Protesters in Admiralty, 7 September, 2019. Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan.

Why a ‘route to citizenship’ is not enough: The limitations of expanding BNO rights

The UK’s offer of BNO rights to Hongkongers is more complicated and limited than it may appear.

Last week, Boris Johnson announced that if China imposed its national security law, the British government would open up a “route to citizenship” to an estimated 3 million people holding and/or eligible for British National Overseas passports. He described this move as a way to “uphold [Britain’s] profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong.” 

This statement has been cautiously welcomed by campaigners from Hong Kong, who see it as a long overdue move in the right direction on the part of the British government towards its international, legal, and political obligations towards Hong Kong. However, when it comes to the British government’s immigration policies, the devil is in the details. Under the revised policy, BNO passport holders have simply been given the right to work and study in the UK for extendable periods of 12 months; they will still have to secure jobs, stay for a period of five years, and satisfy the requirements of the UK’s new points-based immigration system, to become full British citizens. At the same time, what has seemingly been forgotten is the Home Office’s guidance note on Hong Kong, published in February of this year, which sets out extremely narrow terms on which Hongkongers may be able to claim asylum in the UK.

Closer examination of the different treatment of BNO passport holders and potential asylum seekers illustrates the logic of the Hostile Environment (a set of policies designed to make the UK so inhospitable to migrants that they have no choice but to leave)—specifically, the way it creates a hierarchy of “good” and “bad”, “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants. Those presumed to be rich, educated, and capable of assimilating—often, those racialized as white or who approximate whiteness—are welcomed with open arms, while those who are poor and lacking in the necessary social capital—are left in the lurch. 

While the expansion of BNO rights is a practical, interim solution to protect fleeing Hongkongers, we should critically interrogate the ways the British government will use it to reaffirm ‘good/bad migrant’ hierarchies. Indeed, such logics have long been used by the British government to shore up its racist policies: the trope of the ‘hardworking, industrious’ East Asian has always been used as a tool to attack Black and other marginalized people of colour. We must reject the hierarchization of migrants’ deservingness of entry, because they affirm racist logics. Such logics also hurt those who are likely to be most in need of sanctuary, including Hongkongers seeking asylum. 

Hong Kong Chinese: Historically ‘good migrants’

The trope of Hongkongers as industrious, ‘good’ migrants has a long history. From the 1950s onwards, tens of thousands of people from Hong Kong, especially the New Territories, began to arrive on Britain’s shores. Those who migrated to Britain fell into two categories: British (Hong Kong) passport holders and so-called ‘stateless aliens’ in British colonial Hong Kong, who had fled from Mainland China in 1949 and therefore did not possess a British passport. British (Hong Kong) passport holders who came to the UK in the 1950s were entitled to equal rights as all other British subjects. However, when the British Nationality Act 1981 was enacted, Hong Kong residents were deprived of the right of abode, becoming British Dependent Territories Citizens (BDTCs). When sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred to China, eligible BDTCs could register as British National (Overseas) Citizens, but continued to lack the right of abode.1

Ironically, people who had once been ‘stateless aliens’ in Hong Kong had a much easier time migrating—and staying—in the UK. For, in spite of changes to the immigration regime, the government continued to retain the work permit system it had been operating since 1920, needful as it was for cheap labour. Importantly, people did not have to be British nationals in order to qualify for a work permit. Thus, the British government could skirt the obligation to treat its ‘subjects’ equally while retaining a low-wage workforce.

In time, this new wave of Hongkongers came to constitute an important underclass of workers in the UK, “a ‘cheap pool on which the established restaurants would draw when necessary’ (Benton and Gomez). Between 1962 and 1973, around 10,000 ‘aliens’ arrived in Britain to satisfy the post-war demand for Chinese restaurant workers. With the right to settle being guaranteed after four years’ “approved employment”, many of these work permit holders eventually became British citizens, subsequently bringing over their families with them. 

While the expansion of BNO rights is a practical, interim solution to protect fleeing Hongkongers, we should critically interrogate the ways the British government will use it to reaffirm ‘good/bad’ migrant hierarchies.

