Should you emigrate to Britain?

August 10, 2020 08:51
Photo: Reuters

The National Security Law made many Hong Kong people uncertain of their future. Then the British government unexpectedly opened an exit door by offering a route to citizenship for holders of the British National Overseas (BNO) passport – potentially more than three million people.

Is going to Britain a good choice? The first consideration is money. Home Secretary Priti Patel said BNO holders would need to be self-sufficient for the five to seven years before they obtain British citizenship. During this period, they will not be eligible for social security and their children cannot attend government schools, which are free. Applicants must prove they have the financial means to support themselves.

For a family of four, that means average monthly living costs of HK$30,000, or HK$1.8 million over five years. The annual cost of a private education for one child in UK is HK$200,000-300,000, with an additional HK$100,000 if he or she boards.

They must buy or rent a property. If they own one or more in Hong Kong, that is no problem. The average property price here this year is US$1.25 million, according to CBRE’s Global Living 2020 report, twice as expensive as London, at US$624,225, the most expensive in UK.

A person who sells his apartment here for HK$8 million has enough to buy a semi-detached house in Kent, a county southeast of London, and an apartment in a large city like Manchester or Glasgow to rent out for regular monthly income.

Poon Bik-wan, ex-finance presenter of ATV, has emigrated to Britain and is living in the western city of Bristol. She is paying HK$15,500 for a property of 1,600 square feet in the city centre. “I have many friends who first rent and then buy,” she said. “They wait until their children have chosen their places to study before they buy.”

Emigration is a complicated decision, said Miu Siu-tong, a British-registered lawyer specialising in this work. She has written the “101 Guide to Emigrating to UK”. “You must consider assets, work and investment, the ability to adapt to the society and way of living and continuity of education for children,” she said.

“It is not easy for Hong Kong people to find work in Britain. You must consider what sector you are in, what specialties you have and your communications skills. Britain is a developed country and the job market is stable. In each sector there are vacancies and room to develop,” she said.

Best placed are those with a skill in demand in Britain, such as accountants, financiers, dentists, doctors, architects and nurses who trained in English using a British curriculum. They are likely to have to take an examination to meet local professional requirements. Also they may not find work in the city of their choice and may have to go to more remote and poorer locations less attractive to British professionals.

Not so well placed are the less skilled and those whose work caters to Hong Kong and mainland consumers – in sales, marketing and distribution.

Everyone should be prepared for a drop in income. The annual tax rate for personal incomes of 12,500 to 50,000 pounds is 20 per cent and for incomes of between 50,000 and 150,000 is 40 per cent. Some consultants say that Hong Kong people between 25 and 55 should not emigrate, since that is their period of highest earnings.

Migrants could not be going to UK at a worse time, because of COVID19. The OECD has forecast a fall in UK GDP this year of 11.5 per cent if the world avoids a second wave. With a second wave, the fall would be 14 per cent. It forecast UK unemployment this year at nine-ten per cent.

The migrant face other uncertainties. The 2011 census found nearly 400,000 Chinese in England and Wales, 0.7 per cent of the population. They enjoy a good reputation as hard-working, skilled, disciplined, discreet and staying out of trouble. This is why politicians and the public broadly accepted the government plan to admit potentially three million people, the largest influx from a single place in British history.

Last month the Foreign Office said it estimated that, over five years, 200,000 Hong Kongers would come. It believes that most people here prefer Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and other countries as an emigration choice, above UK. In other words, it does not want all the BNO holders to come.

But what if the situation here deteriorated and tens of thousands more decided to go in a hurry?

MigrationWatch UK is one of few groups that campaigned against the BNO offer. “Migration on this scale has contributed or added to the housing shortages and to pressures in sectors such as education, health and transport. These are the problems that invariably follow in the wake of mass immigration,” it said. That was the primary reason for the British to vote to leave the European Union. Large-scale immigration, especially to a small number of cities, would arouse such opposition again.

Then what about the quality of life? Few cities in the world can match Hong Kong for convenience, public transport, quality of service, safety and variety and convenience of food. The migrant will not find all these in a British city. He is leaving behind his family, school friends and personal networks built up over a lifetime.

Chinese in the UK feel most comfortable in large cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham, with substantial Asian populations, where they do not attract too much attention. They complain about the weather, the rain and the long, dreary winters; they also complain about the food – too many sandwiches, pizzas, burgers, fish and chips.

They must accept the fact that, while their children will speak Cantonese to them, they are unlikely to learn written Chinese; they are surrounded by English 24 hours a day. Their grandchildren will probably not speak or read Chinese.

Emigration is like uprooting a mature tree and replanting it in another land. Will the roots of the tree settle in the new soil or be rejected by it? It is a major and difficult decision.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.