Nationality question haunts HK Indians: The territory's ethnic minorities want British status as a safeguard after 1997, writes Teresa Poole

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The Independent Online
IN 1841, as the British flag was raised in Hong Kong, some 2,700 Indian troops and a small number of Indian merchants stood watching the ceremony. Over the next decades, many Indian traders and merchants arrived, helping to create the wealth of early Hong Kong, the start of a permanent Indian presence in the colony.

Hong Kong University was endowed in 1911 by Sir H N Mody, a Parsee, who also funded the statue of Queen Victoria that still sits in Victoria Park. Dorabji Naorojee, another Parsee, started the Star Ferry. In 1985 it was estimated that the Indians, representing half a per cent of the population, accounted for 10 per cent of the colony's exports.

Citing such achievements, Hong Kong's Indian community is now making a renewed attempt to persuade the British government to reconsider its denial of full British nationality after 1997 for members of Hong Kong's ethnic minorities - mainly Indians, Pakistanis and a few White Russians - who do not hold passports of other countries. The Hong Kong government estimates that up to 8,000 people fall into this category.

Leaders of the ethnic minorities argue - and a report last year by the International Commission of Jurists agreed - that when China resumes sovereignty over Hong Kong, such people will be effectively stateless. Privately, many people also voice concern that China does not have a record of treating its ethnic minorities well and that Hong Kong's minorities need an escape route in case things go wrong.

Although Britain considers the issue closed, there is wide support within Hong Kong's parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), for a rethink. The Legco sub-committee on nationality is next month likely to move towards asking the full Council to back the ethnic minorities' request for full British nationality. According to its chairwoman, Emily Lau: 'We feel that they have a special case. We are of the view that they are particularly vulnerable.'

The British position is clear-cut. After 1997, members of Hong Kong's ethnic minorities without claim to any other passports will be left holding either British Nationals (Overseas) (BN(O)) citizenship or British Overseas Citizenship (BOC).

The BOC passport will be available for only two further generations for people who would otherwise be stateless.

Neither BN(O) nor BOC nationality offers any right of abode in Britain. The right of abode in Hong Kong for their carriers is only provided for under the Basic Law, China's mini-constitution for Hong Kong after 1997.

Ashok Sakhrani, a barrister, is a member of the Indian Resources Group, a newly formed forum for young Indian professionals and businesspeople, which is trying to lobby Britain to reconsider. 'Statelessness is an important issue, but the moral position is the most important,' he said.

The ethnic minorities, particularly the Indians, first came to Hong Kong because it was British. 'We feel Britain has taken an extremely technical and legalistic approach . . . There will not be a mass influx into England. With a British passport, we would seek to remain in Hong Kong knowing that we have a safety net,' Mr Sakhrani said.

The present arrangements were made on the assumption that the ethnic minorities would not be eligible for Chinese passports, there being no procedures in China for non-ethnically Chinese to become Chinese nationals. (Hong Kong Chinese will in 1997 automatically be classed as Chinese nationals.) Hence, there is some confusion over comments this month by Lu Ping, the senior mainland official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, to a visiting group from the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Mr Lu appeared to agree that the ethnic minorities without other passports will have a problem after 1997, and offered two options: that they continue as stateless Hong Kong residents with Hong Kong Certificates of Identity as travel documents, or that they could apply for special Chinese passports from the post-1997 Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. No one knows what the criteria might be for such passports, or how they will differ in status to those held by Hong Kong Chinese.

Jimmy McGregor, a member of Legco, voices the main problem - that some form of Chinese citizenship would not really provide the answer. 'I am sure that the Indian community in particular is not seeking access to Chinese nationality after 1997. What they seek is British nationality before 1997 to provide them with the assurance and confidence they need to stay in Hong Kong after 1997.'