The British government has launched a £43 million (HK$460 million, US$59 million) package to support BN(O) families that settle in the country, funding local councils nationwide to help the new arrivals from Hong Kong with housing, education and employment.
The scheme, announced on Thursday, comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to four Hong Kong families that moved to the country on a special visa for those with British National (Overseas) status last month.
During the video call, Johnson heard about the challenges the new arrivals faced in Britain, particularly over work opportunities, schools and their children’s passport status.
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Under the new integration programme, £30.7 million will go to councils across England to provide help for the arrivals, covering English language and housing support for those in need. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will deliver similar policies with a budget of £5.8 million.
A further £5 million will be used to establish 12 “virtual” welcome hubs across the country, with funding for projects such as local helplines giving advice and assistance on issues related to daily life, including school admission, registering with a doctor and starting a business.
The government will also provide dedicated Hong Kong educational resources for schools to teach pupils about the historic connection between Britain and its former colony.
Britain introduced the new visa last July in response to Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, an act London described as a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the agreement that paved the way for the city’s handover in 1997.
Up to 5.4 million Hongkongers out of the city’s 7.5 million population are eligible under the visa programme to stay in Britain for up to five years, with the right to work and study, and to apply for citizenship after six years. As of mid-March, the British government had received 27,000 applications since the scheme was launched in late January.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the government would live up to its responsibilities to the people of Hong Kong and do everything in its power to ensure their success and happiness in Britain. He also established an interministerial group which would consider issues including access to public services, opportunities and safety for new arrivals.
“This programme will ensure BN(O) status holders and their families have the very best start as soon as they arrive, and support to help them find a home, schools for their children, opportunity and prosperity,” said Jenrick, who spoke with four Hong Kong families through a video call on Tuesday.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the scheme was another important step in helping the new arrivals integrate and contribute to society. “It reflects our commitment to the people of Hong Kong – and those who have now chosen to start a new life here,” he added.
Home Secretary Priti Patel called the programme “unprecedented and generous”, and said there was “no other visa in the world of this nature”.
The British government will launch a new website and welcome pack providing information on accessing public services, registering to vote and opening a bank account, as well as pointing to local amenities and promoting cultural, arts and music events, all translated into Cantonese.
A £1 million grant scheme will fund national projects that support BN(O) status holders in areas such as employment, mental health and well-being.
Krish Kandiah, founder of UKHK.org, a platform to help Hongkongers in Britain, said government support was critical and a clear lesson from past migrations. Kandiah helped set up the meeting between Johnson and the Hong Kong families last month.
“It is great to see the government follow through on its commitment to help Hongkongers successfully settle in the UK with an early package of assistance,” he said.
Jabez Lam, manager of Hackney Chinese Community Services, said the British government had been responsive with a comprehensive support programme, as the visa scheme had only been launched for nine weeks.
“It is a good start. The areas that concerned the government, such as housing and education, are the fundamental foundations for new arrivals to get their feet on the ground,” Lam said.
Lam, along with representatives from other civic groups welcoming Hongkongers to Britain, submitted a proposal to the government in January on how to help the arrivals settle in the country.
He said renting a home was a common challenge the arrivals faced and he expected the government to provide more housing support.
“The BN(O) visa is a very new scheme and some landlords do not know whether the BN(O) status holders have the right to rent. They ask for past landlord reference, employer reference and bank account details, so it is quite complicated and difficult for those who have just arrived in the UK,” Lam said.
Kane Chiang, 34, moved to south London with his wife and two sons last October and is waiting to hear about his BN(O) visa application. He welcomed the launch of the support package.
Chiang, currently employed as a construction worker, expected the authorities could speed up some administrative procedures, such as applying for a national insurance number, to qualify for certain benefits and the state pension.
Before returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain granted Hongkongers born before the handover BN(O) passports, which allowed them to visit the country for up to six months without giving them the right to work there. At the time, the passport was a source of disappointment for Hongkongers who had wanted Britain to grant them full citizenship.
The visa’s launch in January sparked a diplomatic row, with China saying it would stop recognising BN(O) passports as travel and identification documents. Beijing also accused Britain of “obstinately and repeatedly hyping up the BN(O) passport issue to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs”.
In the latest countermeasures against London, Hong Kong last month told 14 countries to stop accepting the BN(O) passport as a valid travel document for applicants of working holiday visas.
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