About 200,000 Hong Kong citizens with British passports could come to live in the UK over the next five years, according to internal Foreign Office estimates, one of the biggest non-European migrations into Britain in recent times.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, this month confirmed that Britain would give a “route to citizenship” to around 3m Hong Kong citizens with rights to “British National Overseas” passports, in response to China’s security crackdown on the territory.
The offer infuriated Beijing but was warmly welcomed by MPs from all parties at Westminster, despite the recent heated debate in Britain about immigration. The issue of “border control” was one of the key factors in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The Financial Times has been told that 200,000 is the Foreign Office’s broad estimate of how many Hong Kong residents could take up the offer. The precise figure was in “flux” with a median expected number of arrivals of 180,000, according to one official; another said the estimate was just over 200,000.
The UK government has a poor record when it comes to such predictions; Tony Blair’s administration massively underestimated the number of arrivals from former communist states after the 2004 EU enlargement.
But the prospect of Hong Kong citizens coming to Britain has caused little political controversy. There was no criticism of Mr Raab’s offer from MPs, although Nigel Farage, Brexit party leader, who has never been elected to Westminster, said: “Three million would be an impossible number for us to take.”
Alan Mak, a Conservative MP of Chinese descent, said he did not expect large numbers of Hong Kong residents to make a new life in Britain, but added: “It would be a very big boost to the British economy if they did. Hong Kongers are very industrious and entrepreneurial.”
Mr Mak, whose father worked at Hong Kong airport, compared the possible economic benefits of migration from Hong Kong with that of the 1970s arrival in Britain of Asians from Uganda, expelled by Idi Amin.
Some 27,000 arrived under a specially constituted Uganda Resettlement Board, but Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College, London, estimates that between 150,000-200,000 Asians came to Britain from east Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The immigrant community immediately made an economic impact. Priti Patel, home secretary, and Rishi Sunak, chancellor, both come from Asian families who came to the UK from east Africa.
Far greater numbers arrived in Britain from central and eastern Europe after the EU enlargement of 2004; in 2018 Poland was the largest country of origin of EU-born residents in the UK, comprising 832,000 people.
China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, said the UK offer of a path to citizenship for up to 3m Hong Kongers amounted to “gross interference”.
“The UK government keeps making irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong affairs,” he told a virtual news conference this month.
Tensions between Britain and China have been rising after Beijing imposed a sweeping new security law on Hong Kong. When the former UK colony was returned to China in 1997, both sides agreed the territory should be administered under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
Boris Johnson’s expected decision this week to cut Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment maker, out of Britain’s 5G phone networks will fuel the acrimonious mood between London and Beijing.