The UK has effectively opened its doors to three million Hongkongers threatened by Beijing’s new National Security Law.
The law severely restricts rights to freedom of expression, including open discussions on independence, in what the west sees as a violation of both the Sino-British Joint Declaration from 1985 and the ‘one country two systems’ principle.
The UK’s offer builds on the existing British National Overseas (BNO) Passport policy, created in 1985 and available to all Hongkongers born before the 1997 handover. The original policy was largely seen as symbolic, and only 350,000 of the 3.1m eligible citizens currently hold a BNO passport.
Many more are expected to apply however under the expanded policy, which grants holders the right to work and study in the UK for five years, after which time they can apply for settled status and eventually seek citizenship.
The move has been widely applauded on both sides of the British political divide and throughout the western world. Australia has offered similar rights, going one further in offering incentives for Hong Kong-based businesses to relocate down under.
Despite the positivity around the offer, for the UK in particular the saying that those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones comes to mind.
This is particularly important because China is more than willing to throw a retaliatory brick at anyone who dares stand up to it on the international stage. Both the US and Australia have been sanctioned by Beijing in recent months due to their responses to Hong Kong and the coronavirus outbreak.
The UK’s glass house in this context is built on a foundation of colonial legacy, and its most vulnerable point is the illegal occupation of the Chagos Islands (known as the British Indian Ocean Territory in the UK) and failures in protecting the exiled Chagossian diaspora.
The Chagos Archipelago is situated just north of Mauritius within the Indian Ocean, and is claimed by Britain as an overseas territory.
In the 1960s the native population, the Chagossians, were forcibly cleared from the islands by the British military to make way for a US military base, which still functions from the islands today.
The depopulation of the islands was brutal and the British military has been accused of using gas, burning homes, and killing pets during the clearances.
In May 2019 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn to UK’s occupation of the islands and issued a six month deadline by which point sovereignty was to be transferred back to Mauritius.
The deadline was ignored as part of the UK’s approach, which appears to be to say and do absolutely nothing, hoping that the international community will let the issue slide.
This ignorance extends closer to home, too, as the Chagossian diaspora are threatened by what Mike Kane MP argues has the potential to become another Windrush Scandal.
Unlike Hongkongers, those born in Chagos were granted full British citizenship. Many settled in the UK, particularly within the Crawley area of Sussex.
The children of those born on Chagos were also given full British citizenship. This is a good thing for all those who were able to make it to the UK, however many were not that lucky.
Many Chagossian-exiles settled in Mauritius, the Seychelles, or on the African mainland. This is where the problem lies, as third generation Chagossians (the grandchildren of those born on the islands) are not guaranteed British citizenship.
This is despite the fact that they do not have a homeland, as a direct result of British policy, and are continually denied the right to return to Chagos by the British Government.
Many Chagossians who rejoined family in the UK are now facing deportation.
Brian Permal, a 30 year old from Crawley, was denied citizenship twice despite having lived in the UK for 11 years. Lorenzo Narainen, also from Crawley, found himself in a similar situation despite fathering a child in the UK.
The British government cannot claim blind ignorance or argue that these cases have slipped through the cracks, as their policy on the issue has been directly challenged through legislation.
In 2018 the MP for Crawley Henry Smith published the Chagos Citizenship Bill. The bill intended to ‘allow individuals descended from the Chagos Islands to register as British citizens in recognition of the fact that their parents and grandparents were forcibly exiled from that UK overseas territory.’
The bill passed its first reading but was eventually defeated, and the rights of third generation Chagossians within the UK are still insecure.
This piece is not intended to be a case of whataboutery. The UK’s uneasy colonial legacy leaves it with a duty to certain peoples around the world, and Hongkongers are most certainly one of those peoples. The citizenship offer is a great thing, and the UK for once finds itself on the right side of history.
Actions in Hong Kong were however in response to a totalitarian regime, hell bent on fundamentally changing the way of life of a sovereign peoples, perpetrated in this case by the CCP.
For the Chagossians, the UK is that totalitarian regime, and the British Government has a chance to make a semblance of right by the people it has denied a homeland for over 50 years by guaranteeing the rights of the diaspora to citizenship.