The UK government must do everything in its power to ensure the people of Hong Kong are safe, a Catholic peer has said.
The call, from Lord David Alton of Liverpool, comes as the Chinese government announced that it will no longer recognise the British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) passport as a valid travel document or form of identification and accused the UK of violating international law and the basic norms of international relations.
The Chinese government’s announcement came only days before the UK opened a new visa route for Hong Kong nationals looking to move to the UK in the wake of Beijing imposing its draconian National Security Law on the region, which threatens democracy, rights and freedoms.
Lord Alton noted that activist groups, such as ‘Stand with Hong Kong’, had called upon the government to urgently refine its BN(O) visa scheme and the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hong Kong had heard the calls, “loud and clear”.
He said the APPG had asked the government to consider taking action “if it truly wishes to protect the safety of Hongkongers”.
“Firstly and foremost, we must address Beijing’s decision to not recognise the British National (Overseas) passport, announced only a few days before many thousands of Hongkongers were ready to flee,” Lord Alton told The Catholic Universe. “This is a clear violation of international human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UK must address this injustice. Hongkongers deserve access to our visa scheme. We must ensure they are safe.”
In addition, he said a system must be established to guarantee that senior officials who have abused civilians cannot take up the scheme and that those left behind by the scheme, for example those who are too young to qualify, are offered an alternative route to safety.
“Nobody should abuse their position of power by torturing innocent civilians with impunity,” he said, adding that the UK must support the full integration of innocent Hongkongers who flee to the UK.
“I have called for the creation of a new Charter City, preferably in the north of England, which could use the skills, talents, and resources of Hong Kongers to create an economic power house to help regenerate the economy and employment,” Lord Alton added.
Since Sunday 31st January, those with a BN(O) passport and their eligible family members have been able to apply online for a visa allowing them to live, study and work in the UK. After five years in the UK, they can then apply for settlement, followed by British citizenship after a further 12 months. About 300,000 people are expected to leave Hong Kong for Britain using the route.
The UK’s commitment was made following the Chinese government’s imposition of the highly controversial National Security Law in Hong Kong last year, in breach of its commitments under international law. The visa reflects the UK’s historic and moral commitment to the people of Hong Kong who have had their rights and freedoms restricted due to the law.
However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the UK of attempting to turn a large number of Hong Kong people into “second-class British citizens”. He said the move has completely changed the nature of the two sides’ original understanding of BN(O).
“This move seriously infringes on China’s sovereignty, grossly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and the basic norms of international relations,” he said.
Responding to the announcement, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We have been clear that we will not look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong people with British National (Overseas) status who now have a choice to come and live and work and study in the UK.
“And it remains the case that BN(O)s and their families can use documentation other than BN(O) passports to travel and enter the UK.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) spokesman said: “We are disappointed but not surprised by the Chinese decision not to recognise British National (Overseas) passports.
“Despite China’s announcement, BN(O)s and their families will be able to use documentation other than BN(O) passports to take up this visa.
“People with BN(O) status now have a choice to come and live, work and study in the UK. We look forward to welcoming those who wish to settle here.”
Picture: File photo, dated 6th September 2020, shows riot police detaining a man during a protest in Hong Kong against postponed elections. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters).