openDemocracyUK: Feature

Hongkongers find a rough welcome in the UK

After fleeing Chinese persecution, many Hongkongers in the UK are battling a combination of ‘hostile environment’ policy, discrimination and poor working conditions

Hsiao-Hung Pai
9 October 2021, 12.01am
A welcome event organised by the Church of England for Hongkongers in the Reading area. The words on the banner are a saying of Confucius: “Aren’t we happy to have friends from afar?”
Photo supplied by Joseph

Outside an unremarkable Chinese takeaway in the Berkshire market town of Wokingham stood a woman with a placard in her hands. She looked indignant. She was here to protest against the takeaway owner who she said hadn’t paid her for the four hours she worked during her trial period – something that many Chinese catering workers across Britain would keep quiet about. “This is not about the money; employers just shouldn’t get away with cheating people,” she said.

Ms Chan – not her real name – is a relatively new face in town, having arrived as a British National Overseas (BNO) applicant in the spring of 2021 from Hong Kong with her husband Joseph and two teenage boys. Except for the 50 families from Hong Kong now living in Wokingham, few knew of her background – like most new arrivals from Hong Kong since last June, when Beijing installed the new National Security Law, she doesn’t want to reveal anything of her past.

“There is a big divide among the Chinese community in Britain, into the ‘blue’ and ‘yellow’ camps,” said her husband Joseph. “The blues are those who defend the status quo and loyally support the Chinese government, whereas the ‘yellow’ camp refers to their opponents, those who want change.” In July 2020, 200 British Chinese organisations from the “blue” camp made a public statement endorsing the National Security Law.

Their endorsement was followed by a year of government crackdown in Hong Kong. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists were arrested under the National Security Law; civil organisations, from teachers’ unions to journalist associations and NGOs were all hunted down. Unions have been bearing the brunt of state repression of civil rights. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU), the city’s largest teachers’ union with 95,000 members, was called a “malignant tumour that should be eradicated” by Chinese state media and had to disband in August 2021. A month later in September, the 145,000-member Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the largest union opposition body in Hong Kong, announced its plans to disband amid growing concern for the safety of its members.

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Much of the British Chinese business community, such as employers like Ms Chan’s, belong to the “blues”. Apart from being ‘difficult workers’ who may demand higher wages in British Chinese catering’s sweatshop economy, the new migrants from Hong Kong can also represent, in the eyes of their British Chinese employers, the new political ‘trouble’ that constantly seeks to rock the boat.

With the existing patronage and political alliances firmly embedded in the traditional Chinese community networks, new Hong Kong migrants, who identify themselves as Hongkongers, are always cautious. They are aware that many British Chinese groupings are in some ways an extension – or at least a shadow – of the powers back home.

UK government’s lip service and Hongkongers’ reality

Since last summer, it is estimated that around 90,000 Hongkongers have left home. The majority of the newly-arrived Hongkongers in the UK are aged between their mid-30s to early 40s, according to a survey the group Hongkongers in Britain told openDemocracy it had carried out. The British government introduced the five-year British National Overseas (BNO) visa which means BNOs and their family members can live, work and study in the UK, and have a route to permanent settlement and citizenship. The government anticipates up to 320,000 Hongkongers who hold BNO passports and their family members could arrive over the next five years. Around 34,000 BNO visa applications were made in the first quarter of 2021.

However, beyond lip service, there seems little structure in place for Hongkongers to truly settle in Britain. According to Julian Chan, director of Hongkongers in Britain (HKB), a community-building, volunteer-based group set up by Hongkongers last year, adapting to a new life here looks to be a long, difficult struggle for many.

New arrivals either have problems transferring their previous work skills or getting their qualifications recognised in the UK, Chan said. As a result, despite many being highly-educated and skilled, ‘mainstream’ jobs are hard to come by. Meanwhile, new arrivals can’t afford to stay without work while waiting to be issued their National Insurance numbers (it takes a minimum of 16 weeks). They often have to wait for approvals for their BNO visas for five months.

On top of all of this, adding to the financial difficulties of many BNO visa holders, some are unable to withdraw their retirement savings from certain institutions in Hong Kong, such as HSBC, Manulife and AIA. Beijing withdrew recognition of BNO passports as valid documents this January and ordered these institutions not to release funds to BNO holders.

