Hong Kong residents who renewed their British National (Overseas) passports or applied for travel document showed an eightfold increase from the previous year.
Data obtained by the South China Morning Post through a British government Freedom of Information Request showed the total number of identity documents issued in 2019 soared to 154,218, while the number that applied to renew their passports in the same period went from 14,297 to 119,892.
The unprecedented surge was not triggered by the national security law imposed by Beijing on June 30 but it continued unabated in the first half of 2020 and anecdotal evidence suggests it was further fuelled by fears sparked by the draconian legislation.
The national security law targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism as well as collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security, with life imprisonment the punishment for the most serious offences.
By July this year, those who succeeded with their renewals and applications found themselves in possession of a more valuable document when Britain undertook a major policy shift to allow Hongkongers a clear pathway to citizenship.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in July that millions of Hongkongers with BN(O) passports would be able to resettle in the country and be offered a path to citizenship after the national security law came into effect.
The new policy offered millions of BNO passport-holding Hongkongers, their spouses, and children the chance to resettle, by giving them five years to remain in Britain after which they could apply for settled status – effectively giving them permanent residency.
Commenting on the data, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a heavyweight pro-establishment lawmaker, said the figures were not surprising but the reasons for people wanting to leave Hong Kong were many.
“There have been various crises and jitters, crises of confidence from Hong Kong in the past 40 to 50 years, this is not new,” Ip said. “People could be planning for different reasons, might be worried about erosion of freedom, but there are plenty who dislike the violence and unrest. You can’t draw a conclusion.”
The ex-security minister pointed out that the actual number of people who left Hong Kong was a different matter and that many émigrés had also returned from Britain, Canada and Australia.
Ramon Yuen Hoi-man, convener of the BN(O) rights concern group, said Hongkongers on both sides of the political divide were deeply shaken by the events of last year.
“Democracy activists and supporters might have applied for renewal as an insurance policy and a fallback option if life in the city no longer works out for them,” the Democratic Party district councillor said.
BN(O) passports were issued to Hongkongers born before the 1997 handover, and under previous rules, could visit Britain for up to six months but were not able to work or apply for citizenship. Britain’s latest moves to open up a pathway angered Beijing, who accused London of breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The surge in renewals comes amid a huge backlog of people renewing BN(O) and ordinary British passports this year – both worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and fewer officials to process applications.
The British government’s own figures as of July 07 said it was actively processing 126,000 passport applications, 31% higher than the same period last year. A further 284,0000 were in the queue – a jump of 172%.
In late May, around the same time Beijing decided to press ahead with the national security law at its annual parliamentary session, Britain saw inquiries from concerned HongKongers jump eightfold. (Source: Bangkok Post)