The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have said that, if China imposes its National Security Law on Hong Kong, the British government would expand the British National (Overseas) – BNO – passport holders’ current right to visit for six months without a visa into an extendable 12 months.
Under this status, work and study would be allowed alongside a pathway to citizenship for up to three million people, plus possibly an undetermined number of dependants.
This policy would be very likely to directly break the Conservative Party’s 2019 election promise to lower overall immigration levels.
- Three million people is equivalent to the combined populations of four major UK cities – Birmingham (1.15 million), Leeds (780,000), Manchester (550,000) and Edinburgh (500,000) – see ONS figures.
- Put another way, it is twenty five times the number of skilled work permits issued each year to non EU citizens and their dependants.
- There is also the question of who is going to pay for all the additional housing, medical facilities, school and infrastructure needed for three million extra people. The newcomers will contribute, of course, but nothing like enough to pay for such a massive investment in infrastructure.
Mr Raab’s exact words to reporters were: “If China continues down this path will remove [the] six-month limit and allow those BN(O) passport holders to come to the UK and to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months, and that would itself provide a pathway to future citizenship.”
Apart from not applying to those born after 1997 (or indeed those who did not register for BNO status prior to that date), Mr Raab’s offer would not amount to an immediate recognition of citizenship. It is unclear what would be the conditions for yearly renewals, such as whether the applicant would need to meet a financial threshold.
However, those benefiting from the offer may also be able to bring dependants, as Mr Raab confirmed in Parliament on 2 June. If so it would add to the numbers considerably.
BNO status was created by the Hong Kong Act 1985, to allow people who held British Dependent Territories Citizen status before the handover to retain a connection with the UK after the transfer of sovereignty to China.
Those who wanted BNO status were required to register between 1987 and 1997, after which point it was no longer made available.
The status is non-hereditary and does not confer right of abode in either the UK or Hong Kong. BNOs are entitled to UK consular assistance and protection, and if legally resident in the UK they enjoy all rights granted to Commonwealth citizens (see 2015 report by Foreign Affairs Committee).
Since this category of nationality was in effect invented specifically for natives of Hong Kong, the vast majority of British nationals (overseas) are of Chinese ethnicity. China considers them to be Chinese nationals only, as China does not recognise dual nationality. This means that the UK cannot offer consular assistance to British nationals (overseas) within the territory of China, including Hong Kong.
The BNO passport gives its holders visa-free access to 100 countries. The Times reported on 29 May that ‘there are 315,000 people who hold these passports’. However, this figure does not seem to represent the number of people with passports, but the number of passports in circulation. The sharp growth during 2019 (see figures below) suggests that a number of those BNOs whose passports lapsed have renewed their status since tensions with China increased (Table from Parliamentary Answer, March 2020).
|Year||Nationality Description||Number of passports (Volume)|
|31 December 2015||British National (Overseas)||143,219|
|31 December 2016||British National (Overseas)||152,351|
|31 December 2017||British National (Overseas)||158,107|
|31 December 2018||British National (Overseas)||169,653|
|31 December 2019||British National (Overseas)||314,779|
The Times also said that ‘an additional three million, who had let their status lapse, would be eligible to seek a renewal’. This appears to be correct. An estimated 2.9 million people are eligible for a BNO passport, said the British Consulate General in Hong Kong (see news report).
The population of Hong Kong is currently 7.5 million. However, according to the FCO (see 2015 written evidence to Parliament) there were a total of 3.4 million BNOs in 2015. A 2007 Parliamentary answer similarly stated there were 3.4 million BNOs, most of them in Hong Kong – of whom 2.6 million did not have a passport.
BNOs who do not currently have a passport would be able to apply for one using this part of the UK Government website. There is no time limit on doing so.
A 32-page BNO passport now costs 102.86 pounds (HK$1,167), compared with HK$370 for an HKSAR passport. The 48-page version costs 110.86 pounds (HK$1,258), compared with HK$460 for the local one (media report).
A passport lasts ten years and existing holders can continue to renew expired BNO passports for the rest of their lives.
As the figures above show, 145,100 more passports entered circulation during the past year alone.