Windrush and Hong Kong

Windrush highlights how the UK has failed Commonwealth citizens in her last colony – Hong Kong

Britain’s continued failure to her former colonial subjects, as exemplified by the Windrush scandal, is a national embarrassment. The last couple of weeks demonstrate that institutionalised racism is alive and kicking within government policy, and has been for decades. It reflects a history where citizens in the Commonwealth have been treated as second class citizens, to be used, not treated as equals.

The scandal initially focussed on the Windrush generation in the Caribbean, but it is increasingly clear that Britain has failed in its duty of care to Commonwealth citizens across the globe. Numerous cases involving non-Caribbean Commonwealth-born citizens from Kenya to Canada have now come into the open.

We are urgently in need of some soul-searching about our neglect of duty towards our former colonial subjects. A post-mortem is needed. These discussions should not only focus on the cases of sudden deportation or denial of rights which are only now coming to light, but must also consider the rights of British Nationals (Overseas) in Hong Kong.

Twenty one years ago Britain handed over her last colony, Hong Kong, to a burgeoning post-communist China. Although under British sovereignty for a century, the British and China decided that Hong Kongers would not be part of the Commonwealth or be given the right to self-determination, and therefore after 1997 Hong Kongers were given no special status in the eyes of the United Kingdom.

At that point, there were about 3 million British Dependent Territories Citizen (BDTC) passport holders (including people born before July 1, 1997 in Hong Kong, and naturalised British subjects) with right of abode in the UK. But against their wishes, Hong Kongers were stripped of their right of abode and many of the core rights which they desired and deserved, and given the option to apply for ‘British National (Overseas) Passports’ or the ‘BNO’ with their rights limited to holiday travel and the right to vote.

At the time, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 was recent memory and many in Hong Kong felt their British citizenship was a vital lifeline in case China were not sincere in their handover commitment to give Hong Kong a ‘high degree of autonomy’ and uphold their ‘rights and freedoms’. I campaigned for Hong Kongers to be given the right to claim British citizenship, but the Conservative government decided it was not practicable. The BNO, sarcastically referred to by Hong Kongers as ‘Britain says no’, was viewed as a betrayal as the UK just cancelled the citizenship of her former colonial subjects.

In the immediate aftermath of the handover, those who thought this move was justified felt vindicated as Hong Kong’s autonomy was respected and ‘one-country, two-systems’ functioned well. But in recent years things have taken an ominous turn for the worse.

In November, I visited Hong Kong and met with people from across the political spectrum. They shared that over the past five years, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, have been increasingly eroded. Booksellers have been abducted, press freedom is under pressure and many political activists are being jailed. Judges are complaining that rule of law, although intact, is creaking as the objectivity of the Department for Justice is in doubt and the city appears no closer to democracy.

While on that trip, Emily Lau, the previous leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, asked me if Britain would throw a lifeline to Hong Kong and give them the right of abode, “so that they can feel they have a home to go to, if things go desperately wrong here.”

Like we’ve failed those who travelled to the UK on the Windrush, we failed Hong Kong during the handover negotiations by stripping British citizens of their citizenship. The Windrush saga highlights that we have consistently neglected our former colonial subjects who have been used, abused and dumped. The government must make that right, and if the situation in Hong Kong continues to worsen, we should offer Hong Kongers a lifeline by converting BNO passports into full British citizenship.

Lord Ashdown of Norton Sub-Hamdon is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and a patron of Hong Kong Watch