People seeking asylum are in an even more vulnerable position. Britain has received 121 asylum applications from Hongkongers to date, including five under-18s. Asylum-seekers in the UK are often pushed into destitution as they are not permitted to work before their cases have received a decision from the Home Office. They live in permanent uncertainty and in fear of deportation.

This is why many Hongkongers, both BNO applicants or holders and asylum-seekers, in their different ways, can find themselves trapped in low-paid and exploitative work. This often means working as cleaners, builders, or casual staff in the British Chinese catering industry, where they find jobs easily available.

I haven’t beaten anyone up for a while. If you provoke me again, I will beat you.

Such was the case of a newly-arrived Hongkonger who got a job working as a chef in a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. Since day one, his employer made verbal abuse a daily event for him. He was constantly insulted and shouted at. One Friday, the boss said to him: “I haven’t beaten anyone up for a while. If you provoke me again, I will beat you.” The man felt he had to leave the job immediately. His employer found him at the train station, and demanded the keys back. “If I report it to the police, you’ll be finished.” He added: “You didn’t give any notice for leaving the job. You owe me two days’ money.”

The chef contacted the London-based Hackney Chinese Community Services (HCCS) for help. HCCS provides advice, support and advocacy services to the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) community, and is one of the few ESEA community organisations that works directly with Hongkongers, supporting both BNO applicants and asylum seekers. The centre manager Jabez Lam, who himself came to the UK from Hong Kong more than three decades ago, dealt with the Cambridge chef’s case and found out that there was no work contract. Nor did the work match the job description, since the chef was asked to clean toilets. Lam mediated and eventually got the employer to return the five days’ owed wages to the man, albeit reluctantly. Such cases of non-payment of wages are not uncommon among the new arrivals.

Hackney Chinese Community Services (HCCS) hosted a meeting between the London Deputy Mayor for Community and Social Justice and Hongkongers and their organisations
Hackney Chinese Community Service

The Hongkongers in Britain group also offers advice on everyday life, including employment, and tries to point new arrivals in the right direction. Chan, the director, said that there was a lack of information on labour rights for new migrants.

Chan, however, said that housing stands out as the most difficult issue facing people. Recent arrivals have no UK credit history and no UK bank accounts, while landlords and letting agencies do not understand BNO visas, which means they are likely to simply turn the Hongkongers away. Lam confirmed this account, saying HCCS was seeing a rising number of Hongkongers coming to the centre for advice and assistance, with housing one of the most pressing issues. As their experiences demonstrate, it’s hard to get past landlords who have been asked to act as internal border guards under the government’s hostile environment policy (landlords now have a legal duty to check that prospective tenants have the right to live in the UK) but who don’t understand people’s varied forms of immigration status.

As a result of their difficulties with housing, the cost of living and the search for better schools, Hongkongers tend to choose to live in smaller cities and towns, away from the big cities where traditionally Chinese communities concentrate.

Another prominent issue is mental health. Lam said that many Hongkongers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are dealing with a lot more than the anxiety that came with adapting to a new environment. “They’ve fled their home, the city they love, and live in fear of disclosure of their identities,” said Lam. “Many of them fear that their families back home may be targeted.”

Lam has come across many young people under thirty who took part in the protest movement back in Hong Kong. A large number of them have PTSD. For the young protestors who were born after the 1 July 1997 cut-off point for BNO eligibility, claiming asylum could be their only option for securing the right to live in the UK. Some have arrived as unaccompanied minors. Their mental health is made worse by their precarious immigration status. Unfortunately, in the NHS, it has not been easy to get decent mental health support for young Hongkongers. Healthcare professionals don’t seem equipped for this. “Training and cultural sensitivity has been found lacking in the NHS, when dealing with and providing healthcare to people in the ESEA community, as well as the new Hongkongers,” said Lam.

Hongkongers took part in the Hackney Chinese Community Service (HCCS) Dragon Boat festival with the East and Southeast Asian community
Hackney Chinese Community Service

Most Hongkongers rely on self-help groups such as Hongkongers in Britain for advice and support. In the area around Wokingham and Reading where Ms Chan and her family live, Christian churches were the only local community groups that made an effort to welcome the new arrivals and offer practical support.

“Civil society needs to offer support to the new arrivals,” said Lam. “There are huge resources out there, for instance, in the voluntary sector. We need to direct Hongkongers to these networks, and make civil society aware of their needs.”

“Westminster needs to do more,” said Chan. Resources need to be allocated, to enable new Hong Kong migrants to overcome the consequences of institutional failure and move towards being accepted as members of society.

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