In August 2019, Sophia’s hip was broken in clashes with Hong Kong police during a protest against China’s encroaching control over the city. In December that year she was beaten again, and by 2020 she became convinced the authorities were going to arrest her. So the 18-year-old took the difficult decision to leave her studies and family and head for London.
Now Sophia, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, is sleeping on a couch 6,000 miles from home, stuck in bureaucratic limbo and unsure of her fate.
Since Hong Kong is a former British dependent territory, the U.K. has taken the lead in responding to China’s imposition of a National Security Law by offering a path to British citizenship for eligible residents. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government expects hundreds of thousands to make the leap to safety and perhaps a new life using its British National (Overseas) visa, helping the economic recovery from the pandemic.
But the reality is very different for some of the most vulnerable. While affluent Hong Kongers can make the move relatively easily — cash-rich buyers from Hong Kong snapped up almost one in 10 homes in London’s wealthiest areas last year — some of those who took part in the protests are falling through the cracks.
About 200 young activists had already come to the U.K. from Hong Kong as of earlier this month, according to Krish Kandiah, the founder of UKHK, an organization that includes a network of hundreds of churches ready to help the arrivals.
“Some of them are not eligible for the BN(O) visa or they can’t afford it,” said Kandiah. “It would be tragic if the route designed to help Hong Kongers fearful of political persecution is unable to benefit those who need it the most.”
That’s the case for Sophia, who says she had no choice but to come to the U.K.
“In late 2020 I found out I was a target of the National Security Department and so a few days later I bought a flight to Heathrow,” she said in an interview. “I was worried the police would come to my mother’s house and frighten her so she brought my clothes, some money and my anti-depressants to the university dorm. I told her I was fleeing to the U.K. but I couldn’t tell my father; he supports the Chinese Communist Party and he would report me to the authorities.”
Sophia arrived in the U.K. on a six-month tourist visa, has now claimed asylum and is down to her last few hundred pounds. Despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, she considers herself lucky to have a friend with a couch — although she misses her mother’s cooking.
“I couldn’t remain,” she said.
Violence occurred on both sides during the street protests in Hong Kong that raged for months into last year. A litany of alleged police abuses went viral on social media, including an incident where a traffic cop rode his motorcycle into a crowd of demonstrators, while protesters resorted to Molotov cocktails, bricks and slingshots.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong police said there were more than 1,400 public order events between June 2019 and early 2020, and “many of them ended up in the use of violence by protestors.” In situations such as the blockage of roads, wanton destruction and violent attacks on people of different political views, “the police are legally bound to take appropriate actions to ensure public safety and public order” according to a strict set of guidelines, the spokesperson said in a statement. “Police exercise a high level of restraint and professionalism,” and “will continue to maintain the city’s public safety and bring all lawbreakers to justice,” they said.
China says the National Security Law is aimed at punishing acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities or collusion with foreign entities, and that it brings Hong Kong into alignment with the mainland. The U.K. says it broke the terms of an agreement when Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, and in July last year, Johnson offered Hong Kongers a route to settlement in Britain.
The longer term BN(O) visa was instituted as a bespoke path to citizenship, although other nations such as Australia and Canada have also offered safe haven for protesters and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested the U.S. may do the same. However, many countries have shut their borders to prevent the spread of Covid-19, whereas London has remained open.
Some of the arrivals, such as Sophia, may not be eligible for BN(O) visas, either because they were born after the 1997 handover, or can’t afford the cost: A visa to stay for five years amounts to some 3,370 pounds ($4,760) in fees and a health-care surcharge, while applicants must also show they have enough funds to house and feed themselves for six months.
What’s more, while the Home Office website says it takes six months for a decision, Sophia said her lawyer has advised that there is a backlog due to the coronavirus. She is relying on a charity to fund her legal case.
Some have arrived using the U.K.’s “Leave Outside the Immigration Rules” route, which grants immigration officers discretion to allow entry at the border for up to six months, but are now trapped with no job and no cash, reliant on hand-outs. The Home Office, which oversees immigration, has no official estimate of how many people are seeking asylum because they can’t access the BN(O) route.
“The U.K. is risking another Windrush scandal if it fails to prepare properly for the arrival of such a large number of people,” Kandiah warned, referring to the outcry in 2018 when it emerged that elderly Black people originally from the Caribbean had been wrongly detained and threatened with deportation because the government had destroyed paperwork relating to their immigration status. The public reproach cost the then home secretary her job.
Even some six months after the BN(O) offer was made by Johnson, in London’s labyrinthine Whitehall where decisions are made, there was confusion over who was responsible for the welfare of the arrivals. No minister was given specific oversight of planning for their integration until recently, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing internal government matters.
Multiple organizations helping the migrants privately expressed frustration with the lack of co-ordination and help from central and local government, with departments bouncing queries and responsibility off each other. In a sign of the shambolic planning, an official in one department suggested to the organizations that Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt was responsible for the matter, when she was not, the people familiar said. She was surprised when the organizations wrote to her and had no idea where the suggestion had come from. Her office declined to comment when asked to respond.
Kevin Foster, the U.K.’s immigration minister, said the government was “proud” of having established the BN(O) visa route. “Those not eligible can still apply under existing immigration routes to live, work or study in the U.K.,” he said in a statement.
According to the pressure group Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community, young protesters ineligible for the BN(O) visa are the most likely first wave of migrants bent on coming to the U.K.
Sebby, 36, whose real name has been changed to protect his identity, is living in a rented room in north London he says can’t pay for. Having brought over money with him last year, he only had enough left to pay his rent for February. Sebby worked in senior management for listed companies in Hong Kong and China and donated some of his savings to the protests. He packed up his apartment in a hurry last July and didn’t tell anyone he was leaving; as an activist who organized some of the rallies in Hong Kong, he fears that persecution awaits if he returns.
He would be eligible for a BN(O) visa and came to the U.K. hoping to find a job, but bureaucracy has stood in his way. Without a national insurance number he can’t work and he can’t get a visa without funds in the bank. He now worries that he has overstayed his Leave Outside the Rules entry requirements and could face deportation.
“I’m in limbo, it’s devastating,” he said.
He doesn’t have any regrets about his chosen path, however. “I’m alive,” he said. “As long as there is still breath, there is hope.”
By Kitty Donaldson and Alberto Nardelli