When protests erupted last year in Hong Kong against increasingly repressive Chinese rule, Wing felt compelled to join in — organising events near her office.
Last month, scared by stories of police brutality against demonstration veterans, Wing — who gave only her Cantonese-language name to avoid recriminations — joined thousands of others who had fled to the UK.
“I came here because I was afraid of what might happen after the national security law,” Wing said, referring to draconian new legislation that outlaws many forms of protest.
Most arrivals have taken advantage of a UK government offer made last year of a favourable path to citizenship for the 3m residents of the territory who hold or are eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) passports.
But community groups said thousands of people, particularly in their 20s, had or were planning to flee on their Chinese-issued passports with a six-month visitor visa and claim asylum once in the UK. Such people are likely to face a far more complex, time-consuming and stressful journey to permanent residency than those on the BNO route.
Wing, 27, who was born before the handover of Hong Kong from UK to Chinese control, would have been eligible for BNO status if her parents had sought the status for her before the transfer on July 1, 1997. However, her parents failed to register her.
Fred Wong, a representative of the Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (ARC), a London-based group established in September, said he expected many people would feel they had no choice but to seek asylum under a system that he called “one of the most undesirable” in the world.
Others, he said, were “buying time” by seeking visa extensions in the hope that other countries, such as Taiwan or Australia, would reopen the closed borders that had made the UK one of the few places worldwide open to fleeing Hong Kongers.
“People came purely for the safety and stability, even though they had to give up a lot,” Wong said of the reasons people had chosen the UK. “This shows how desperate they are.”
Speaking in Victoria Park in east London, near where she is staying with a friend, Wing said she was about to make her first application for the £37.75 weekly living allowance granted to people awaiting asylum decisions.
“I didn’t apply for any money because I had my own savings when I came here,” Wing said. “But they’re almost gone after a long period of waiting.”
Around 7,000 Hong Kongers sought settlement in the UK on BNO passports between last summer and the opening of formal applications for the BNO scheme on January 31, according to the Home Office.
The UK government expects around 300,000 people to use the scheme in its first five years. It offers lower-than-normal visa fees, a quicker path than other visas to permanent settlement and citizenship, and a chance to bring in an unusually broad range of dependants.
Kevin Foster, the UK’s immigration minister, said the government was “proud” of having established the BNO visa route and pointed out that children born after 1997 were eligible if they lived with eligible parents and applied together.
“Those not eligible can still apply under existing immigration routes to live, work or study in the UK,” he said.
There are no asylum figures yet for 2020’s fourth quarter, when many Hong Kongers are likely to have arrived. But the June-to-September quarter showed 34 applications from Hong Kong, sharply up on 13 in the whole of 2019.
Wong estimated there were some 500 prospective Hong Kong asylum seekers in the UK, although most had not yet submitted claims. He estimated the number of non-BNO holders who might flee to the UK at 20,000.
Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who chairs the party’s China Research Group of members concerned about China’s influence, said there was “further to go” in helping Hong Kongers despite the “welcome” BNO scheme.
“We need to offer those who are looking to start their lives again, free from fear, the chance to move to the UK,” he said.
Wong warned it was wrong to assume Hong Kong migrants would be well off and need little support. “There may be a perception that a lot of Hong Kongers are middle-class, wealthy people,” he said. “But that’s not quite the case.”
Yan, 29, a former teacher who fled Hong Kong for London in September, illustrated the challenges facing even those, like her, holding BNO passports.
Giving only one of her Cantonese names, Yan said the economic downturn had made jobs scarce while the pandemic had slowed some administrative processes.
People applying to settle under the BNO visa will be ineligible for social security or other state support until they are granted permanent residency, after five years.
“I’m trying to look for a job because I need to support myself, because I’ve been here for around half a year,” Yan said.
Yet she and two other Hong Kongers — Jim, a photographer, and Peter Chan, an engineer — all expressed some optimism.
Jim, 29, who only gave his first name, said he was seeking asylum despite holding a BNO passport because he wanted to ensure UK officials recognised how protesters had been treated.
He was one of 65 people arrested during a violent police swoop on Prince Edward metro station on August 31, 2019 and fled Hong Kong after prosecutors added eight far more serious charges to the one he had initially faced.
“I want to use [the asylum route] to tell the Home Office and let them understand what happened,” Jim said.
Chan, not his real name, a BNO passport holder in his late twenties, said he left Hong Kong after friends were arrested for joining protests that he had supported. His isolation was particularly intense because he misled his disapproving family about why he was leaving.
“What they know about is that I got a job here,” he said. “I’ve started my new life here. I won’t come back while the communists are still in power.”