Government on visa for British nationals overseas
On 28 May 2020 the Home Office announced that if China were to follow through with a new national security law, which it was feared would have the potential to undermine the UK’s legal commitment to protect the people of Hong Kong, then the UK government would ‘explore options’ to allow those with British National (Overseas) status to apply for leave to stay in the UK for an extendable period of 12 months.
Now that China has made good on its threat to amend the security law in Hong Kong, even having now made arrests in line with it, the spotlight has fallen on the UK Government’s response.
Its initial announcement back in May came somewhat as a surprise, as it appeared the Government was preparing to take a proactive and bold tack in protecting those with BNO status.
However, there was then no further statement from the Government on the precise details of the new visa or when the new visa category might be implemented, despite demands from democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the UK to flesh out its announcement and clarify what it was (or was not) offering. The wording of the statement also contained a few caveats. The intention appeared to be to introduce a 12-month extendable visa, meaning that fees associated with multiple visa extension applications could quickly add up, particularly if family members also applied. There is no confirmation as to whether BNOs could apply to settle after a certain number of years (typically 5).
However, there were perhaps two big reasons why the Government might have hesitated initially in releasing any details and why Hong Kong nationals should wait to see the precise detail of what is being offered before celebrating. Firstly, the old ‘floodgates’ argument has always been a significant driver of immigration policy. The Government may have looked at the number of those who hold BNO status (probably around 2.9 million) and thought that offering a right to live and work in the UK to all of them would encounter significant resistance among the public and Parliament, particularly in the current times. That said, the introduction of the BNO status after the UK-China Joint Declaration in 1984 did not lead to a deluge of applications for that status (although this could also be a reflection of the sparse rights afforded to those with BNO status).
Secondly, offering status to so many BNOs may destabilise Hong Kong and, perhaps more importantly, the UK’s trading and diplomatic relationship with China.
However, with China effectively calling the UK’s bluff the Prime Minister confirmed on 1 July 2020 that those with British National Overseas status will be offered a visa route to come to the UK for five years, apply for settlement and then apply for British citizenship a year after that, which is a similar pathway as for many other routes under the Immigration Rules. Although we await firm details on the route, this is at least more welcome news for BNOs.