Opinion: Expect coming waves of Hong Kong returnees from the UK

Most over the age of 45 with a professional qualification felt it was of no use in their job.

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Language barriers and experience are cited as the biggest impediments to finding work. However, two-thirds rate their spoken and written English as good or very good. That may be explained by what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect: people tend to assume they are more competent or capable than they really are.

Writing in the Financial Times, Heather Rolfe, research director at British Future, politely makes the suggestion that the UK needs more education institutions that offer higher-level English language classes.

She said BN(O)ers can help fill gaps and overcome job mismatch in key sectors with shortages such as wholesale and retail, information technology, education and hospitality.

The UK may be experiencing skill shortages holding back economic growth, and the government is under increasing pressure to slow immigration. Rolfe’s argument is that since the government is unlikely to let in more immigrants, employers will have to make do with the existing pool, and Hong Kong migrants make up a well-educated lot.

The UK work visa system only accounts for about a quarter of all immigrants. The rest, she said, were “Ukrainians, Hongkongers, refugees, adults with family reunion visas, and adult dependents of students”.

But British bosses have a low awareness of BN(O) workers.

“Recruiting migrants authorised and available for skilled work, such as Hongkongers, offers a solution,” she advised.

“The [UK] government can help, too, by ensuring the National Careers Service and Jobcentre Plus meet the needs of migrants. More than three-quarters of BN(O)s said they had not received any career information or guidance, although two-thirds would welcome it.”

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The problem of job mismatch is to be expected and not easily fixed. Unlike those admitted on a work visa, the BN(O) scheme is designed to be non-discriminating; you are admitted based on your former colonial status, not your job qualifications. Why should anyone be surprised that they can’t find jobs or only jobs with low wages in the UK?

But the Tory government of Boris Johnson obviously anticipated this issue, though no one in government or any politicians and anti-China activists would admit it.

The BN(O) scheme is really less generous and could be a trap for many from Hong Kong, unlike the more standard immigration routes offered by Australia, Canada and the United States; and these are, of course, also more stringent on first admissions.

These other systems mean once you are allowed in, you are already a landed or permanent resident. Not so with the BN(O) scheme. Under its so-called 5+1 route, you need to live in the UK for five years before you can apply for permanent residence – officially called indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or settlement – and one more year thereafter for citizenship. The delayed ILR step was obviously deliberate – to allow the UK government to reject those it may decide later on it doesn’t want after all.

Many BN(O)ers started off with an idealised picture of the British government’s good intentions, and only now, belatedly, realise that their future in the UK is not guaranteed. Imagine those who have sold their homes, given up their public housing units and their children’s school places in Hong Kong, thinking they would never return!

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Cynics would say that the immigration scheme was designed to portray Hong Kong as a totalitarian hellhole after the introduction of national security law in 2020 from which locals needed to flee to a free and democratic UK. So the British government makes sure there is a simple way down the road to get rid of them should that become politically expedient. That day has come sooner than many thought.

As anti-immigration sentiments become a big election issue, future British governments will more than likely use the 5+1 rule to screen out those it thinks can contribute little to the economy and society.

And, of course, after five years of living in the UK, more BN(O)ers will come to realise “totalitarian” Hong Kong isn’t so bad compared to “free” Britain.

As former prime minister Gordon Brown wrote in the Guardian last week: “One million children are considered destitute, lacking access to food, shelter, heating or toiletries, and every night 1.1 million boys and girls sleep on the floor or share a bed. More than 2 million households live without at least one essential household appliance, such as a fridge, cooker or washing machine. Four out of five families on Universal Credit [social welfare] report going without food, turning off the heating and not replacing worn-out clothing. And nearly 3 million UK low-income households have run up debt to pay for food, a crisis recognised by King Charles with his food initiative this week.”

I personally knew quite a few Hong Kong parents who thought British schools were like Harrow and Eton, with well-dressed, well-mannered and well-spoken pupils. Perhaps they and their children watched too many Harry Potter films.

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Brown paints a rather grim picture. “A more visible sign of Britain’s increasing epidemic of poverty is that children are going to school not just ill clad and hungry but unwashed and unclean, with infections now being passed on in classrooms.

“Schools should not have to double up as launderettes for children’s clothes, but dozens of schools are installing washing machines. As a recent survey of teachers concluded, private hygiene is fast becoming a public health problem, with 71 per cent of those polled expecting this to worsen in the coming months.”

Brown forgot to mention one in six schools in England requires urgent repairs, as the government has described the crumbling structures as “a risk to life”.

BN(O)ers will also have found that Hong Kong’s public medical system compares favourably to the UK’s once-famed National Health Service.

All in all, it’s highly probable that there will be more returnees in coming years, so the Hong Kong government will need to prepare for them such as not closing too many public schools or scaling back on building new public housing.

Those returning BN(O)ers and their families will need them.

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