London: A new visa route that offers Hong Kong residents the option to apply to come to the UK and become citizens through a fast-track system officially opened on Sunday.
Around 300,000 Hong Kong nationals are expected to apply for the visa, which is open to holders of the British National (Overseas) passport and their immediate dependents and was announced last year in retaliation of China's controversial new National Security Law.
The UK maintains the new law is a "clear and serious breach" of the Sino-British Joint Declaration under which Hong Kong had been handed over to the Chinese authorities over 23 years ago.
"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," said UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"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," he said.
Under the route, those with BN(O) status and their eligible family members will be able to come to the UK to live, study and work. As with other visas, after?five years in the UK, they?will be able to apply for?settlement, followed by?British citizenship after a further 12 months.
"Global Britain will always stand up for what is right and uphold our commitments. This new visa delivers on our promise to the people of Hong Kong, honouring our strong historic relationship and upholding their freedoms," said UK Home Secretary Priti Patel.
"I look forward to welcoming people wanting to put down roots and build a new life with their family in the UK," she said.
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry recently said it would no longer recognise the BNO passport as a travel document. China maintains its new security law is necessary to prevent the type of protests seen in Hong Kong during much of 2019. However, the law has caused alarm worldwide, with opponents saying it erodes the territory's freedoms as a semi-autonomous region of China.
The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said that it was "disappointed but not surprised" by the Chinese move to de-recognise the BN(O) passports but that the new visa route would remain unaffected for those eligible to apply.
"We have been clear we won't look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people," said UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
"China's imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law. With the launch of this new visa route, BN(O) citizens will now have a choice to come and live, work and study in the UK," he said.
The UK government says the 1984 Sino-British declaration is a legally binding treaty, which commits to ensure the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and maintain Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy.
According to official statistics, from July 15, 2020 to January 13, 2021, approximately 7,000 BN(O) status holders and their dependants have been granted "Leave Outside the Rules" at the border to allow them to legally enter and live in the UK. The Leave Outside the Rules at the border scheme will remain open until after the new visa route becomes fully digital to assist any BN(O) Hong Kong national requiring urgent exit from China.
The UK government said it is working with civil society groups and others to welcome BN(O) status holders to all parts of the UK and help them integrate as they make Britain their new home.