Thousands of Hongkongers escaping from China’s increasingly authoritarian grip on the city have settled in Britain over the past year in search of a new life. This fresh start comes via the British national (overseas) visa scheme.
More than 88,000 Hongkongers applied for the BNO visa, launched last January, in its first eight months, according to Home Office figures. It allows them to live, study and work in Britain for five years. Once that time is up, BNO holders can apply to stay permanently. The government is expecting about 300,000 people to use this new route to citizenship in the next five years.
Middle-class families and young professionals are fueling this new wave of immigration. The crackdown on the 2019 pro-democracy protests, along with the introduction of a national security law in 2020, which allows authorities to curtail civil liberties and stamp out political dissent, was a step too far for many.
Of those who have left, the majority are not planning on returning. They realize the Hong Kong they once knew and loved has gone. Here, five Hongkongers with BNO visas talk about their lives in Britain and why they decided to leave their home country.
Katy, 40, Berkshire
The year before we left was really upsetting. You would watch the news and see police beating up young people. I was afraid for my 10-year-old daughter.
I used to be a teacher in an international school. But I wanted to make a fresh start here, so I decided to become a care worker. I love meeting and working with different people.
It’s much cheaper in England compared with Hong Kong. Property prices are three or four times lower in parts of Berkshire. But being here has nothing to do with money. You can’t buy freedom, you can’t buy democracy. I can’t buy back the Hong Kong I used to have.
My husband and I used to go to the protests with our daughter. I wanted the government to know that we were not happy about the extradition bill and how they were treating people. In the beginning, I thought if more people protested peacefully, the government would stop imposing a law we didn’t want, but it just became more violent.
I remember the day we went to Causeway Bay [a major retail district]. We started to chant slogans and sing songs. Suddenly, I could hear shooting and people started running in different directions. They were screaming and trying to find a place to hide. It was awful. My daughter said: “We didn’t do anything wrong.” At that moment, I realized we had to leave Hong Kong.
I was really sad to say goodbye to my parents, my brother and my in-laws. They think if they keep silent, if they don’t criticize the government, they will be fine.
I’m very happy here. But that doesn’t mean other people are OK. I know some BNO holders don’t like it because it’s too cold, because they don’t speak English, because it’s not easy to find a job, or they can’t find the same job that they had in Hong Kong. But it was the right decision for us to come.
Here, you’re not forced to love Britain or the Conservative party. Mainland China will say that you have to love the Chinese Communist party. Even though I live in England now, I’m still worried that I might get into trouble back home if I reveal my name and my face.
Some of my Hong Kong friends keep asking me: “Have you experienced any discrimination, or do you feel like a second-class citizen?” But it’s very multicultural here. People are friendly and respectful. I’m optimistic about the future. I hope I can stay here permanently.
Chris, 35, London
Before I came here last August with my wife, I watched some YouTube videos to find out which area we could live in. We joined a Facebook group for Hongkongers when we arrived, and we’ve made some friends through that. Every time I go out where I live in a suburban part of London, I see lots of Hongkongers on the street. I think they may be BNO holders. When I went to the hospital to register our Covid vaccination records, they said they had about 20 to 30 Hongkongers coming every day.
Hong Kong is no longer like Hong Kong. If you say something the government doesn’t like, you’ll get in trouble. Every day you see people getting arrested. I’ve had some friends who were arrested for being at the protests. They weren’t violent, they didn’t destroy anything, but they were arrested because they were there.
Before 2019, I wasn’t the kind of person who cared that much about politics. But one day, I saw some people protesting and I thought: “Why should it only be young people doing it?” These issues affect everyone. That’s why I decided to join the protests. I wanted to be on the street, so we could tell the government what we thought. But nothing changed.
My wife and I decided to leave because we want to have children. The education system in Hong Kong is brainwashing kids. A few months ago, a primary school played a video about the Nanjing massacre [by Japanese forces in 1937]. That’s crazy. Children were crying.
The BNO scheme gives people a chance to start a new life. If the government didn’t offer it, most of us wouldn’t have anywhere to go. Emigrating is expensive; not everyone is able to do it. Compared with emigrating to other countries, the costs are reasonable. We paid about £3,000 each.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about how difficult it is for BNO holders to find work. But I was able to find a job as a sales analyst, similar to the one I had in Hong Kong, so it turned out better than I expected.
I still check the news to see what’s happening in Hong Kong, but it’s not easy to access information any more. Most of the newspapers that you could trust to tell the truth are closed and the publications that have survived won’t speak out. It’s sad. You can’t shut something down just because it has a different point of view. At least with the BNO scheme, people around the world know what happened to us back in Hong Kong.
