Sixteen UK MPs have signed a joint letter urging Downing Street to provide legal and consular assistance to British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders at risk of arrest under the Beijing-enacted national security law in Hong Kong.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) members wrote to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, saying that they were “deeply troubled” by reports of BNO passport holders being denied refuge in the British consulate in Hong Kong.

UK Consulate General, Hong Kong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In a dramatic policy shift, the Home Office in May announced plans to provide a pathway to citizenship for some 350,000 BNO passport holders, if Beijing enacted the security law. Previously, the travel document – available to those who applied before the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China – did not grant bearers the right of abode.

At the time, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused London of meddling in domestic affairs and said Beijing would no longer recognise BNO passports as valid travel documents: “[We] reserve the right to take further actions.”

Weeks later, the central government imposed sweeping legislation outlawing secession, sedition, collusion with foreign forces, as well as terrorism – broadly defined to include interference with transportation and other infrastructure. It came after months of sometimes violent protests in Hong Kong calling for democratic reform and police accountability.

‘Unsettling prospect’

In a letter dated September 7 but publicised on Monday, the IPAC signatories said the law raised the “unsettling prospect” of arrests based on spurious and politically motivated charges becoming routine. They pointed to the arrests of media mogul Jimmy Lai, freelance journalist Wilson Li and several pro-democracy activists.

Photo: GovHK.

“With the majority of BN(O) passport holders residing in Hong Kong, we face the unsettling prospect of British nationals being routinely arrested based on spurious and political motivated charges,” the statement read.

“In light of our clear legal and moral obligations to Hong Kong, this is not something we can allow to happen without offering assistance which is within our power to give. We therefore urge you to guarantee comprehensive legal and consular assistance to all British nationals arrested under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, not excluding the possibility of providing refuge where necessary.”

In Full: the IPAC letter signatories – click to view

  • Rt Hon Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP (co-chair of the IPAC)
  • Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (co-chair of the IPAC)
  • Lord David Alton
  • Baroness Natalie Bennett
  • Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael MP
  • Judith Cummins MP
  • Rt Hon David Davis MP
  • Nusrat Ghani MP
  • Rt Hon Damian Green MP
  • Imran Ahmad Khan MP
  • Tim Loughton MP
  • Craig Mackinlay MP
  • Bob Seely MP
  • Andrew Selous MP
  • Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP

The international cross-party coalition launched a campaign in July to sever extradition treaties with Hong Kong due to a “severe compromise” of the city’s rule of law under the security legislation, which was drafted without local legislative oversight.

Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly denied threats to judicial independence. Earlier this month, an Australian judge at a local top court resigned citing unspecified reasons related to the security law.

Responding to a previous HKFP enquiries about protections for BNO passport holders, a British Consulate spokesperson said, as a general policy: “We will always speak out when we believe that the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong are being undermined and will continue working to uphold their rights.”

Sino-British relations have worsened in recent years as disputes over trade, the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and the use of Huawei technology strain an already taut relationship.

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Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.