15 June 2020

Migration Watch is scaremongering about Hong Kong immigration

By Chris Whitehouse

Lord Andrew Green can be proud of the reputation for accuracy and moderation that he has built up over now many years for the views of Migration Watch – views which often find a natural constituency of support particularly among more Conservative leaning voters, but which now, as expressed in his latest musings on Hong Kong risk marginalising the organisation.

What has stoked Lord Green’s ire is the Government’s offer to Hong Kong’s British National (Overseas) [BN(O)] passport holders which would entitle them to live, study and work in the UK, and would represent a route to citizenship. This offer was clarified by the Prime Minister personally to cover, in principle, the 2.9 million people eligible for BN(O) passports and their dependents. Soon after, Migration Watch published a short paper outlining their concerns.

Details, of the proposed amended status and rights of BN(O)s are still being worked out by the Home Office and at this stage no firm changes have been proposed, so Migration Watch’s doomsday predictions are at best premature, and at worst, scaremongering.

For instance, their paper claims that “a Home Office factsheet confirmed that the number who might eventually be able to come is up to 2.9 million – the current number of BNOs residing in Hong Kong”. But, as details have not yet been published, it is hard to know if that is a reasonable assessment of the practical effect. Certainly, the Government has noted that they do not believe 3 million will take up the offer and that they are also working with other governments to ask that they extend a similar offer to share the load globally.

A scheme that gave citizenship to 50,000 people in 1990 gave many of those Hongkongers the confidence actually to remain in Hong Kong; and unless the situation becomes truly dire, meriting an urgent humanitarian response, we have no reason to believe that the proposed new arrangements would see hordes of Hongkongers leaving their homes for this country. Why would they?

Migration Watch also complain that “Mr Raab has cast the proposed offer of a pathway to citizenship as part and parcel with the UK honouring its ‘historical responsibilities’”. However, the group neglects to mention that there is an existing pathway to register as a UK citizen for British Nationals (Overseas) under Section 4 of the British Nationality Act 1981, as well as the usual routes for immigrants to settle in the UK (e.g. continuous residence under Indefinite Leave to Remain). The Government’s announcements are merely aimed at simplifying that process, not creating a new one.

Migration Watch have already had to amend their original briefing note, published only a few days ago, as they had misrepresented, albeit inadvertently, the opinion of the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith. Lord Goldsmith’s revised advice (14th February 2020) is that it is his “view that the UK government can extend full right of abode to BNO passport holders without breaching its side of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”.

Migration Watch also observe, technically correctly, that “the clear difference with the case of the Ugandan Asians is that residents of Hong Kong are not being threatened with expulsion by China”.  This really is splitting hairs. Criminalising activities that were previously permitted as part of the city’s mini-constitution, without the consent of the governed, is a fundamental change in the political settlement, particularly if that change threatens the life and liberty of the individual.

Furthermore, fewer than half of the 60,000 Ugandan Asians formally expelled from Uganda in August 1972 settled in the UK. Many travelled to Canada, India, Kenya and other countries. Taiwan has already expressed support for Hongkongers fleeing China’s influence and other countries are expected to welcome Hongkongers beyond the UK.

Migration Watch rhetorically question whether such a change would set a dangerous precedent of “historic responsibilities” vis-à-vis other former colonial possessions. However, colonies such as India, Nigeria and Myanmar, for example, have all had a route to self-determination through independence movements. Hong Kong has never been independent of China and/or the UK and Hongkongers had no control over the final decisions on their future taken by China and the UK.

So, the UK’s historic duty towards Hong Kong is very different to other former colonies; and the future of Hongkongers is based on China keeping its word, which it is brazenly failing to do.

Migration Watch also raise the issue of the 2018 Windrush scandal, pointing out that Commonwealth citizens in that case were already resident in the UK. This is self-evident, since Hongkongers were not permitted right of abode in the UK as part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Nor has the Government said that it would give BN(O)s a right to citizenship. This means that the current immigration system remains intact and that BN(O)s would be given a “pathway” to apply for citizenship through extendable visas. That position is entirely in line with the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to “take back control of our borders”. Migration Watch note that the numbers discussed would be a vast increase on previous net migration, but they cannot be certain of that given that we don’t know how many people would take up the offer.

Almost uniquely, the Government’s decision has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of Conservative party activists; but more incredibly still, it has united the parties in Parliament and the whole spectrum of the media from the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, to The Times, The Guardian and The Observer.

Whether this is because we are finally righting a historic wrong done to the people of Hong Kong, which has been a stain on the Conservative party’s and our nation’s conscience, is for others to judge. But for those seeking a clearer analysis of our duties to Hong Kong, Lord [Chris] Patten’s recent tour de force on the handover negotiations and China’s subsequent behaviour is definitely worth a watch. As the Last Governor of Hong Kong, he certainly knows what of he speaks when he says it’s time we stood up to China, the bully!

Lord Andrew Green and Migration Watch are out of step with the nation on this one, and they should urgently consult Lord Patten on their route ahead if they are not to lose their way.

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Chris Whitehouse leads the team as Chairman of public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy, he provides the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, and works with Fight for Freedom: Stand with Hong Kong.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.