Described by UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab as a ‘matter of principle’ and a ‘historic responsibility’, the UK’s decision to open an immigration pathway to citizenship for Hong Kong BN(O) (British National Overseas) status holders is unprecedented and unique – for its scale, its welcoming political rhetoric, and its geopolitical weight.
However, the rollout of this new visa scheme should not occur in isolation, because inconsistencies within British asylum and immigration policies can send a clear and unfortunate message that some refugees and migrants are viewed as more welcome than others.
Extending a safe haven to Hong Kong citizens at risk of political persecution is the right thing to do, but extending it to people at risk of persecution based on consistent, transparent, and solidary asylum and immigration systems is the better thing to do.
First announced in response to China’s introduction of a National Security Law to curb civil liberties in Hong Kong following a year of pro-democracy protests, previously BN(O) status did not confer rights to residents of the former British colony to emigrate to the UK. And this new, rather unique, treatment can be a dangerous route that sets the UK up for trouble with both China and other nations in the future.
Risks of inconsistent policy
The UK’s decision to open its doors to potentially three million Hong Kong BN(O) passport holders and their two million dependents stands in contrast to current trends in its wider asylum and immigration policies. Hong Kong citizens relocating will avoid the asylum system and ‘refugee’ label, thanks to the unique BN(O) visa arrangement. They also will not face job, skill level, or English language requirements for their visa application as EU nationals now do via the UK’s post-Brexit points-based immigration system.
Current asylum figures also show that the UK has resettled 24,707 refugees over the last five years. Its overall asylum numbers are not much higher: between 2015 and 2019, the UK accepted 82,337 refugees. But the number eligible under the BN(O) visa scheme is 60 times that total.
The historic responsibility towards Hong Kong being a driver for such a welcoming immigration policy also makes this an outlier within the context of the UK’s other responses to self-determination conflicts in former colonies, such as its more distanced response to alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. And when considering countries of former British military engagement such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the treatment of refugee flows from those countries has been controversial. Narratives of ‘morality’ and ‘duty’ rather pale in such a patchwork of contentious colonial and military legacies.
In addition, the Home Office impact assessment has already presented the presumed economic benefits of Hong Kong citizens arriving in the UK, stating the net benefit for the UK could be between £2.4 and £2.9 billion over five years. But making bold predictions is speculative given the uncertainty affecting Hong Kong’s future, and trying to estimate an economic value risks portraying people as lucrative assets to the UK economy, rather than simply worthy of safe harbour. Many trade-offs, integration challenges, and lived experiences affect a person’s decision and journey to rebuilding a new life.
Furthermore, the same pro-immigration argument based on Hong Kong citizens’ predicted contribution to the UK economy is seldom afforded to refugees and migrants from other countries. Differences in approach risk creating unfounded narratives of ‘good and bad migrants’ or ‘useful and burdensome refugees’, narratives that often reflect race and class prejudices.
Debates on Brexit provoked hugely divisive views on immigration and citizenship, and refugees and migrants have often suffered from scapegoating in public opinion, resulting in their contributions to the UK being under-acknowledged. UK government policies must recognize refugee and migrant contributions to the UK, and avoid fuelling any potential narrative that certain refugees and migrants are more worthwhile than others.
Rather than thinking about Hong Kong as a morally and historically justified single policy, the new visa scheme should be treated and evaluated as an integrated component of the UK’s asylum and immigration systems, with the exceptional treatment of Hong Kong being brought into ongoing debates about how the UK will continue to develop its systems post-Brexit, and who should benefit.
Only by bringing to the fore a reckoning with its colonial and military legacies, and their treatment within immigration and foreign policies, can the UK truly begin working towards more inclusive asylum and immigration systems, and a more consistent treatment of human rights within its foreign policy.
Emily Venturi, Schwarzman Academy Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.