On 30 June 2020 a new security law, passed by the Chinese Government, came into force in Hong Kong. The wide-ranging law makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy. Crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration the UK made a historic commitment to protect the freedom of the people of Hong Kong. The Prime Minister has said that the passing of the new security law is a “clear and serious breach” of the joint declaration, and in July 2020 announced that citizens of Hong Kong who hold British National (Overseas) status (BN(O) status) would be given the right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. After this they would be able to apply for settled status and, after a further year, seek citizenship.
Given the grave concerns of Governments, NGOs and human rights experts about the impact of the new security law on Hong Kongers’ freedoms, the Committee welcomes the Government’s creation of the British National (Overseas) visa route. This is a substantial and important recognition both of the gravity of the situation in Hong Kong and the historic commitments made by the UK Government to the people of Hong Kong.
However, concerns were raised with the Committee about individuals and groups who may be at risk of missing out from the scheme. There remain worrying gaps in this offer of support, for young people born since 1 July 1997 who may be particularly vulnerable to political targeting by Beijing. People born after the handover are not themselves eligible for BN(O) status, yet a significant number of pro-democracy activists fall into this category.
For these young people the only viable routes to the UK are either to come on a visitor visa for six months and then to apply for asylum, or to come on a tier 5 youth mobility scheme visa which offers two years’ leave to remain. We were concerned to hear that young people were deterred from claiming asylum in the UK because they felt delays by the Home Office in processing asylum casework might result in them being left for a substantial period without any economic support, unable to work or unable to study. The Home Office must urgently address the long delays in the asylum casework system in order to rebuild confidence in the asylum system.
We also heard that the current Youth Mobility Visa for Hong Kongers aged 18–30 did not provide a sufficient pathway for young activists because it is capped, only provides for a two-year stay for work in the UK and does not contribute to the residency requirement for settlement in the UK.
We are concerned that this gap in the scheme will leave vulnerable young Hong Kongers at risk and recommend that the Government extends the BN(O) scheme to enable a young person with a BN(O) parent to apply separately from that parent, provided there is evidence of that parent’s status.
Witnesses were concerned that visas could also be refused to those who do not satisfy the suitability criteria in the Immigration Rules due to a criminal conviction, but whose criminal conviction relates to free speech or peaceful protest in Hong Kong, which would not be considered offences under UK law. The Government has said discretion would be given in respect of such applicants. While we welcome this statement of intent, the Government should provide assurances that the criminality policy and associated guidance for caseworkers explicitly recognise that convictions in Hong Kong may have been politically motivated and should be subject to investigation. Home Office caseworkers should be regularly trained and updated on the developing situation in Hong Kong and we encourage the Government to establish an expert casework team to process Hong Kong BN(O) applications.
When designing this visa route, the Government set out to increase its accessibility by setting a low fee for the applicant, but applicants must also pay the immigration health surcharge. We accept the principle that individuals who benefit from immigration should contribute towards the costs of essential UK services. However we are concerned that the upfront nature and scale of the surcharge will not be affordable for some BN(O) visa holders, particularly young people; we therefore urge the Government to introduce a means-tested fee waiver or other flexibilities for Hong Kongers to whom the cost is a significant barrier to protection.
Support for integration and cohesion is extremely important. We want to see Government, and particularly local authorities, prepared for the arrival of families from Hong Kong.
We welcome the Government’s financial support package to help those on the Hong Kong BN(O) route to settle into the UK, and the establishment of an inter-Ministerial group to co-ordinate support for status holders. But we recommend further steps to ensure that integration support is delivered in practice. The inter-Ministerial group must draw up a clear integration plan. It must ensure that Hong Kongers are given the resources and support they need to study, work and participate in civil and community life in the UK. The Committee recommends that the Home Secretary appoints a BN(O) Resettlement Panel to implement the Ministerial plan and to coordinate with local authorities, new residents and civil society groups.
The new visa route is an extremely important and welcome expression of the UK’s historic relationship with, and continued commitment to support, the citizens of Hong Kong. We expect individuals and families arriving from Hong Kong will enrich the life of our communities and contribute towards our economy. It is essential that the Government continues to monitor the situation so that support for status holders in the UK may be effectively planned and resourced, centrally and locally. It must ensure that strong measures are in place to promote integration and community cohesion.
Amending the scheme and making the associated changes we have recommended in this report will enable the Government to improve the scheme further and help to ensure that it provides the genuine protection and assistance the Government set out to provide.