Evidently, Hong Kong people’s right to migrate to Britain (like many migrants throughout the country’s history) was closely tied to their ability to fulfill the state’s labour needs. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who infamously said that white British people are “really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture”) capitalized on this linkage between race and labour to bolster her neoliberal policies, while drastically enacting legislation to restrict immigration. During her administration, Thatcher oversaw a massive roll-back of social services under austerity, while promoting policies that prioritized individual bootstrapping as a way of achieving capital accumulation. In particular, small business owners were granted loans and incentives in an effort to promote a so-called “enterprise culture”. 

Chinese migrants in the UK (from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and other countries), many of whom owned family takeaways or restaurants, benefitted from Thatcher’s “bootstrap” subsidies for small businesses. Due to the insular and dispersed nature of these establishments, which usually hired from within transnational clan networks and which were spread out across the UK, Chinese workers rarely interacted with, much less built coalitions with, other workers of colour who had been imported into Britain in the post-war years to work in large companies. This was further exacerbated by existing anti-black, colourist, and racist attitudes cultivated at home and in the metropole.  

By promoting small business among a small number of BME people, Thatcher’s government was able to divert attention away from the systemic discrimination and structures that were preventing racialized minorities’ entry into the mainstream labour market and their accumulation of savings and capital. The government pointed to members of the Chinese community as people who were willing to pull up their bootstraps in search of a better life, as a way of putting down Black and South Asian communities engaged in militant struggles for justice against police brutality and racist immigration policies in the 1980s.2

Hong Kong people’s survival in Britain like many migrants throughout the country’s history was closely tied to their ability to fulfill the state’s labour needs.

The irony, of course, is that Chinese communities’ position as ‘good’ migrants did not shield them from racist attacks: in 1988, five white customers of the Chinese restaurant Diamond Princess refused to pay their bill and subsequently attacked their waiters. When the police arrived, they arrested the four waiters, who were then convicted and imprisoned for two years.

To this day, the violent border regime continues to inflict violence against British Chinese and other East Asian and Southeast Asian workers, from the Dover 58, to the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers, to the Essex 39; to countless other sex workers, massage parlour workers, and nail salon workers who get caught in the crosshairs of the Home Office’s law enforcement mechanisms. East Asian and Southeast Asian people have also suffered the brunt of recent coronavirus related racist attacks, demonstrating how these communities are seen as perpetually foreign, and their existence inherently precarious. 

Asylum or not? Hongkongers as refugees

Today, Hong Kong people are facing an unprecedented attack on their way of life by a repressive government; the national security law has led many people to seek escape routes out of the city. In the context of the British government’s Hostile Environment policy, the move on the part of a broad coalition led by a group of Conservative politicians to grant Hongkongers greater immigration rights may appear to be a surprising one. Indeed, soon after Boris Johnson’s announcement, the chairman of the right-wing thinktank Migration Watch criticised the move as one that would “break the Conservative Party’s election manifesto pledge that overall immigration ‘will come down’”. 

Upon closer inspection, however, we can see the vague scheme to extend rights for BNO passport holders and the comparative silence over Hong Kong refugees as two sides of the same coin. In reality, post-Brexit Britain is simply attempting to satisfy its economic needs by importing a subset of the ‘right kind’ of migrant: those of working age, who are likely to have higher educational qualifications, and whose racialized position is closer to whiteness.

In other words, rather than low-wage labourers to work in Chinese restaurants, the British government now wants wealthy Hong Kong elites to come to the island. Indeed, it is often argued that Hong Kong migrants will “help the UK make a crucial shift from low-skilled to high-skilled immigration”—notwithstanding the ways that COVID-19 crisis has shown the fallacy of this distinction

Young people who are seeking an escape route out of Hong Kong to Britain are unlikely to hold BNO passports; they are also unlikely to have the required savings or qualifications to migrate to Britain.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the British government’s offer to extend BNO rights is less than humanitarian, is its silence on the topic of Hong Kong refugees. Here, it is important to note that there are distinct procedures and requirements for entering the UK as a BNO passport holder and a refugee; and different rights and benefits that accrue as a result.

