The United Kingdom’s British National Overseas passport policy for Hong Kong – too little too late?

With China implementing a new set of draconian laws in Hong Kong, the UK government has stepped up efforts to allow Hong Kong residents an easier path to immigration. But one cannot expect that handing out passports will automatically enable Hong Kongers to leave their home. Much more help is needed, especially in financial terms. 


At the end of May, the Chinese government proposed a new set of laws aimed at cracking down on political dissidence. The UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office promptly issued a joint statement with Canada, Australia and the US criticising this new law. The UK, which Hong Kong was a part of until 1997, has often been called on by Hong Kong activists to protect human rights in its former colony. Adhering to its close and historical link to the city, the UK government further decided to expand visa rights granted to BNO (British National Overseas) citizens, the special class of British nationality granted to Hong Kong residents who chose to register before the handover. While an estimated 350,000 individuals hold this status, another 3 million are said to be eligible and can apply for a passport online if still in possession of a BNO passport (number).

This can be seen as a push by the UK government to allow many, almost half, of Hong Kong’s residents an easier pathway to emigration from Hong Kong and life in the UK. It banks on the thought that many residents will wish to flee their home before Hong Kong becomes a Chinese city and is stripped of its democratic system. Although a step in the right direction, this new policy likely will not ease much of the emigration process for Hong Kongers: although 40 percent of the population expressed a desire to leave in October 2019, financial burdens yet pose a great barrier. Other than fleeing, the only other option is to stay and hope that, somehow, the Chinese government does not intervene in Hong Kong with an iron fist. However, as has been proven, there are very little means which could even prove effective in the long-term, hence the popular sentiment of emigration.

There seem to be countless destinations currently available to residents wishing to leave the city. However, most countries are reluctant to handing out too many temporary residence permits. Australia, Canada, the US; already there the financial bar is notoriously high for visa applicants, but also in countries closer to home the main path to residency is through investments. Even in Taiwan, a state many Hong Kongers would understandably consider given geographical and ideological proximity, the simplest way is through investment of close to US$200,000 in the local economy.

Consequently, wealthy individuals will have an easier time emigrating. In a city plagued by high costs of living and income inequality, however, many do not possess these financial means to leave. Even if millions do take up on the UK’s offer of BNO citizenship (which now allows holders to remain in the UK for 5 years and later apply for citizenship), not all will be able to make full use of it. At least for Hong Kong’s 1.37 million impoverished individuals it would be impossible; but also people earning a low- to middle-income salary might think twice.

If a crisis is to be avoided where the UK is overwhelmed by the number of BNO immigrants in the coming years, proper programs and incentives for housing, employment, education catering to this niche demography need to be established to aid people without the financial means or who cannot speak English. However, Hong Kong is a developed city and, therefore, home to many skilled workers and educated individuals which could prove beneficial to Britain’s economy if integrated correctly. Another incentive would be for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to issue loans to BNO citizens to aid them in leaving Hong Kong and establishing life in the UK. 

Looking at the past when many residents emigrated prior to the handover, the number of migrants may rise, but we might never see a tidal wave. Many citizens still wish to stay and make a stand for their democratic rights. At least for now, leaving is only a last-ditch option. Hong Kong, being an international and famous city, serves as an ideal harbinger for future pro-democracy movements in and around China. While the UK’s bold move has it now treading on thin ice with its relations to China and other nations will be just as, if not more cautious, it should definitely serve as an anchor point for the pushback against China’s crackdown on minorities and democracy as well as an example for other governments to follow. 

Cover picture: