Parliamentary committee says scheme is important expression of UK's historic commitment to support citizens of Hong Kong
Home Affairs Committee welcomes new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa route, but concerned by gaps in scheme for young people
13 July 2021
Parliament's Home Affairs Committee last week published a report following an inquiry into the new British National (Overseas) visa route for people from Hong Kong impacted by new security laws.
You can read the 44-page report here.
The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa was created by October 2020's mammoth statement of changes to the Immigration Rules (HC 813) and came into effect on the 31st of January this year.
The visa allows people from Hong Kong who are British nationals (overseas) to live, work and study in the UK.
According to the Committee, the Government has calculated that approximately 5.4 million Hong Kong residents, including dependants, could be eligible under the new visa route, but it is estimated that only around 200,000-300,000 are likely to arrive in the UK over the next five years.
Overall, the report is very welcoming and positive about the new route.
The Committee said: "The Government's decision to offer a Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme is an extremely important and welcome expression of the UK's historic relationship with, and continued commitment to support, the citizens of Hong Kong. As we have experienced with previous community arrivals into the UK, we expect individuals and families arriving from Hong Kong will enrich the life of our communities and contribute towards our economy."
A number of concerns, however, are raised in the report by the Committee.
In particular, the Home Affairs Committee warns that there is a gap in the scheme for a group of young people aged between 18-24 who face the greatest problems as a result of Hong Kong's new security laws.
The report explains: "There remain worrying gaps in this offer of support, for young people born since 1 July 1997 who may be particularly vulnerable to political targeting by Beijing. People born after the handover are not themselves eligible for BN(O) status, yet a significant number of pro-democracy activists fall into this category.
"For these young people the only viable routes to the UK are either to come on a visitor visa for six months and then to apply for asylum, or to come on a tier 5 youth mobility scheme visa which offers two years' leave to remain. We were concerned to hear that young people were deterred from claiming asylum in the UK because they felt delays by the Home Office in processing asylum casework might result in them being left for a substantial period without any economic support, unable to work or unable to study."
The report recommends that the Government extends the scheme to enable a young person with a BN(O) parent to apply separately, provided there is evidence of that parent's status. In addition, the Committee called on the Home Office to urgently address the long delays in the asylum casework system in order to rebuild confidence in the asylum system.
The report also raises concerns over people with politically motivated criminal convictions, as they could potentially be refused under the Immigration Rules, although the Government has said that discretion would be given in respect of applicants for who have convictions related to free speech or peaceful protest "which would not be considered offences under UK law"
Nevertheless, one witness told the Committee: "The problem with the issue of criminality is that the authorities in [Hong Kong] or China are not going to charge people specifically with 'peaceful protest', but for other criminal offences such as 'money laundry' or 'rioting', both of which are also crimes under English law. In these cases, there may be a risk where Home Office caseworkers… may simply see this as a tick box exercise without delving into the details as to the reasons for which the applicant has accrued these convictions."
The Committee says Home Office caseworkers should be trained and regularly updated on the developing situation in Hong Kong, and Home Office guidance on criminality must explicitly recognise convictions which may have been politically motivated.
While the Government has set the cost of the Hong Kong BN(O) visa lower than for other temporary visa categories, the Committee is concerned by the overall affordability of the fees.
The cost for a family of 2 adults and 2 children under 18 applying for a five-year visa is calculated at £11,940, with much of that being the immigration health surcharge.
The Committee said: "[W]e are concerned that the upfront nature and scale of the immigration health surcharge will not be affordable for some BN(O) visa holders and particularly for young people. The Home Secretary has described the route as a proportionate response to a specific situation: we therefore recommend that, as a proportionate further step, the Government introduce either a means-tested fee waiver for Hong Kongers to whom the cost is a significant barrier to protection or flexibilities around delayed or reduced payment where appropriate."
The Home Affairs Committee also calls for increased practical focus on integration and cohesion once visa holders arrive in the UK.
Yvette Cooper MP, the Chair of the Committee, said it was essential that the Government works with local authorities to provide Hong Kongers with a smooth and supportive process of integration into UK communities.
The report states: "The Government must ensure there is a robust plan for integration and employment support for BN(O) visa holders arriving to live in the UK. In January we heard significant concerns from witnesses about a lack of awareness and understanding by local authorities of the existence and role of the Hong Kong BN(O) visa route, and its potential consequences in terms of settlement patterns."
The Committee welcomed the Government's establishment of an inter-Ministerial group to address integration issues for newly arrived status holders, but noted that as yet there is little transparency about the work of the group
It added: "The Government must provide further information about the frequency of the group's meetings, its objectives and priorities. The inter-Ministerial group must draw up a clear integration plan to cover issues ranging from employment to English language, to encourage integration and promote community cohesion; it must ensure that Hong Kongers are given the resources and support they need to study, work and participate in civil and community life here in the UK. The group should play a key role in securing and communicating revised estimates of arrivals for local authorities over the lifetime of the visa scheme, to ensure those authorities can continue to plan effectively for likely demand. As the scheme progresses further financial support should be provided to authorities where changes in the settlement pattern make this necessary."
According to the report, in the period January to March 2021 there were 34,300 applications for the new route (20,000 main applicants and 14,300 dependants).