Emily, 50, Sheffield
I came to England last July. For the past month, I’ve been working as a regional coordinator for Hongkongers in Britain. I’ve been organizing some seminars for BNO visa holders to try to find out how we can help them integrate into UK life.
I used to be an activist. I was arrested during the protests and sent to court. Luckily, I was found not guilty. A Chinese Communist party-supporting newspaper in Hong Kong wrote an article about me, and I was worried I might be arrested again. Most of my activist friends are in jail now. If I wasn’t at risk, I would stay in Hong Kong.
The government said the national security law only affects some people. But that’s not true. It’s like a knife on your neck, and you don’t know what you might say or do to make it cut you. Everybody is frightened.
I still haven’t settled down here because I haven’t found a place to live long-term yet. I’ve traveled around from Rotherham to Sheffield to Warrington to Manchester to Bristol, and I’ve come back to Sheffield. Many people who have the visa are finding it difficult to rent because they don’t have a job.
My friend and I have been putting on community events in Sheffield for Hongkongers. I’ve met some people here who understand what happened in Hong Kong, and they have welcomed us. In a few years, I’ll reach retirement age. I think England is a good place for people to have a quiet life.
I’m safe now. I don’t have to worry that one day I might be arrested. But I’m still thinking about the young people who don’t have the right to apply for a visa [the scheme is only open to people over 18 who have BNO status. They can bring over their dependents, but their children can’t apply independently. There are now plans to change this]. Young people need it more than older people.
I would like to go back to Hong Kong. But if the political environment doesn’t change, I can’t. I miss my family and my friends. But Hong Kong is very different now to how it was before.
Henry, 27, London
I used to hold an event every year to celebrate Hong Kong culture. Last year, some people came who I suspected were connected with China, and took a lot of photos of the visitors. I was concerned about whether it was still safe to organize cultural festivals.
I’m also writing a book about the history of Hong Kong. If I want to write without worrying about the authorities, I have to move to a free country. I left last April.
I used to work as a research assistant. It’s hard to find a job doing what I did back in Hong Kong. But if you just want some money, it’s easy to get a job as a waiter or in sales. The British army is now accepting BNO visa holders, so some friends of mine have applied to join. I found work for a few months in research, now I’m writing part-time about Hong Kong and colonial studies.
For the first two months here, I was living in a hostel. I started to look for a spare room, which was hard because, at that time, I didn’t have a job and landlords need you to have a job so they know you can pay the rent. Luckily, I met someone who was aware of the situation in Hong Kong and told me I could rent a room in his house.
I miss the landscape in Hong Kong and living by the sea. But in Britain, you can dress however you like, you can have your own identity, you’re free to express what you think. Back in Hong Kong, you’re always afraid people will criticize or judge you. Here, people are more tolerant. One time, on the tube, I saw an old gentleman dressed like Elton John. It wasn’t Friday night, it was in the morning. People were smiling. If you dressed like that in Hong Kong on the MTR [Mass Transit Railway]people would think you’re very weird and just stare at you.
I’m here for five years, so there’s time to explore my new life and not feel rushed. Also, we have been holding the British passport since we were born, so it’s like we are overseas citizens who are moving back, even though it’s a country many of us have never visited.
Anne, 38, south-west England
We would like to buy a house but it has been difficult to get a mortgage. Banks have turned us down because we have been living here for less than a year. When we came over, last March, a British friend helped us to find a house to rent, which could have been tricky with two large dogs and three children.
I’m a housewife. My husband was working as a PR consultant in Hong Kong and found a job here as a project manager for an NGO. His work is quite political, so we needed to leave. We also decided that it’s not a good place to raise children any more. Because of the national security law, we have to censor what we say. We have some friends in jail because they’re journalists. It’s awful. When freedom of press no longer exists, the truth cannot be revealed. I want my kids to be raised in a place where truth is important.
It’s sad because Hong Kong is very beautiful. Everything collapsed in a very short period of time. I hope that, one day, it can go back to how it used to be and we can return to the old Hong Kong values, where democracy and freedom were important. Now, we need to educate our kids so that when they grow up, they have the choice to either go back to Hong Kong or stay in the UK.
I still have family there, and I want to be able to visit them in the future, so I’d rather not have my name published. I’m worried about my safety.
Hong Kong is quite strange to me now and Britain is more familiar. I grew up when Hong Kong was still a British colony, so that makes it easy for me to adapt to the British way of life.
I like how green England is. My youngest son loves playing soccer. He used to play rugby in Hong Kong. Also, here, even though people might not agree with you, they will still be respectful. But it’s been hard getting used to the weather. It’s quite wet most of the time and I need sunshine!
I’m planning on opening a cafe in the future. I want to introduce people to Hong Kong cuisine. Hopefully, it can become a place where Hongkongers can gather and make friends with local people.
All names have been changed.