Hong Kong migrants: where will they live?

Hong Kong protests, 2019

In reaction to the new security law the Chinese government have imposed on Hong Kong, a former British territory returned in 1997 which in theory enjoys autonomy from China under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, the government has promised to provide a path to citizenship for the British Overseas nationals living in the territory. This would consist of leave to remain for five years, at the end of which one could apply for citizenship. There are about 350,000 such nationals in Hong Kong who are entitled to enter the UK for six months without a visa but may not remain here longer; according to the BBC, about 2.6 million others are eligible for the status; this would amount to nearly half Hong Kong’s total population of 7.5 million. (Wikipedia, quoting British Foreign Office figures from 2014, estimate that 3.4 million British Overseas Nationals live in Hong Kong.)

Under the government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependants will be given right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek citizenship.

Updating MPs on the details, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no limit on numbers or quotas and the application process would be simple.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

Raab conceded, however, that there was little the British government could do to “cohesively force” the Chinese government to allow British passport holders to leave the country. Labour supported the government’s action, but insisted that there be no discrimination on grounds of income or anything else; Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also said that the UK had a responsibility to those unable to leave or who wished to remain in Hong Kong. I find this to be a hugely irresponsible stance on both sides. Under pressure to free itself from the perception of antisemitism, Labour fears being accused of racism again here as well as having turned 180 degrees to become an anti-immigrant party. But this scheme must be resisted, not least for the sake of existing ethnic minority populations here.

First, although I suspect that the government are gambling on most eligible people in Hong Kong not taking up the offer and that many may choose to move to Australia, the US, Canada or elsewhere (which they will be able to if they are rich), let’s be clear that 2.9 million is a huge number of people who will all need to live somewhere. This is the entire population of the West Midlands metropolitan county (which includes Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall and the Black Country). If only a quarter or a third of the eligible people take up the offer, we will still need a whole new large city — the size of Leeds or Sheffield, say — to accommodate them. Despite the enthusiasm of the political classes and doubtless the jingoistic right-wing media, there is no guarantee that the sudden influx of this many people will meet the acceptance of the general population; it is as if they have said “of course they will” on our behalf. The last time we had such an influx, in the 2000s, it set the ball rolling on Brexit and this was also the result of a political miscalculation: that a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands, of good white workers would not cause any social disruption or resentment.

It’s possible that the government assumes that the new arrivals will take places vacated by departing European Union nationals. This is a big assumption; many of those EU nationals have families, lives, jobs and businesses here and will not be able to just up and leave. Have the government given any thought to what skills the migrants will bring and what the people departing to the EU will take with them? Hong Kong is an almost entirely urban territory. How many people from Hong Kong go to China for labouring work on farms? Another trick up the government’s sleeve might be to do with the position of the existing ‘immigrant’, i.e. non-white, population: we have already seen people who were nationalised being stripped of their nationality and sent ‘home’, as well as dual nationals (or presumed dual nationals, as many in fact have no other citizenship) being stripped after being deemed undesirable (admittedly sometimes for proven criminal acts, but sometimes not), so a stepping up of this policy might be the government’s intention.

Finally, as the government admits that this may result in British Overseas Nationals being barred from leaving Hong Kong or at least China, the possibility arises that some of them may join overland refugee or migrant smuggling routes across Asia and Europe. This is obviously a hazardous journey and opens them up to exploitation. They may also try to reach Vietnam by boat in the hope of being able to travel to the UK from there.

I have nothing against the UK accepting people genuinely in danger from Hong Kong or anywhere else as refugees. That’s our duty. We simply cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, from Hong Kong just because there is a new security law any more than we can accommodate any other whole, large population when there is a downturn in their political situation. We knew we were handing Hong Kong back to a communist-run one-party state for decades before it happened (China was not a democracy when we acquired Hong Kong, though neither was the UK then as women and the working class did not have the vote). We knew that any agreement we made to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy would be unenforceable once we left and that the danger would grow the longer we had been away. As a former imperial power that is now a mere medium-sized country, we simply cannot save the world. We have no territory or base anywhere near Hong Kong anymore.

It would, of course, be advantageous to the Tory party to have a large number of new citizens indebted to them for their citizenship who regard socialism as a dirty word given what it means in China. As Hong Kong has one of the most liberal economies (in the sense of free markets and low tax), this would strengthen the hand of those who seek to privatise or do away with public services and those whose vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that of a “rainy Dubai” though with fewer Muslims. As Hong Kong has a substantial finance industry and the second-highest number of billionaires in the world, they will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who needs to sell a house though not necessarily by those looking to buy one (though not all Hong Kongers are rich and there are significant inequalities). Given the current housing situation and recent policy, the likely result is that London and maybe other major cities become even more out of reach to ordinary people, let alone poor people.

If we were staying in the EU, of course, we could just give them British passports which would allow them to settle anywhere in Europe they liked. If we were, however, the matter of EU nationals leaving would not arise. As it is, anyone newly acquiring British nationality can only settle here. The government talks about its responsibility to overseas nationals in Hong Kong, but they have no sense of responsibility towards their own people in their own country, as quite amply demonstrated during the recent crisis. This policy is intended, I believe, not to enrich but to displace. Short of building a whole new city, displacement would be the only way to accommodate this many people.

Image source: Studio Incendo, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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