of their wealthier clients are holding off on their BNO applications amid concerns that Beijing’s hostility to the scheme might endanger their assets in Hong Kong or China. Some are applying for other categories, such as the Tier 1 investor visa for high-net-worth individuals.
For most of those interviewed for this article it was not about selecting between visas, it was weighing up whether it was worth leaving behind the city they love and people who made it home.
Catherine, a 35-year-old lawyer thinking of applying for a BNO with her two-year-old daughter, says: “No one wants to leave a place that you’re so familiar with, what will happen to my family here?” But the political situation has become so bad, she says, that, “either you shut up or you leave”.