Crowds join the check-in queue for British Airways on July 17 in Hong Kong. The airline put on two extra flights to accommodate the departures. Photo: AFP / Marc Fernandes / NurPhoto

Thousands of Hong Kong people have accelerated their plans to emigrate with British National (Overseas) status as a new United Kingdom deadline approaches.

From Tuesday, they won’t be able to enter the United Kingdom with full work and study rights and wait for the immigration documents to be finalized later.

Since the British government began the BNO visa application process on January 31, a total of 34,300 Hong Kong people had applied for the visa to move to the UK as of the end of March. The visa gives applicants a pathway to UK citizenship in six years.

The UK government had allowed Hong Kong people to enter the country on “leave outside the rules (LOTR)” conditions and apply for the BNO visa within six months.

During this period, applicants enjoyed the right to study and work in the UK. This arrangement, which has been extended several times, will end on Tuesday after all lockdown measures were removed in England, the UK government said on July 8.

From Tuesday, Hong Kong people can enter the UK with work and study rights only after their BNO visa applications are approved. They can enter the country as visitors but may not work.

Before this, some applicants said they had been waiting for their BNO visas for more than 12 weeks. They said they did not know why late applications could succeed in weeks. Some blamed bugs in the online payment system for the delay.

A family poses for a photo before entering the departures hall for their flight to Britain at Hong Kong’s International Airport on July 18. Photo: AFP / Bertha Wang

Many of these people have canceled their applications, left for the UK before Tuesday and filed their applications again. Those who planned to enter the UK on LOTR later this summer also speeded up their exodus plans.

These people, plus those who scheduled their departures for the beginning of the summer break, have created huge crowds in the Hong Kong airport over the past 10 days. Hong Kong media estimated that about a thousand people flew out daily. 

Man Wai-sing, an adviser at the UK Majesty, an immigration consultant firm, said some Hong Kong parents felt panic after they heard about the change of the LOTR arrangement.

Man said they thought they could enter the UK on LOTR in August so that their children could go to school in September. He said some others were forced to cancel and refile their applications due to the new arrangement.

Education in the UK

On Sunday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a radio program she felt sorry to see the loss of talent. However, she said it was normal for Hong Kong people to choose to move to other places for their own and their children’s needs as they enjoyed freedom of movement.

She added that emigrants would regret in the future as they could not enjoy the huge opportunities in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area.

Benny Cheung Ka-hei, a director of Goldmax Immigration Consulting, said his company received about 20 to 30 inquiries about the BNO migration scheme daily and the number continued to rise.

Cheung said most emigrants were families of three to four people with a plan to leave by the end of this year. He said they were attracted by the free education in the UK while about 50 to 60% of them would sell all their properties in Hong Kong before leaving.

BNO passport Photo: Asia Times

In a recent survey, the UKHK, a Christian group that joined the UK government’s Hong Kong BNO task force, interviewed 1,012 Hong Kong people, most of whom planned to move to Britain. Citing this survey, Ming Pao reported on Sunday that about 63.5% of those who planned to leave would bring their children but only 13.2% would bring their parents.

The survey also showed that 80% of the interviewees had post-secondary qualifications or college degrees while 70% of the migrating families had at least £100,000 (US$137,106) of cash.

In May, a 37-year-old man called Aragorn, who had worked as an estate agent and fled to London due to the tightening political situation in Hong Kong, told The Times that he found it difficult job hunting in the UK, especially when the country was under lockdown. He said he was helped only by Hong Kong people but not the UK government.

On April 8, the British government said it would spend £43 million ($US60 million) to set up 12 centers to help Hong Kong’s BNO status holders and their families access housing, education and employment to build a life in the UK.

Over the past few months, many Hong Kong families who moved to the UK have praised their councils for their quick action to find schools for their children, usually within two weeks, while they are also satisfied with the green environment and rights to vote.

However, some said it was difficult to rent a house unless they paid six to 12 months rent in advance. Some professionals said they were doing blue-collar jobs for the time being but they hoped their expertise could be leveraged into more gainful employment in the future.

Alternative destination

On July 9, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution titled “Hong Kong, notably the case of Apple Daily” with 578 votes in favor, 29 against and 73 abstentions.

The parliament said it strongly welcomed the steps taken by the UK, Australia and Canada to open schemes to offer Hong Kong citizens the opportunity to live and work in their countries. It called on EU member states to coordinate the implementation of a “lifeboat scheme” for pro-democracy activists and political leaders in Hong Kong.

Vilnius, Lithuania Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Diliff

On July 8, American journalist Michael Yon tweeted that he was told by Deputy Foreign Minister of Lithuania Mantas Adomenas that the Baltic nation would fast-track Hongkongers who wish to move there. Yon said those without passports would be helped with travel documents.

Some Hong Kong netizens said they welcomed Lithuania’s offer. The country left the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, or the so-called “17+1” initiative, in February and said it planned to form stronger ties with the Taiwanese government.

They said it was an attractive option if Hong Kong people could become residents in Lithuania and move around the Schengen Area.

“Lithuania is not precluding an option of having simplified immigration procedures for residents of Hong Kong in the near future, according to the existing rules and on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesperson of the Department of Communication and Cultural Diplomacy of Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Asia Times in an email without giving further details.

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