A new visa scheme giving millions of Hong Kongers a path to British citizenship will go into effect this Sunday, when former colonial power opens its doors to those who want to escape China’s crackdown on dissidents.
From Sunday afternoon, anyone with a British Overseas Passport (BNO) and those close to them will be able to apply for a visa online, which will allow them to live and work in the UK. After five years they can apply for citizenship.
The immigration plan is a response to Beijing’s decision to implement national security legislation in Hong Kong last year to prevent large-scale and often violent democratic protests.
Britain accused China of breaking a promise in 1997 before citing Hong Kong’s sovereignty. Beijing promised that the financial center would maintain major independence and autonomy for 50 years.
London believes it is a moral duty to protect its pre-colonial subjects.
“We have respected our deep friendship and historical ties with the people of Hong Kong, and supported independence and autonomy,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the plan this week.
China has reacted by announcing on Friday that it will no longer recognize foreign passports as valid travel or identification documents.
The move is mostly symbolic as Hong Kongers often use their own passports or identity cards to leave the city.
But Beijing said it was willing to take “additional measures”, raising fears that it might try to stop Hong Kong residents from moving to Britain.
On Sunday, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua accused London of having a “colonial mindset” and warned that the visa scheme would “damage bilateral relations and harm the interests of the United Kingdom in the long term.”
– request climbs –
It is unclear how many Hong Kong proposals will take place, as coronovirus restricts flights and affects most parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
But for Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents, the visa offer is about 70% available.
Foreign passport applications have increased by more than 300% since the National Security Act came into force last July.
The UK forecasts 154,000 Hong Kong next year and could reach 322,000 in five years, bringing an estimated “net profit” of £ 2.9 billion ($ 4 billion).
Foreign passports are a legacy of handing over from Hong Kong to China. Many Hong Kong residents wanted Britain to grant them citizenship, but Beijing objected.
BNO was an agreement that gave Hong Kong people born before 1997 the right to live in the UK for six consecutive months, but without working or establishing residency.
It has now become one of the few outlets for Hong Kong, aspiring for new life abroad.
– ‘A Lifeboat’ –
A former marketing employee, Stella, plans to move to the UK with her husband and three-year-old son.
“The national security law of 2020 gave us the last setback because the provisions fundamentally criminalize freedom of expression,” he told AFP, asking that his last name not be revealed.
As set out in the visa scheme, those who wish to relocate must show that they have the funds to support themselves and who are close to them for at least six months.
Some Hongkongs who are already in the UK and to help others say that many are middle class, with education, young children and enough cash to complete the move.
“Most of the people we spoke with are families with children of primary school or nursery age,” Nick, an activist for the Lion Rock Hill UK group, told AFP.
Some Hong Kong residents left the city before the new plan was introduced.
Earlier this week, the UK reported that some 7,000 people had moved under another system: Leave Out Rules (LOTR) in the last six months. They will also be able to apply for a visa that will pave the way for citizenship.
“BNO is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers,” Mike, a medical scientist who moved to the city of Manchester with his family, told AFP.
Many Hong Kong fear, he says, that China will prevent residents from leaving the area. “So it’s better to leave as soon as possible.”
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