Ministers are facing calls to amend the rules around the British National Overseas (BNO) scheme, designed to offer a path to citizenship for Hong Kongers in the wake of Beijing’s national security law being imposed last year after it emerged people under the age of 24 cannot benefit from it because they do not hold BNO passports, which were issued in 1997.
Teenagers and young people from the city-state told The Independent they have instead had to claim asylum in the UK, leaving them waiting for a year or more for a decision while being banned from working and often prevented from studying.
MPs and campaigners said it was a “scandal” that young people, who have often been on the frontline of the pro-democracy protests, are excluded from the BNO route for reasons “entirely beyond their control”, and are now facing “agonising waits in the asylum system”.
Home Office figures show there were 124 asylum claims from Hong Kong nationals in the year to June 2021, compared with 21 the year before and just nine in the 12 months to June 2019.
Fourteen of those in the past year were unaccompanied minors – marking the first time on record that the UK has received asylum claims from children from Hong Kong.
The BNO visa scheme, which is projected to receive around 422,000 applications from Hong Kongers in its first four years, requires that applicants hold a BNO passport. These documents were issued to citizens following the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997.
While the scheme allows applicants to bring relatives, including adult children, with them to the UK, many young people have had to flee alone because their parents wish to remain in Hong Kong.
Venus, 19, fled in November last year after discovering that police were “looking for her” following her involvement in pro-democracy protests at her university campus. She left in a rush, taking only two backpacks so as not to generate suspicion.
The teenager, who did not wish to disclose her full name, would have been eligible for BNO status had she come to the UK with her parents, who hold BNO passports – but they did not agree with the protests, which she said highlighted the “generational divide” in Hong Kong.
Venus initially stayed with friends who were studying at UK universities but moved into asylum accommodation in May 2021. She was placed in a hotel in east London being used to house asylum seekers, where she said she was on a floor with only men.
“Some of them were not too well-mannered. People would vomit in some common areas, like the corridors,” the 19-year-old said.
“There were only Hindu or halal meals provided. I’m allergic to spice. When I ate the food my legs would swell. I asked if the staff if they could arrange some western cuisines –even just plain pasta – but they didn’t.”
Venus ended up buying herself an electric hob and reduced supermarket food with the £8 weekly allowance she was given by the Home Office.
“I lived on a very, very tight budget. It wasn’t enough. I got so emotionally screwed up. I was so sad every day. I sometimes went hungry. It was so tough,” she added.
The teenager recently obtained a scholarship at Glasgow University and is now living in student halls, but she is still struggling.
“I’ve been in the asylum system for almost a year without any response. I don’t know how long I need to wait. I want to go for some internships or work. I want to be independent,” she said.
“It’s really unfair. Lots of my comrades and friends born after 1997 are the most active generation in the movement. They’re the group who will be targeted by the police and government the most.”
Figures show that the average waiting time for an initial decision on an asylum case in the UK is currently between one and three years.
Hei Yin Ngan, also aged 19, said he came to the UK in June 2021 after almost being arrested by the Hong Kong police. His parents own a business in Hong Kong so they were reluctant to leave, meaning he could not benefit from the BNO route.
“I can’t work. I’m living with friends. I’ve already moved three times since arriving. I got a place at the University of Nottingham to study Philosophy but I couldn’t finish the registration process because I haven’t had my asylum screening yet. I can’t do anything,” he said.
“A lot of frontline protestors were born after 1997, we need some help. We feel hopeless. I want to be able to work and rent in the UK and have a normal life, but I’ll probably have to wait for a year or more before I can.”
Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Layla Moran MP said it was a “scandal” that the government was “excluding” some young people from the BNO route, for reasons “entirely beyond their control”.
"Many of those at the forefront of opposing the Chinese government’s unlawful power grab were young people. We must offer a life raft to all Hong Kongers who need one,” she told The Independent.
Johnny Patterson, policy director of Hong Kong Watch, which supports young Hong Kongers in the UK asylum system, said they were subjected to an “agonising wait” in the asylum system, and that being barred from working was “actively hindering their ability to integrate”.
He called on the Home Office to extend the visa scheme to any Hong Konger who has at least one BNO status parent, and to lift the ban on work for asylum seekers in the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said the BNO visa scheme was an “unprecedented and generous offer reflecting our deep connection with Hong Kong”.
“We have a statutory duty to provide support to all asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. Those supported in initial accommodation where food and other items are provided for in-kind, receive an additional allowance to ensure other needs can be met,” they added.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies