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An amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, tabled this week by Conservative MP Damian Green and supported by Tom Tugendhat and 11 other Tory MPs, would enable Hong Kongers with at least one parent who is a BNO citizen to apply for a UK visa.
It comes after The Independent revealed last month that Young Hong Kongers who fled police brutality are “languishing” in the UK asylum system because they are not able to benefit from the British National Overseas (BNO) scheme due to their age.
The scheme, which is projected to receive around 422,000 applications from Hong Kong nationals in its first four years, requires that applicants hold a BNO passport. These documents were issued to citizens following the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997.
While it allows applicants to bring relatives, including adult children, with them to the UK, many young people have had to flee alone because their parents wish to remain in Hong Kong.
If the amendment were accepted, it would enable those born after 1997 to resettle in Britain on the basis of the BNO status of one or both of their parents, rather than having to travel with them.
Many of these young people may well have been involved in the protests and therefore some of them have already suffered from the new security law, and others may in the future
Damian Green MP
Mr Green, who was immigration minister from 2010 until 2012, told The Independent that Britain has a “moral obligation” to the young Hong Kong citizens who are currently excluded from the programme and urged ministers to accept his amendment in order to rectify an “unfair” policy.
“Many of these young people may well have been involved in the protests and therefore some of them have already suffered from the new security law, and others may in the future,” he said.
“I think it would be perfectly possible for the system to cope with this. And of course many of these people will otherwise claim asylum, so one of the beneficial side effects of accepting my amendment would be to relief some pressure on the asylum system.”
Home Office figures show there was an almost 500 per cent increase in asylum claims from Hong Kong nationals in the year to June 2021, rising to 124 from 21 the previous year. Fourteen of these were unaccompanied minors – the first time on record that the UK has received asylum claims from children from the city state.
Teenagers and young people from Hong Kong have told The Independent they have been forced to claim asylum in the UK, leaving them waiting for a year or more for a decision while being banned from working and often prevented from studying.
Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and adviser to Hong Kong Watch, welcomed the amendment, saying it was about “helping the people who need it most”.
“Right now children are in prison in Hong Kong for doing nothing other than defending their constitution, which the UK is bound by treaty to defend. We need to up our game rapidly, and this is a good start,” he added.
Right now children are in prison in Hong Kong for doing nothing other than defending their constitution, which the UK is bound by treaty to defend. We need to up our game rapidly
Luke de Pulford, coordinator of Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China
Johnny Patterson, policy director of Hong Kong Watch, said the “accelerated destruction of freedoms” in the city state in recent months had demonstrated why the visa scheme “urgently” needed to be expanded.
“As we feared, the national security law is now being used to target protesters who took part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests. I know many young people who were on the frontlines of the protests in Hong Kong who face harsh penalties that amount to persecution. But they have been excluded by the BNO scheme,” he said.
Mr Patterson said young Hong Kongers were being “forced onto the margins of British society” by seeking asylum or remaining in the UK on expired visitor or student visas.
“In the asylum system, they face an agonising wait for usually well over one year, unable to work during this time. The UK has rightly offered a refuge for BNO citizens. It is vital that the visa scheme is rationalised to ensure that young Hong Kongers are not excluded,” he added.
Figures show that the average waiting time for an initial decision on an asylum case in the UK is currently between one and three years.