Online applications opened on Sunday afternoon for a controversial new visa programme allowing Hongkongers with British National Overseas status to live and work in Britain – an arrangement Beijing says is a violation of the Sino-UK Joint Declaration, but which London insists is a fulfillment of its historical and moral obligation to its former colony.
On Friday, Beijing and Hong Kong both announced they would stop recognising the BN(O) passport as a valid travel or identification document from Sunday, and threatened to take “further measures”.
But this has done nothing to dissuade many – like 38-year-old mother-of-two Teresa – from deciding to take advantage of the new pathway to UK citizenship and leave her home, possibly for good.
She told RTHK’s Frances Sit she thinks Hong Kong is changing so quickly she's no longer sure that core values such as freedom of speech will still exist, by the time her eight-year-old son, and her six-year-old daughter grow up.
“The environment in HK… I can’t see they have a future," she said.
The government's move to revamp the Liberal Studies curriculum, and instead beef up patriotic education, Teresa says, further convinced her that her family's future isn't in Hong Kong.
“Their hidden agenda is not hidden. They are just using a way, to me, is like brainwashing," she said.
Teresa had never considered leaving Hong Kong before, saying she loves the city’s culture, language and people, but still, she’s now planning to leave for the UK by the end of the year, though she doesn’t rule out eventually moving back to Hong Kong.
“It’s a new chapter to me to start a new lifestyle in another place. I will take it very easy, I can let it go, I don’t have any regret.”
Around 7,000 Hong Kong people had already moved to the UK since July, ahead of the new visa arrangement,after being granted Leave Outside the Rules – a discretionary programme for London to admit immigrants on compassionate grounds.
Among them are Mandy and her family. She brought her parents, her brother, and her in-laws with her when she and her family of four moved to Southampton in November.
The former flight attendant had participated in anti-extradition bill protests and a strike in 2019, and says concerns about her young children's future were a key factor in her decision to leave Hong Kong.
“It's really hard but, no choice," she lamented.
Mandy says in the UK, she now feels safe from possible reprisals over her participation in anti-government protests, but she's worried about those she left behind.
"I am in a safe environment… I don't have to [be] afraid of… ‘did I say anything wrong, will the policemen come and catch me?’ But my friends in Hong Kong, my family, they are still very afraid of saying the truth from their hearts. I feel very guilty about this because I can do nothing about this."
The family has been busy moving into a new home and finding schools for the kids, but not everything has been going well.
Mandy said her husband had applied for around 20 jobs, and only got one interview – which did not go well.
Despite the very real problems that new immigrations face in the UK, Mandy is hardly alone in taking the plunge.
UK immigration lawyer Janine Miu says inquiries about moving to the UK has increased tenfold since last July, after the implementation of the national security law.
“Because of the BNO visa, people are more keen and react much more quickly than before to make a decision to move”, she said. “We have clients from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, banking, retail, basically all sorts of industry."
Miu thinks it’s clear why so many people seem to be so eager to leave their home.
“The political situation in Hong Kong is definitely the trigger. With the current situation in Hong Kong, people are already very keen and determined.”
Britain predicts up to 154,000 Hong Kong people could arrive over the next year, with the number rising to as many as 322,000 over five years. Around 2.9 million BNO status holders are believed to be eligible to apply for the visa, with a further 2.3 million eligible dependants.
Successful applicants would be allowed to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.