Two years after the British government announced a citizenship pathway for Hong Kong holders of the colonial-era British National Overseas passport, tens of thousands of people are struggling to adapt to their new lives in the United Kingdom after fleeing political repression at home, a new survey has found.
More than 70% of respondents said they had emigrated there on their BNO passports due to “the political environment in Hong Kong,” or “considerations of freedom/personal safety,” the survey by U.K.-based Hong Kong news site The Chaser and the educational organization Citizens of Our Time Learning Hub found.
The British government says 144,500 people have emigrated to the United Kingdom on its BNO visa scheme, which includes a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship, since its launch in 2021, prompting retaliation from Beijing.
But around 30% of the 140,000 people who have taken advantage of the BNO route so far said they are still struggling to make a new life in the country.
More than half said they still need help “understanding British social, political, and economic systems” as well as “local culture and way of life,” the report found.
Nearly half said they are in strong need of help “integrating into the local community,” suggesting that while many have a strong desire to settle down and integrate, they haven’t yet managed it, according to the survey, with 30% saying they “haven’t yet adapted to life in the U.K.”
Finding jobs, speaking English
Finding jobs and improving their English-language skills were among the highest priorities for many, while 18.5% said they are struggling to meet basic living expenses, the survey found, adding that some said they had been forced to leave in a hurry due to “rapid political changes,” and without adequate preparation.
Many have been hampered financially by the refusal of Hong Kong officials to allow them to withdraw funds from their mandatory government pension fund, it said.
Many respondents cited key moments in the 2019 protest movement as “worthy of commemoration,” including the July 21, 2019, attacks by white-clad mobsters on passengers and passers-by at Yuen Long MTR, the Aug. 31 attack by riot police on passengers at Prince Edward MTR and the June 12 occupation of the Legislative Council in response to government plans to allow extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.
Their responses suggest that the 2019 protests, the police handling of which sparked widespread international criticism, were uppermost in people’s minds when it came to their political identity, the report said.
“The … people who migrated from Hong Kong to the U.K. over the past two years mainly left Hong Kong for political reasons,” former public opinion pollster Chung Kim-wah told Radio Free Asia. “Adults have adapted well, and many of them are actively involved in British society.”
“We can see that many share concerns over finding a job, learning more about British culture and history, and improving their English,” Chung said. “But at the same time, they haven’t forgotten Hong Kong, and … are still very concerned about news out of Hong Kong.”
Financial support available
While the British government has invested nearly £50 million in its welcome program for incoming Hong Kongers since April 2021, which includes English courses and “poverty support” from local councils, the survey found that just under half of respondents lacked awareness of the financial support that was on offer.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick was keen to show the program in a positive light.
“We continue to take action to uphold our moral and historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong, and I feel particularly proud when I hear the stories and witness the incredible contributions Hong Kongers are already making to our local communities and to our economy,” Jenrick said in a promotional video to mark the second anniversary of the BNO visa scheme.
He said recent BNO migrants had volunteered to help refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine, gotten jobs in the National Health Service or teaching in schools, as well as “powering our economy forward” by working in the private sector.
But the picture painted by the survey was rather more complex.
More than half of recent BNO migrants are families with children in school, and these respondents cited concerns about their children’s ability to adapt to a new learning environment as well as worries that they could lose touch with their own heritage as Hong Kongers, the survey found.
It said many with older children would likely be required to pay much higher international rates when their children went to university, only people with indefinite leave to remain under immigration rules are eligible for the lower rates.
Feelings of guilt
In a comments section at the end of the survey, many respondents said they felt guilty about leaving, and abandoning their “comrades in arms,” some of whom were now in prison for their part in the 2019 protest movement.
Around 170 of the 460 respondents left positive comments on the more recent survey about enjoying greater rights and freedoms, as well as legal protection, in the U.K., while just over 180 left comments describing problems like loneliness, the British weather, short winter days and the language barrier.
Participants were over 16 years of age and held a BNO visa, or settled in the U.K. because their family members did.
A May 2022 report found that nearly one in four Hongkongers who fled the ongoing political crackdown under the ruling Chinese Communist Party still suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome linked to police violence during the 2019 protests and the subsequent fear engendered by the national security law.
The survey of recently arrived migrants by the Hongkongers in Britain group found that 23.8% of respondents reported symptoms of PTSD linked to the 2019 protests and subsequent political crackdown, while nearly 19% reported symptoms of depression and 25.8% reported symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.