HONG KONG BRITISH NATIONAL (OVERSEAS)
In June 2020, in response to new laws affecting citizens of Hong Kong the UK government announced its intention to provide a route for Hong Kong citizens with British National (Overseas) status to come to the UK and live and work.
The Home Office has subsequently created a new visa route to facilitate this. This briefing aims to explain the policy background, the new visa route and its potential impact on local authorities
Many Hong Kong residents possess a type of British Nationality Status known as British National (Overseas). The British government is openly welcoming any people with this status who may no longer wish to remain in Hong Kong as a result of changes to their rights, to come to the UK.
As from 31 January 2021, people with BN(O) status can apply for a Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa to come and live and work in the UK for an initial period of 30 months. This can be extended and there is a clear route to Settlement and British Citizenship.
With up to 5.4 million people potentially eligible for this visa, the highest possible forecasts (at the time of writing) suggest up to 322,000 people could arrive in the UK over the next 5 years. Clearly, this could have a number of potential impacts on local communities. Local authorities may wish to consider the risk of destitution, impact on services like housing and schools and the need for resources to provide integration support.
Some government funding is being made available to Strategic Migration Partnerships, Local Authorities and Voluntary/Community sector organisations to provide integration support as part to the Hong Kong UK Welcome Programme.
For 99 years, Hong Kong was a British colony and dependent territory before returning to Chinese sovereignty on the 1 July 1997. The Sino-British Joint Declaration is the legally binding agreement which stipulates the sovereign and administrative arrangement of Hong Kong after 1 July 1997 and implements a ’one country, 2 systems’ policy.
Prior to ‘handover’ in 1997, the UK government introduced a British nationality status for Hong Kong residents known as British National (Overseas) – [BN(O)]. Residents of Hong Kong had to voluntarily register for this status before handover was completed in July 1997. At this time, the Home Office estimates that there are approximately 350,000 holders of BN(O) passports but there are as many as 2.9m people in Hong Kong with BN(O) status.
Since the creation of the BN(O), holders have been subject to immigration control but are able to:
- enter the UK for up to 6 months without a visa
- have the right to vote and hold public office
- acquire British Citizenship through registration rather than naturalisation.
Following the introduction of the Hong Kong national security law by the Chinese government, the British government raised concerns that the legislation infringes on the rights of the people of Hong Kong under the Hong Kong Basic Law and is in breach of International Law – the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In June 2020, the UK Prime Minister and government signalled its intention to offer a direct route for people with BN(O) status in Hong Kong to live and settle in the UK, if they feel that they are no longer able to reside in Hong Kong as a result of this national security law and its potential impacts on their individual freedoms.
A policy statement outlining this new route/visa was issued in July 2020, Further guidance was published in October 2020 outlining the conditions and requirements for obtaining the visa. Based on this, the government now estimates that up to 5.4 million people could be eligible to apply through the scheme either as a BN(O) status holder, dependent or household
member. Its forecast is that between 123,000 to 153,700 may arrive in the UK in the first year, and 258,000 to 322,400 over 5 years.
Visa requirements and details
Applications for the BN(O) Visa opened on 31 January 2021 and as noted above those with this status can apply for a visa to enter the UK for a period of 30 months, with the option to extend this for a further 30 months or 5 years.
There are two routes within the visa, enabling applicants to bring with them any dependent family members, providing they meet the criteria as eligible dependents. This includes a route for
applicants, their partners and dependent children under 18 years of age, and a route
for adult children and their partners and children under 18 years of age, providing all applicants form part of the same household.
Applications for a visa can be made from outside the UK and also within the UK for people with BN(O) status already residing here. It costs £180 to apply for a visa to stay for 30 months or £250 to apply to stay for 5 years. Additional costs include the Immigration Health Surcharge (currently £1,560 for a 30-month visa).
Those with a visa will be able live, work and study in the UK. It does not however require the holder to have a job or job offer though applicants must be able to demonstrate they can support themselves independently/financially in the UK for at least 6 months.
Those who successfully obtain a visa, will be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILtR) after 5 years. After 1 year of possessing ILtR, visa holders can also register to become a British Citizen.
