Jan. 29 (UPI) — Britain on Friday announced that starting Sunday millions of Hong Kong residents will be able to apply to work and live in the European country under a new visa the government created in response to Beijing’s imposition last summer of a draconian national security law upon its former colony.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement Friday that he is “immensely proud” of the new visa for Hong Kong British National (Overseas) passport holders that offers them a new route to citizenship.
“In doing so, we have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy — values both the U.K. and Hong Kong hold dear,” he said.
Johnson announced it would overhaul its immigration system to create a path to citizenship in July immediately after China imposed a national security law upon Hong Kong following months of mass pro-democracy protests that rocked the city.
The security law criminalizes with hefty sentences acts of sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign agencies to undermine China’s national security.
Since its imposition, police in Hong Kong have arrested dozens of pro-democracy politicians and opposition leaders while others have fled the country.
Human rights groups and Western countries widely condemned the law fearing it would be used to silence dissent and for violating China’s obligations to maintain Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy it promised to maintain in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that returned the city its rule in 1997.
China has warned Britain against creating this pathway to citizenship, ordering it to “immediately correct its mistakes, end the hypocrisy and stop political maneuvering that will only backfire,” the commissioner of the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said in an October statement.
Under the new visa, those with BN(O) status and their eligible family members will be able to apply from Sunday to live and in work in Britain. After five years, they may apply for settlement, followed by British citizenship 12 months after that.
“Global Britain will always stand up for what is right and uphold our commitments,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said. “This new visa delivers on our promise to the people of Hong Kong, honoring our strong historic relationship and upholding their freedoms.”
Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that from Feb. 23, BN(O) status holders with an eligible biometric passport will be able to apply for the visa via smart phone application.
Though the British government estimates that there are some 2.9 million BNO(O) citizens and an additional 2.3 eligible defendants, between 258,000 and 322,400 will relocate to Britain in the next five years, with expectations it will generate upwards of $3.97 billion over that span.
Its impact assessment estimates that roughly half of that total number and their defendants will move to Britain in the program’s first 12 months.
“China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. “With the launch of this new visa route, BN(O) citizens will now have a choice to come and live, work and study in the U.K.”