HONG KONG: Hong Kong residents can apply from Sunday (Jan 31) afternoon for a new visa offering them an opportunity to become British citizens after Beijing's imposition of a national security law in the Asian financial hub last year.
The move comes as China and Hong Kong have said they will no longer recognise the British National Overseas (BNO) passport as a valid travel document from Sunday, Jan 31.
Britain and China have been arguing for months about what London and Washington say is an attempt to silence dissent in Hong Kong after pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020.
Britain says it is fulfilling a historic and moral commitment to Hong Kong people after Beijing imposed the security law on the semi-autonomous city that Britain says breaches the terms of agreements under which the colony was handed back to China in 1997.
"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," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said of the scheme this week.
READ: UK says it is upholding 'freedom and autonomy' with new Hong Kong visas
The UK government forecasts the new visa could attract more than 300,000 people and their dependents to Britain. Beijing said it would make them second-class citizens.
The scheme, which was first announced last year, allows those with BNO status to live, study and work in Britain for five years and eventually apply for citizenship.
The BNO passport will be available to a huge number of people - about 70 per cent of Hong Kong's 7.5 million population.
Applications for BNO passports have skyrocketed more than 300 per cent since the national security law was imposed last July, with 733,000 registered holders as of mid-January.
Britain predicts up to 154,000 Hong Kongers could arrive over the next year and as many as 322,000 over five years, bringing an estimated "net benefit" of up to £2.9 billion (US$4 billion).
The BN(O) passport is a legacy of Hong Kong's return to authoritarian China.
Many Hong Kongers at the time wanted Britain to grant them full citizenship but China was opposed to the move.
The BN(O) was a compromise, allowing Hong Kongers born before 1997 the right to stay in Britain for six months at a time, but with no working or settling rights.
Now it has become one of the few ways out for Hong Kongers hoping to start a new life overseas as authorities conduct mass arrests against democracy supporters and move to purge the restless city of dissenting views.
Stella, a former marketing professional, plans to move to Britain imminently with her husband and three-year-old son.
"The national security law in 2020 gave us one last kick because the provisions are basically criminalising free speech," she told AFP, asking to use just her first name.
Under the visa scheme, those hoping to move have to show they have enough funds to sustain both themselves and their dependents for at least six months.
Hong Kongers already in Britain who are involved in helping others relocate say many of the early applicants tend to be educated middle-class people, often with young families, who have enough liquidity to finance their move.
"Most people we spoke with are families with primary school or nursery age kids," Nic, an activist with a group called Lion Rock Hill UK, told AFP, asking for anonymity.
Some Hong Kongers began leaving the city even before the new scheme went live.
Earlier this week Britain said around 7,000 people moved over the last six months under a separate Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) system. They will also be able to apply for the pathway-to-citizenship visas.
"The BNO is definitely a lifeboat for Hong Kongers," Mike, a medical scientist who recently relocated with his family to the city of Manchester, told AFP.
He said many Hong Kongers feared China might stop residents leaving the territory.
"So it is better to leave as soon as possible," he added.