In more concrete terms, all BNO holders are over 23 years old, whereas one third of Hong Kong protesters are under the age of 18. Young people who are seeking an escape route out of Hong Kong to Britain are unlikely to hold BNO passports; they are also unlikely to have the necessary qualifications to migrate to Britain. In most cases, they will be coming to the UK alone, with little savings and few contacts with people on the ground. A grant of asylum is the only route of entry that will provide these young Hongkongers with stable sanctuary, as well as the social and economic rights to survive (albeit asylum seekers and refugees also face destitution in the UK). And yet guarantees for these Hongkongers have been less than forthcoming.

Reading the ‘guidance note’ on Hong Kong

In February, the Home Office published for the first time a dedicated guidance note on Hong Kong—one that essentially stated that protesters do not fulfil the criteria for asylum. For example, one of the key requirements for the grant of refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention is that asylum seekers must face a serious risk of “persecution”. The note states that what protesters face is prosecution, not persecution.

To date, more than 9000 people have been arrested throughout the Hong Kong protests. Many have been charged with ‘rioting’, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years under the Public Order Ordinance (the Ordinance). Many experts, including HK lawyers and the UN, have criticised the Ordinance for carrying disproportionate punishment. Disproportionate and/or excessive punishment can amount to serious harm under persecution under the Refugee Convention.  Yet by narrowing what Hongkongers are facing from persecution to prosecution, the Home Office’s guidance note creates a bar to entry for Hongkongers charged with heavy offences from seeking asylum.

Apart from a flawed definition of “persecution”, the guidance note also presents factually incorrect information about the city’s political system. The note rightly states that identifying political opinion as a Convention ground (the five legal grounds that can form the basis of a refugee claim: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership of a particular social group) is not sufficient to asylum and that there must be ‘nexus’ to persecution. In essence, this means that there must be a connection between the persecution you face, and the particular characteristic you have: for example, you may be a victim of a disproportionately severe jail sentence because of your political opinion. One approach to establishing nexus is demonstrating that people face serious harm and also suffer from an absence of protection, because of that particular characteristic. 

The Home Office seems to assume that just because the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) exists, it will be able to provide Hongkongers with an ‘avenue of redress’ for injustice. While acknowledging the critiques made of the IPCC by its own members, the note ignores the fact that foreign experts literally quit the IPCC over its lack of power and conveniently ends on Carrie Lam’s statement that she has “confidence in the IPCC to spare no effort” in its investigation. The IPCC’s recent whitewash on police enforcement during the protests more than demonstrates that it is not a legitimate avenue of redress. Specifically, its biased coverage against Hong Kong protesters demonstrates how it will never be able to provide people with pro-democracy views with adequate recourse to justice.

The Home Office’s restrictive attitude towards granting asylum for prospective Hong Kong refugees reveals a simple truth: Britain is only interested in those Hongkongers who can bring in wealth and who already possess the necessary social capital to assimilate into white society.

Under these guidelines, it is unlikely that Hongkongers, even those facing a jail sentence of up to 10 years for ‘rioting’, may ever qualify for asylum in the UK. One reason for the Home Office’s failure to adequately consider the implications of the Ordinance on the rights of protesters may be the fact that the Ordinance is a direct legacy of British colonialism. Established in the aftermath of the 1967 riots, the Ordinance has been continuously used to clamp down on protesters exercising freedom of assembly in HK, including in the Umbrella Movement & Mong Kok riots. It was never revoked by the British government, even though people such as Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patten, have retrospectively criticised its draconian effects.

The Home Office’s guidance note states that “the law provides for reasonable sentences for public order offences”. In one fell swoop, then, the Home Office rehabilitates colonial laws as ‘reasonable’, legitimizes the Hong Kong government’s co-optation of British colonial structures to crush dissent, and affirms the restrictive nature of the Hostile Environment. That the British government used lessons gained in Hong Kong during the 1960s to clamp down on antiracist mobilisations in the 1970s & the miners’ strikes in the 1980s, provides a neat example of the ways that colonial technologies of repression endure through time to perpetuate injustice.  

