Calls for the UK to restore the right of abode to people in Hong Kong are growing as the political crisis in the former British colony escalates.
As fears of direct intervention by Beijing grow, veteran pro-democracy campaigners have argued that Britain has a responsibility to protect residents who hold the passports it issued at handover.
Several hundred protestors rallied outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand they receive a full British passport, the Financial Times reported.
Prior to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, three million people held British Dependent Territories Citizens passports, which gave them right of abode in the UK. Britain replaced these with the British Nationals (Overseas) passport, which allowed visa-free travel to the UK but did not grant the right to live or work in Britain – earning the BN(O) the nickname “Britain says No”.
Around 170,000 people are currently thought to hold these, but the renewal applications have risen sharply in recent years.
Anson Chan, formerly the second highest official in the city, said the UK should consider the issue again: “You promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and basic rights and freedoms – when those are taken away from them, surely Britain has a legal and moral responsibility to deal with the consequences.”
Martin Lee, the veteran Hong Kong campaigner nicknamed its “father of democracy”, said it was all the more pressing to revisit the right of abode and related issues in light of the protest movement and the fact that the “one country, two systems” arrangement which underpins the Sino-British joint declaration was no longer working.
“That’s the obligation of the British government, being the only other signatory to the joint declaration,” he said.
Last month Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said that Britain should grant Hong Kong citizens with BN(O) passports full UK nationality. He told the FT that “a few” cabinet ministers were supportive of the decision.
Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before the handover, unsuccessfully urged the UK to give the right of abode to all those holding British Dependent Territories passports.
The late Lord Ashdown, who as Liberal Democrat leader campaigned on the issue, said last year that Britain was “urgently in need of some soul-searching enquiry about our neglect of duty towards our former colonial subjects” which should include considering the rights of BN(O) in Hong Kong.
Last year, declassified files revealed that Britain even pressured Portugal repeatedly not to grant rights to citizens of Macau before it handed the region back to China, fearing that it would increase the pressure to grant Hong Kong similar rights.
Lisbon granted passports, with full citizenship rights, to anyone born before late 1981 and allowed Portuguese nationality to be passed to their children.
One protestor told the Guardian she was planning to renew her BN(O) passport in case of a crackdown by Beijing, even though she did not want to leave her home. She added: “I don’t expect Britain to give me residency, but it might help me to get somewhere else.”
The passport allows easier entry to many countries which demand a visa for Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport holders.