When Rainbow Ip, a single mother and beauty clinic consultant from Kowloon, arrived in the English city of Manchester on December 28 last year, her dream of a new life in the promised land of the UK suddenly looked like a very daunting prospect.
It was often raining or snowing or both, the city’s freezing streets were deserted due to a national pandemic lockdown and Rainbow and her two teenage sons had nowhere to live.
“I had no job, no friends and no family in Manchester – I was very lonely, I felt overwhelmed and had no idea what to do,” she told HKFP, explaining why she decided to take the drastic step of emigrating with her sons.
“I just felt Hong Kong was getting dangerous and chaotic – the government was no longer acting for Hong Kong people – I had a BNO [British National Overseas] passport so thought it was time for a change of environment.”
Britain announced a new visa scheme for BNO passport-holders after China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last June. Applications opened in January and around 27,000 people had applied for the BN(O) visa as of mid-March. Official British estimates suggest up to 330,000 Hongkongers may relocate to the UK over the next five years.
The visas enable a holder and family to live and work in the UK, with the potential to obtain full citizenship after five years. Rainbow thought Manchester would be a good place to make a new start as a first-tier English city where living costs were lower than London. But she has struggled to obtain school places for her two sons.
Given these challenges, the government on April 8 announced £43 million in funding to help Hong Kong immigrants resettle in the UK. This, combined with a growing support network of volunteer organisations, mean life should become easier for BNO Hongkongers like Rainbow.
HKbrits, founded by young Hong Kong British volunteers, became involved in Rainbow’s case.
“The single biggest issue is education because the system is different here – Rainbow contacted us and sounded very stressed because she could not get her 17-year-old son to school or college because he had not sat any GCSEs so was not eligible for sixth form,” says Alex, one of the co-founders.
Like many Hong Kong people in the UK, she declines to give her full name for fear that her work here may provoke reprisals against her family still in Hong Kong.
Most BNO passport holders arriving in the UK head initially for hotels (if they are open) or Airbnb accommodation. Obtaining permanent housing is difficult because landlords insist on references from previous landlords, British banks and employers which the new arrivals do not yet have. Without a permanent address it is not possible to apply for jobs or school places.
Dr Krish Kandiah launched a platform earlier this year, called UK-HK : a one-stop shop hoping to provide the information BNOs need when they arrive and connecting them with a network of some 400 churches across the UK.
Kandiah says they already have 1,700 people on their books and it’s education that is the driving force behind geographical clusters of Hong Kong immigrants. Many Hongkongers are heading to particular boroughs of south London because of their outstanding schools. Areas like Kent which retain grammar schools are also popular, as is Manchester.
“Churches are well placed to be on the front line and as part of the local community offer practical advice and help – finding a school, registering with a GP, navigating public transport, local schools – you don’t need to be Christian to use the service,” he says.
Kandiah also helped arrange a recent meeting between five Hong Kong families using the BNO visa scheme and UK Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick.
“Leaving families back in Hong Kong is the most painful for these people and they often become very emotional when talking about it – they are making a real sacrifice,” he says and points to the value of community support like Easter eggs left on doorsteps by neighbours, during the recent public holiday.
Communist Party pressure
While many of the support groups like Hong Kong Assistance and Resettlement Community (HKARC) were initially more focused on offering accommodation and legal advice to younger people, who were often fleeing arrest, the typical profile of the BNO visa holder is older. Other groups say these are generally middle-class professional families with school age children. It is the Beijing-inspired changes to Hong’s Kong’s education curriculum which are driving out these doctors, nurses, teachers, architects and social workers.
And many predict that the flow will become a deluge once the UK lockdown restrictions are further eased in early summer.
“That’s why the £43 million support package is so encouraging,” says HKARC team member, Fred Wong.
That new UK government funding has been widely welcomed, as has the clear message it sends that Hongkongers are warmly welcome. Sadly, a few members of the British public are still not getting the message.
Simon Cheng, co- founder of the Hong Kongers in Britain support group, says he has been racially abused in the streets of London three times since moving to the city last March and he regularly receives threatening and abusive email, including one from a retired Hong Kong police officer.
Jebez Lam of the longstanding London charity Hackney Chinese Community Services, told HKFP he was beaten up in London’s Chinatown in November 2019 by members of an established Chinese organisation loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. They are hostile to the latest wave of migrants from Hong Kong and he says the attacks are still going on.
It may not be the promised land but the overwhelming feedback from Hongkongers in the UK is still generally positive about the support they receive from officials and the general public.
Rainbow Ip has recently been offered a school place for her younger son and is making progress in finding one for her 17-year-old. She is convinced she made the right choice.
“At first, I had doubts – but as time went on and I saw the developments in Hong Kong it looks more and more like I made the right decision.”