Popular opposition, economics will torpedo UK immigration offer

June 15, 2020 10:16
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong people were happy and astonished to read an offer by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month to accept holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passports and put them on the road to citizenship.

If Beijing imposed its national security law on the SAR, “the British government will change its immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports to come to the U.K. for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship,” he wrote.

The offer seems too good to be true. Will it really happen? I doubt it, for several reasons.

The first is that the main driver for Brexit, which finally happened after three and a half years of bitter negotiations, was the desire of the majority of British people to cut immigration.

In February this year, Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced the new immigration policy that will take effect on January 1, 2021. It will be a points system similar to that of Australia.

Migrants will need 70 points – 50 will come from speaking English, having a job offer and being above a “skills threshold”. For the remaining 20 points, they must earn more than 25,600 pounds for most workers. But extra points would be awarded to those with better qualifications, like PhD in science, technology, engineering or maths, or those with a job offer in sectors where the UK has a shortage of workers.

The government wants to cut the overall number of immigrants and exclude those who earn modest wages and are not highly skilled.

The second reason is the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. On June 10, the OECD said that the UK economy would be among worst hit of the advanced countries. Its economy will contract by 11.5 per cent this year and unemployment will reach at least nine per cent, compared to 3.8 per cent last year, it said.

Currently, the government is paying the wages of millions of workers who have been laid off. When these payments end, unemployment could reach five million or 15 per cent of the workforce, levels not seen since the Great Depression on the 1930s, predicted James Reed, chairman of recruitment firm Reed and co-founder of Keep Britain Working.

The third reason is policy confusion over China within the Johnson government. One main rationale for Brexit was to enable London to negotiate its own trade and investment deals with major economies, like the U.S., India, Brazil and China.

China is Britain’s third largest export market, after the EU and the U.S., and its fifth biggest trade partner. In 2019, its trade with China was 714 billion yuan, up 17.6 per cent from 2018.

“For the UK to become a truly global nation, engagement with China must be top of the agenda,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in its annual position paper published on June 9. “Sustained dialogue will be essential for strengthening the relationship between the two countries.
The past few months have demonstrated the ease with which populist and protectionist politics can disrupt international relationships and increase business risk. The UK and China must resist this urge.”

Beijing was enraged by the Johnson offer. It does not want the permanent departure of thousands of qualified, experienced people.

Why did he make the offer? Within his Conservative Party are those who feel strongly that, by imposing the National Security Law on Hong Kong, Beijing is breaching the Joint Declaration. As a signatory to it, Britain has a moral duty to respond forcefully.

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative and chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, called for the government to grant automatic citizenships to the holders of the BNO passports. The other G7 countries agree with the viewpoint of the UK government.

But, in reality, Britain will not accept tens of thousands of Hong Kong people, however good migrants they may be. Public opinion and the strong business interests with China would not allow it. The economic climate of the UK this year and next could not be worse.

Johnson made the offer as part of an effort by Western countries to pressure Beijing to postpone the new law or limit its provisions and implementation.

So Hong Kong people can rejoice in the support they are receiving from overseas – but cannot count on it giving them a new future in Britain.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.