When, last July, the Government responded to China’s draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong with a new visa scheme, it was rightly applauded for — eventually — doing the right thing. It offered a lifeline to three million Hong Kongers holding British National Overseas (BNO) status and born before 1997, along with their dependents. So far, 90,000 Hong Kongers have taken up the offer.
There is, however, one group of people who are not helped by the scheme, and yet are among those most vulnerable and in need of sanctuary: those activists born after 1997. Yet these are the people most in need of protection: 93% of those who have been arrested, charged and tried for involvement in the 2019 pro-democracy protests are under the age of 25.
If they have one parent with BNO status, current rules allow them to come to the UK, but only with their parent. For many, this is not possible. Often the parents don’t want to leave — either because their political views are different from their children’s and they back the pro-Beijing establishment, or simply because they don’t want the upheaval of fleeing their home city. And so for those young people who need to escape Hong Kong to Britain, or face years in jail, their only option is asylum.
There are currently about 200 young Hong Kongers in this situation in the UK today, many of whom are dealing with the trauma of police brutality in Hong Kong and their new plight here. Separated from their families and often with little adult support or oversight, they have escaped arrest and prison but are yet to find freedom. Some are accommodated in bleak hotels, where meals consist of a daily and unvaried diet of curry, with no thought to their own cultural preferences. Anecdotally, there are concerns that the toll on their mental health, combined with the inevitable financial challenges that await them, may lead some to drugs, suicide or crime.
But it doesn’t have to be this way; there is a solution which is sensible, logical and does not add anything to the numbers. Former Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green, who once served as an immigration minister, has tabled an amendment to the Borders and Nationality Bill which is designed to close a loophole. Simply put, it would allow those between the ages of 18-24 who have at least one parent with BNO status to claim that status in the UK without being accompanied by their parent. This adds no extra burden in terms of immigration numbers, because they are already factored in as dependents. It would also ease the burden on the asylum system. And, more importantly, it would enable a relatively small number of brave young activists to study, work and build a new future for themselves in freedom.
Nathan Law knows this well. He was elected as the youngest legislator in Hong Kong in 2016, disqualified from the legislature by Beijing a year later and sentenced to eight months in jail. Fortunately, he was granted asylum in the UK earlier this year. As he wrote in a recent joint letter sent to the Home Secretary: “The Chinese Government’s actions every day show their contempt for [the Sino-British Joint Declaration] with Britain. One simple, humanitarian response the UK can take is to rationalise the BNO policy and offer a lifeline to the young democrats who need it most.”
The amendment already has the support of some eminent politicians, from the Tories such as Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Labour MPs Select Committee Chairs Stephen Timms and Sarah Champion. And yet I fear the Government may come up with a variety of arguments to try to quash a growing rebellion on its own benches.
If that does happen, they’ll likely say that the UK is being generous enough already. But that’s simply not true: there is a gaping hole in the BNO visa scheme which hangs those born after 1997 out to dry. Or they might point to other paths open to young people, such as the youth mobility scheme, but this only has 1,000 places a year and applications must be made outside the UK, so it is no use to someone who needs to escape Hong Kong urgently or has already left. Or the Government might argue that it would lead to unaccompanied minors moving to the UK. But this is nonsense. The amendment is targeted at those aged 18-24, and safeguards could be put in place regarding age, health and security background checks. Nor would it breach the Sino-British Joint Declaration, because it does not re-open registration, it merely allows young people already eligible to apply independently of their parents.
Ultimately, though, this amendment can’t be reduced to technical justifications; what it really comes down to is whether or not we’re happy to do nothing while brave young activists are placed in danger. At a university in the north of England last week, I met several Hong Kongers who were fearful of what would happen to them once they graduate, if they are forced to return to Hong Kong. They explained how they are in exactly the situation this amendment is designed to help — they have BNO parents who do not plan to take up the BNO scheme, and so would be forced to choose between returning to a city stripped of all its freedoms or claim asylum. Are those really the options we want to offer bright young Hong Kong graduates with degrees from some of the best universities in the world?
Most of my friends in Hong Kong are now in prison. I don’t want to see any more of them behind bars. But nor do I want to see them languishing in our asylum system.