My first proper job – at 18 I dropped out of my first university course after one term because I didn’t appreciate the windswept beauty of Wivenhoe Park outside Colchester – was at the Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Department, as it was then known.
I got through the executive officer recruitment process and was offered a position at Lunar House, so duly moved to Croydon from my Manchester home in March 1985.
After training, while most of the intake were allocated to B1 general casework, I was sent to B2 policy division. To this day I have no idea why a callow, rather shy teenager was considered a good fit for that job.
My role mainly involved casework – but in respect of holders of British passports who weren’t quite British enough, and so subject to immigration control; British Overseas citizens, Dependent Territories citizens, Protected Persons and subjects.
During my 3-year tenure I was asked by a chap called Robin Masefield to conduct some research into the particular issues facing BDTCs from Hong Kong, in the light off the Joint Sino-British Declaration of 19 December 1984. Robin, a quick search reveals, has enjoyed a long and illustrious civil service career (I also recall him telling me he was related to the poet John Masefield).
Unlike me, who left at 21 to live on a kibbutz in northern Israel.
The point of all this is that – 10 years after I left the civil service, in 1997 – Hong Kong was returned by the UK to China; we have just seen the 23rd anniversary of the handover, and with it confirmation from the People’s Republic that it has implemented harsh new security laws over the territory.
I prefer to believe that my 1980s research formed no part whatsoever of the dog’s dinner of citizenship and immigration laws that the British government went on to enact in respect of Hong Kong and its residents.
The basic arrangement for BDTCs from Hong Kong was that their citizenship would cease, to be replaced by British National (Overseas) status. Under the Hong Kong Act 1985, paragraph 2(1) of the Schedule:
“… persons who are British Dependent Territories citizens by virtue of any such connection [with Hong Kong] may before 31 December 1997 acquire a new form of British nationality the holders of which shall be known as British Nationals (Overseas)”
People did not become BNOs automatically; they had to apply for it within specified time limits. And the status cannot be passed down through generations. Thus, there are no BNOs born after the handover of Hong Kong on 30 June 1997, meaning the youngest BNO (who had until 31 December that year to apply) has just celebrated their 23rd birthday. I will return to this issue later.
Is BNO status inferior to other categories of British nationality? Most definitely. The UK has long struggled with these different forms of nationality, which are a consequence of our history. They were created in order to ensure large numbers of people with connections to former colonial possessions could not freely enter and reside in the UK. While the government went on to ameliorate things for holders of certain forms of British nationality who held no other citizenship – including some British Overseas citizens – it has never done the same for BNOs, who under Chinese law are also entitled to Chinese passports.
That is, until now. In Parliament yesterday, in direct response to China’s new security laws, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that the government intends to create a new immigration path to settlement in the UK for BNOs. He mentions citizenship – but only in the context, it seems, of future registration as British citizens upon completion of a 5 years’ residence in the UK.
Others have commented that the visa on offer could well mirror the UK Ancestry route that has been a feature of our Immigration Rules for years, permitting Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent to acquire a 5-year work visa leading to settlement. Administratively this would seem likely.
Importantly, Home Secretary Priti Patel added that the new immigration route would apply to BNOs “and their families”, giving hope perhaps to the younger protestors – not born before June 1997 and who hold Hong Kong SAR passports – that they too will be able to live and ultimately work in the UK. Family members, in domestic UK immigration law, are invariably limited to spouse / civil or long-term partner, and children aged under 18. Potentially left out, therefore, are family members of BNOs – unable to become BNOs themselves – aged between 18 and 23; precisely the age group most likely to be students, and to be involved in the brave pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Kowloon, the Islands and the New Territories.
It will be interesting to see if rules are introduced to take account of this group that will otherwise be left behind in Hong Kong.
Gary McIndoe is a Director of UTT, and the Managing Director of Latitude Law.