Members of ethnic minority communities in Hong Kong who only hold a British National (Overseas) passport face a fresh hurdle in going abroad after the government said it no longer recognised the document for travel or identification.
Said to be in the hundreds or thousands, by some estimates, they were taken by surprise when the Immigration Department announced that the BN(O) document could not be used for entering or exiting the city from January 31 and residents would need a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport or identity card.
The move came amid a row between China and Britain over London’s offer of a path to citizenship for Hong Kong residents eligible for the BN(O) status.
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Many members of ethnic minority groups rely on their BN(O) passports as their sole travel document, as they say they have long faced difficulties in applying for an HKSAR passport given they are not Chinese nationals.
Applicants must give up any prior nationality status, prove they have roots in Hong Kong and are contributing to the local community. But insiders said immigration officers often arbitrarily rejected applications, putting ethnic minority members off from applying at all.
Under the new rules, residents without an HKSAR passport will need to apply for an additional identity document for visa purposes from the Immigration Department for international travel.
In a reply to a Post enquiry, a spokesman said on Tuesday the department could finish processing applications within five working days upon the submission of the required documents. The travel document was available to people who were not Chinese nationals yet had the rights of abode and a Hong Kong permanent identity card.
He said the department issued about 66,000 such documents of identity in 2016. The figure hovered between 53,000 and 58,000 from 2017 to 2019, and had reached more than 16,000 already this year.
But the information provided by the department did not specify how many went to members of ethnic minority communities.
A social worker who has been assisting hundreds, if not thousands, in the South Asian community said they would be left without a legitimate travel document.
“All of the South Asians with only BN(O)s – Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese – that is who will suffer the most,” said the social worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
Adeel Malik, 36, was born in Hong Kong with a mixed background of Pakistani and Chinese roots but holds British citizenship. The founder of the Muslim Council of Hong Kong, Malik said his family members and many of his friends only held BN(O) passports. They were uncertain what the new rule meant for them and were anxious to learn what their options were. Some were considering leaving, including a few of his family members who were looking at moving to Britain.
“This feeling of being stateless has always been there for BN(O) passport holders, but this has been the final straw,” he said.
London unveiled a new visa last July in the wake of Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong, offering a potential pathway to citizenship for 5.4 million eligible city residents.
In retaliation, Beijing announced it would stop recognising the passports as travel and identification documents. But most of the qualifying residents do not rely on the passports for travel, as they have local ones.
But Malik felt members of ethnic minority groups were being squeezed in “the political tension between Britain and Beijing”. Without any clarification from the government, he worried that restrictions might only increase for them.
“Hong Kong is what I consider home and I want to live here and give back to the city the best I can,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if we aren’t able to get SAR passports, are we really given a choice?”
The process of obtaining a city passport had proven frustrating for some as the officers were not required to explain why applicants were rejected, he said. Some residents raised in Hong Kong and fluent in Cantonese would be turned down, while others born elsewhere and unable to speak the language were accepted.
One 55-year-old woman, who is a fourth-generation Indian born in the city and holds only a BN(O) passport, said one prospective employer turned her down on Sunday over concerns about her ability to travel to mainland China. Asking to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of her work, the woman said she found it more difficult to find a job since the rule was introduced.
The BN(O) passport was her sole travel document as she was never entitled to an Indian passport. The woman’s father and grandfather were both born in Hong Kong. Her husband and sons all have Malaysian passports.
Getting a local passport is one of her few options going forward, but she fears the application process could take months – as opposed to the usual days for those of Chinese ethnicity – and will also require a pledge of allegiance to the city.
She said the challenge was not just the ambiguity of the new rules, but also the discrimination ethnic minority groups faced when dealing with immigration authorities.
The government needed to adopt what she called a more sensible policy, she said.
“If I go for the UK route, I understand why I should be penalised. But if not, how can a blanket prohibition be put on my passport?” she asked.
Hong Kong has more than 584,000 people belonging to ethnic minority groups, accounting for 8 per cent of the population, according to a 2016 by-census. South Asians, including Indians, Nepalese and Pakistanis, accounted for 14.5 per cent of all members of ethnic minority groups.
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