Do some Hong Kongers have the right to resettle in the U.K.? China’s new security law revives old debate

May 25, 2020, 9:01 AM UTC

A leading legal adviser to the U.K. government has potentially opened the door for hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents to resettle in the U.K. as Beijing moves to tighten its grip on the special administrative region.

Laurie Fransman, a barrister specializing in immigration, told members of the ruling Conservative Party that holders of British national overseas (or BNO) passports could legally be offered the right of abode in the U.K., countering a decades-long position to the contrary.

Fransman wrote a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel in April advising there were no legal grounds to deny right of abode, which confers complete exemption from U.K. immigration control, to people with BNO status. That advice was revived last weekend by a politician urging the government to reconsider its stance on BNOs “given the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong.”

What’s a BNO?

The BNO status was created in 1985 to apply specifically to Hong Kong residents born before 1997—when the British territory was returned to Chinese sovereignty. The designation currently grants BNO passport holders the right to remain in the U.K. for six months without a visa but not the right to reside there permanently.

The U.K. government has previously maintained that offering right of abode to BNO holders would violate the terms of the 1997 handover and has frequently rejected calls to amend its stance. The government most recently declined a petition, launched by BNO holders and endorsed by some members of Parliament last year, to extend British citizenship to people with BNOs, as protests raged across Hong Kong.

Following a hiatus wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, protests returned to Hong Kong’s streets this past weekend. A march by thousands of residents, incensed by Beijing’s move to impose laws on the special administrative region that would limit freedom of speech, was quickly dispersed by police tear gas.

Fransman’s guidance emerged shortly after 200 members of Parliament from 23 countries signed a letter criticizing Beijing’s actions Friday, and urged “sympathetic governments” to show that the move “cannot be tolerated.”

Among the letter’s signatories is Conservative Party MP Bob Seely, who is petitioning the U.K. government to review its policy on BNO rights. Last year, amid the social upheaval in Hong Kong, renewals of long-expired BNO passports surged.

“It would be a stain on our country’s reputation if other nations were to open their arms, metaphorically speaking, to Hong Kong BNO folk in their hour of need before the U.K. did so,” Seely said.

Reality check

However, permitting the right of abode to BNO passport holders would not necessarily result in mass migration from Hong Kong to the U.K. Although initially popular, the number of BNO passport applications peaked in 2001, with 170,000 issued that year. There are currently 315,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong.

The popularity of the BNO passport declined after the alternative Hong Kong SAR passport—created by the local government after 1997—gained visa-free travel to 150 countries, compared to 118 under the BNO. The BNO passport is also no help to Hong Kongers who want to travel to mainland China, as the central government doesn’t recognize BNO status.

What’s more, not all BNO-holders could afford to resettle in the U.K. if given the right, nor would they be able to move with their families as BNO rights don’t extend to the passport holder’s kin. However, for some Hong Kong residents the challenges would be worth the opportunity.

“With the new legislation from Beijing, I am losing my home anyway,” says a 40-year-old who asked to be identified only by his last name, Fong. “It would be better to leave and go somewhere with a government system I’m familiar with, like the U.K.”

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