Around 64,900 Hongkongers applied for a new pathway to British citizenship in the first five months of the scheme, with 47,300 approved, continuing a wave of emigration after the introduction of the national security law.
Some 71 per cent of those applications for the British National (Overseas) visa scheme were filed from outside Britain, while the rest were made inside the country, according to official figures released on Thursday.
Of the applications approved so far, 35,000 – or 74 per cent – were filed overseas. There were 27,900 main applicants, with 19,400 dependants.
However, the number of applicants for the scheme from April to June – 30,600 – was down slightly from the 34,300 recorded in the first two months since its launch on January 31.
The figures revealed a trend towards an exodus of residents applying for the new visa, which Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor previously shrugged off, saying the city had a “prosperous future” ahead.
Britain launched the visa in response to Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, one London said raised human rights concerns and constituted a “clear and serious breach” of the agreement under which the city was returned to China.
An estimated 5.4 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents are eligible to apply for the scheme, which allows those with BN(O) status and their dependents to live, work and study in Britain for up to five years, and to apply for citizenship after six.
Willis Fu Yiu-wai, senior immigration consultant for Goldmax Associates, said inquiries peaked in February when online applications opened. The figures dipped in May, he said, before picking up again slightly in August, with many people looking for advice on long-term plans.
“I foresee stable growth for applying for the BN(O) visa will come in the next six months,” he said.
With Canada also opening new pathways for Hongkongers to move there, Fu said some inquiries had shifted towards that country, while some interested parties planned to delay their move until after their children finished their Diploma of Secondary Education next year.
Margaret Szeto, founder of migration consultation company Auro Global Limited, agreed that the slight drop in the number of applications in the second quarter might be the result of Canada’s relaxation of its migration rules, which was first announced in February with more details revealed in June.
“Part of the people who planned to migrate might have turned to Canada,” she said.
Szeto expected the migration wave would reach its peak next year, as many middle-class families would take time to get their finances in order and discuss the plan with their families.
Johnny Patterson, policy director of Hong Kong Watch, said with nearly 65,000 applicants since the launch of the scheme, the British government’s estimates of more than 100,000 BN(O) passport holders moving in the first year was “beginning to look conservative”.
He added: “Given that airport photos show that thousands of people moved in July, it is clear that there is considerable demand for the BN(O) scheme.”
Among the recent arrivals was former restaurant owner, Gladys Law who landed in London on July 13. The 39-year-old, who applied for her visa on August 9 in the capital, left Hong Kong over fears about the political situation.
Law was staying with two friends who arrived six months ago in their flat in East London, and said they were not the only Hongkongers in their area.
“If I go shopping or to the supermarket, I hear Cantonese,” she said.
Law officially closed her restaurant on August 15. A social enterprise that had been running for three years, Law hired people who are deaf and those with special educational needs, and also taught diners simple sign language to communicate with servers when ordering food.
She hoped to open a similar business, such as a Chinese restaurant, in London next year, and wanted to hire Hongkongers to give them jobs.
However, her first priority was improving her language skills by doing two online lessons a week, and watching films with English subtitles.
“I hope I can integrate into British culture,” she said. “I don’t want others to accommodate me by speaking Cantonese.”
Law’s mother, sister and brother-in-law are expected to join her in Britain later in the year, with her sister having already bought a two-bedroom flat in Manchester.
Fred Wong, a coordinator for Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community, which has been helping new arrivals and liaising with the government on BN(O)-related policies, said the main challenge was still being able to rent a flat without having to pay six to 12 months up front.
Some Hongkongers with neither jobs nor credit history have reported struggling with the British rental market, where prospective tenants are usually screened thoroughly by landlords.
“Landlords are taking advantage of the new arrivals’ lack of knowledge on that front,” he said, adding the other challenge was finding work.
Despite most arrivals being professionals in Hong Kong, many found they had to start at a lower level or switch careers while acclimatising to the culture and language, as well as different systems in terms of professional qualifications.
Some new arrivals the Post spoke to said they had found employment as baristas or were doing administrative work.