BNO thrust old wine in old bottle

Editorial | Mary Ma 26 May 2020

Some people probably searched through their cupboards to dig out a dusty copy of their British National (Overseas) passport following a British newspaper report that Prime Minister Boris Johnson could revert a decades-old policy to grant Hong Kong holders of the passport refugee status so that they could live and work in Britain.

How likely can that be?

It was strange that major newspapers in the UK have not done a follow up on the report which, if true, would be an explosive piece of news - not only for those keen to leave the city but also for Britons since immigration has always been a sensitive issue in the country of 66 million people.

The Sunday Express is not as authoritative as, say, the Financial Times or the Guardian. Nonetheless, it was still interesting to note that Sunday's article included some details of the purported meeting such as the time [earlier this year], place [the prime minister's official country residence, Chequers] and who [Johnson and a number of members of parliament].

It should not be difficult for the British media to verify the story even if No 10 Downing Street remains silent on it.

The Chinese ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, must be monitoring developments since, if it is indeed true, the scheme would have an impact on bilateral ties.

Brexit has made Britain more dependent on other markets and, if given a choice, Johnson would like to expand trade with China.

The question of BNO passports is an old issue that the British government has wanted to bury for good. It was almost forgotten, with many holders simply not renewing after their passports expired some time after 1997.

Nearly forgotten, that is, until anti-government protests and the police crackdown on them turned violent.

A lobby advocating full citizenship to BNO passport holders was formed and British politician Alistair Carmichael moved a bill in the House of Commons proposing citizenship for Hong Kong BNO holders.

The bill passed the first reading in February, about two months after US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act.

Given the close relations between the two countries, Britain appeared to be acting in concert with Washington on this.

Carmichael's Hong Kong Bill 2019-21 is due a second reading in September. Only then will we have a better idea of how serious the British politicians are with the proposal if Johnson decides to leave the matter to the floor.

By the way, Johnson's Home Secretary Priti Patel was reported to have sympathy for the cause since she was once a refugee. She arrived in Britain with her family in the 1970s under a similar citizenship scheme for Ugandan Asians persecuted by dictator Idi Amin.

If Hongkongers holding BNO passports were to be admitted as refugees as reported by the Sunday Express, it could mean London would retain the power to deny some applicants. Could these be police and others close to the government?

No matter what, it is far too early to say whether BNO passport holders will be given a full British passport at the end of the day.

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