Young Hong Kongers fleeing Beijing’s clampdown left in ‘danger’ as they miss out on British asylum
Karson Lim, a Hong Kong activist studying at a British university, is trying to make the most of his time in the UK until his student visa expires next year.
At that point, Mr Lim – not his real name – will have to return to Hong Kong where before he was arrested and fears the police will charge him under a sweeping national security law for participating in pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Mr Lim, 20, has limited options for staying in the UK. He was born in Hong Kong after 1997, when the former colony was returned from British to Beijing rule, which makes him ineligible for British National (Overseas) status.
“I’d really like to stay in the UK,” he said, worried about his safety in Hong Kong, where he suffered a brain haemorrhage when violently arrested by undercover police officers. “I enjoy it, I enjoy the culture… I would love to, if I had the chance.”
The full figure, however, is “very hard to know, because everyone who comes here wants to keep it very low key; everyone is worried about the national security law,” said Mr Wong.
Many worry that simply trying to emigrate from Hong Kong would constitute a crime under the vaguely defined national security law, or leave remaining relatives at risk of harassment from the authorities.
Some entered the UK on tourist or student visas, and are figuring out how to stay, given fears they’ll be unfairly prosecuted in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong people in this situation could apply for a skilled worker visa or the youth mobility scheme, said Peter Walsh, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory.
Still, these would be temporary solutions, and eventually they would have to depart the UK.
The only way someone like Mr Lim could have a shot through the BN(O) program is if a spouse or parent with status applied on behalf of the household. Immediate family members – partners, minor and adult children – are eligible to join.
But as legal adults and not dependent minors, they would need to demonstrate they are part of the same household, and the family would have to move as a whole.
“Only one parent needs to be a BN(O), but both parents have to apply with the [adult] child and prove that their relationship with the child is genuine,” said Mr Walsh. “Underpinning the policy is an emphasis on the family unit…staying together, living together, coming together.’
The UK government estimates there are 187,000 Hong Kong people who are legal adults with at least one BN(O) parent.
This requirement, however, can be limiting in practice. Mr Lim had previously hoped this would be an option – that his father, who has BN(O) status, would apply for the family, but his parents recently divorced and discussions for a potential move halted.
Tammy, 18, also not her real name, is in a similar situation. Her mother does have BN(O) status, but doesn’t have the means to move to the UK and support herself there.
Plus, the two are estranged – her mother opposed Tammy’s participation in the 2019 protests.
Tammy fled Hong Kong last year for what she prayed would be a short time until the situation calmed down. On her flight out, “I still had a bit of hope that I can return to Hong Kong…. I was born and raised there.”
But as her classmates and friends continued to be arrested one by one, she realised returning home was not an option.
Desperate – as she was ineligible for the new BN(O) route – she filed an asylum application in the UK late last year.
For now, the UK government “hasn’t really said anything” about how to close this loophole, said Mr Walsh. “They take a laissez-faire approach.”
A bill introduced last October by Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael tries to offer a solution.
As introduced, the Hong Kong Bill includes a clause that says: “The Secretary of State must, on an application made for the purpose, register as a British National (Overseas) any person who is a permanent resident of Hong Kong.”
While this bill, if passed, would allow people like Mr Lim and Tammy to apply to live and work in the UK, it could potentially create another issue by allowing any Hong Kong permanent resident to seek BN(O) status.
Generally speaking people who have lived in Hong Kong for seven consecutive years or more can request permanent resident status. Mr Carmichael couldn’t be reached for comment.
For now, Mr Lim is distracting himself by focusing on university studies, participating in sports teams and spending time with housemates.
“I know I couldn’t stay, so why would I think about it?” he said. “It’s just my personal opinion, but if the UK government helps us – that’s the best way.”