It is important to note, that those with a visa have no recourse to public funds (NRPF). However, recent changes to the Immigration Rules which came into effect in April 2021 mean that the 6 months ‘maintenance requirement’ will not apply to applicants already resident in the UK for more than 3 months and that visa holders will be able to apply to remove the NRPF condition from their leave should they become destitute or be at ‘imminent risk of destitution’.
There is no English Language requirement. There is a requirement to have undertaken a Tuberculosis test. This can be done at designated test sites prior to coming to the UK but can also be done in the UK for those applying from within the country.
Potential impact on local authorities and communities
- There is little clarity about the numbers who may apply for and secure a visa and where they might settle in the UK. Government is conducting small scale research with people using the BN(O) route to better understand their decision making and needs. Local Resilience Forums in England have been working with MHCLG’s Resilience and Recovery Directorate (RED) regarding local contingency plans relating to new BN(O) arrivals.
- It is presumed that most will gravitate to larger cities; where they have relatives nearby and or there is an established Hong Kong community of origination.
- Political developments and decisions in the China/Hong Kong region could either escalate the rate and timing of potential arrivals or vice versa.
- There is also a presumption that those who apply will be highly skilled and educated and some may already have a high level of English – though this may not equate to the qualification/entry levels required in the UK.
- Some interpreting and translation services will still be required especially in relation to complex and specialist matters.
- The risk of destitution in amongst all the other pressures currently impinging on local authorities will need to be carefully considered and perhaps especially how it relates to children and their needs plus dependant adults.
- Finding affordable accommodation and employment will be a challenge and perhaps even more so after the first 6 months.
- Risks in relation to the potential for exploitation/modern slavery need to be carefully considered.
- Should those who have visas become destitute, they can apply for the NRPF to be lifted. It is likely this will require OISC-regulated legal advice but will not come under the scope of legal aid in a region where availability of both have been described as a ‘desert’.
- Newly announced funding for local authorities and the VCSE should provide some mitigation in relation to issues connected to destitution and issues such as homelessness and social services intervention to protect children/vulnerable adults.
- Arrivals will present another pressure on the housing market, school places and health services in the locations where they chose to settle.
- Community cohesion and integration factors will need sensitive and appropriate place-based attention both in relation to well-established Chinese/Hong Kong communities and other factions of local communities.
- In addition to the BN(O) route, there is a possibility that those who feel they are at risk of persecution in their country of origin seek out protection status in the UK via other routes which may compound the competing pressures at local level re current immigration priorities.
- Welcoming those from Hong Kong will bring a rewarding diversity of culture and contribution to local communities and potentially to the economy as a whole.
In April 2021, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government announced that over £43m funding would be available in 2021/22 to support new arrivals through the Hong Kong UK Welcome Programme. This includes:
- Over £30m for local authorities to support with destitution (up to £2,720 per household) including housing costs and translation, plus access to ESOL provision (up to £800 per head) – note that BN(O) status holders can only access ESOL courses funded through the Adult Education Budget when they have lived in the UK for 3 years.
- Funding will be retrospective and quarterly, based on per capita costs to allow for planning based on support per individual rather than in predicted settlement patterns.
- Eligibility criteria for local authorities will be announced shortly, and some reporting will be required.
Voluntary and community sector:
- Grant monies to assist with things such as employment access, mental health and well being projects and initiatives to build community cohesion.
- 12 to be established across the UK coordinated by Strategic Migration Partnerships (SMPs) whose remit will include sharing resources (e.g. translated welcome packs; helplines and websites; triaging requests for support; assisting with joint commissioning between areas; tackling hate crime with partners; and bespoke VCSE (voluntary, community and social enterprise) sector support to new arrivals settling in and accessing services.
Although available funds are limited, it is hoped this will enable local authorities and community organisations respond to the needs of this new group of arrivals ensuring a smooth and successful integration process that results in benefits to the individuals and the receiving communities by maximising the potential of the group as well as preventing crises.
Details of how to access funding are not available at the time of writing (27/05/21).
Guidance – Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa Applications. Home Office. 22 October 2020.
Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa – Research Briefing. House of Commons Research Library. 15 January 2021.
Hong Kong UK Welcome Programme. MHCLG. 8 April 2021.
Media Factsheet – Hong Kong British National (Overseas). Home Office. 29 May 2020.
Policy Statement – Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa. Home Office. 22 July 2020.
Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules: HC1248. Home Office. 4 March 2021.6
The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa. Free Movement. 28 October 2020.