The Home Office’s restrictive attitude towards granting asylum for prospective Hong Kong refugees reveals a simple truth: Britain is only interested in those Hongkongers who can bring in wealth and who already possess the necessary social capital to assimilate into white society. Evidently, however, Hongkongers seeking asylum should not have to ‘deserve’ sanctuary based on how much money they earn; the prospect of safe sanctuary should not be tied to one’s economic capacities. 

Colonial responsibilities 

In reality, Hongkongers’ claim to greater citizenship rights in Britain is rooted in legal, moral, and historical justifications. Britain derived great wealth from its colonization of Hong Kong, resisted Hongkongers’ efforts to achieve democracy and universal suffrage, and prevented (alongside China) Hongkongers from participating in the negotiations over the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The least it can do now is to ensure that all Hongkongers are able to seek sanctuary from the CCP’s repression, which has been enabled by systems and structures of domination left behind by the British colonial elite. Nor do such arguments for granting immigration rights to residents of former colonies stop at Hong Kong; Britain’s responsibilities to provide sanctuary and redistribute its resources extends to all people which it played a role in persecuting, expropriating, and exploiting during its empire days. 

Ultimately, the policy announcements reveal how the Tory-led government is all too willing to use faux generosity towards Hongkongers to shore up its reputation as leaders of a new, ‘Global Britain’—all the while failing to make any sustained commitments to provide safe sanctuary to those fleeing a police state. Britain’s failure to speak openly about granting Hongkongers asylum shows how the country is unwilling to anger or embarass China by acknowledging that there could be such a thing as a Hong Kong refugee (not unlike its treatment of certain Chinese students in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre). At the same time, it reveals the politicised nature of the international refugee regime, which is fundamentally designed to affirm Global North countries’ supposed benevolence when they take minimal numbers of ‘deserving’, skilled migrants, all the while skirting their responsibilities to those whom they have historically harmed.

The offer of a potential escape route to BNO holders is a step in the right direction; but if it is not accompanied by a sustained commitment to granting asylum to Hongkongers, or remains contingent on Hongkongers’ economic contributions rather than their genuine fear of persecution, it may fail to reach those most in need of protection. In mobilizing for our cause, Hongkongers should avoid adopting the racist logics of good/bad migrant hierarchies, given that these contingent forms of citizenship can be revoked at any time, and also serve to restrict the entry of others in need.

Additional reading

Edmund Terence Gomez and Gregor Benton, The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present (2007)
Diana Yeh, Contesting British Chinese Culture (2018)
Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (2013)
daikon* zine, “against ‘hate crime'”, 26 May 2020
daikon* zine, ““oral migration histories of the 1989 democracy protests and tiananmen massacre”, 31 May 2019
Jack Hazlewood, “Hong Kong’s Police Violence Is Stamped ‘Made in U.K.’,” Foreign Policy, 18 July 2019.


  1. In 1949, the unrest of the Chinese Revolution caused many peasants from the Mainland to flee to the New Territories, in the north of Hong Kong. This created unprecedented competition for indigenous farmers whose ‘ancestral’ rights had previously been protected by the British government (Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 1800-Present). In response, the British government began to encourage farmers in the New Territories to switch from paddy farming to vegetable production to end the colony’s dependence on China. However, this resulted in the enrichment of a minority of landlords, and the impoverishment of rural workers and high levels of unemployment. To resolve this issue the British government began to encourage rural New Territories’ residents to emigrate to the UK. Far from any humanitarian motivation, the British government were aware that Chinese workers were needed to fulfil the demand created by the post-war economic boom in the restaurant industry and a growing taste among the British public for ‘exotic’ culinary delights.
  2. The very fact that Chinese migrants were able to occupy this position was based on a global structure of anti-blackness, by which, as Jared Sexton notes, “racial groups achieve their subjectivity and citizenship through ‘othering’ blacks, because humanity is measured through distance from blackness.”