British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday hailed the launch of a new visa scheme that offers qualifying Hong Kong citizens a route to eventual British citizenship.
The programme is a response to China’s controversial new security laws in the former British colony.
First announced last year, the scheme opens on Sunday and allows those with “British National (Overseas)” status to live, study and work anywhere in the UK for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
The British government says it is fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong, after accusing Beijing of breaching the “one-country, two-systems” terms of the 1997 handover agreement.
London says Beijing’s new security laws are being used to silence dissent and deny true democracy to the people of Hong Kong, Reuters reports.
“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country,” Johnson said in a statement.
“In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy – values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear.”
Beijing says the path to UK citizenship is a violation of international law and interferes with its internal affairs.
BN(O) is a special status created under British law in 1987. It only applies to Hong Kong, and does not cover everyone who lives there.
UK government estimates indicate that nearly three million individuals and a further 2.3 million dependents will be eligible to come to Britain.
The US$340 visa could attract over 300,000 people and their dependents to make the move but it is highly uncertain how many people will actually take up the offer.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government “won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong” and would “live up to our historic responsibility to its people”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel added that, “Global Britain will always stand up for what is right and uphold our commitments.”
According to Sky News, approximately 7,000 Hong Kong people with BNO status and their dependents have already been granted “Leave Outside the Rules” at the UK border over the last six months, prior to the opening of the new visa route.