The U.K. has received over 88,000 visa applications from Hong Kong citizens after rolling out a resettlement program in Jan. 2021, labeling the strong numbers as a sharp rebuke of China’s efforts to crack down on dissent.
Britain opened applications for the more than five million residents of the former British colony after Beijing imposed a sweeping security law that some say aims to cut off dissent in the city.
Foreign Office officials have labeled the law as a clear effort to undermine the independence and autonomy of the city.
“The erosion of liberty in Hong Kong is an affront to freedom and democracy” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wrote in a tweet announcing the report.
Applicants must hold a British National (overseas) passport, which is available to Hong Kong residents born before the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, AFP reported.
The program cost an initial $59 million ($43 million pounds) investment to help the new arrivals find jobs, homes, and schools following their move. The new residents will not receive immediate citizenship, but will have a pathway to it.
The government designated cities that take on the responsibility of helping settle the new arrivals as “Welcome Hubs,” and will even provide advice on setting up a business in the U.K., Reuters reported.
Britain initially predicted that around 154,000 residents would arrive in the first year, with as many as 322,000 over five years.
But following the program’s launch the Home Office revised its numbers to say that as many as half a million people could apply within the first three years, The Guardian reported. Hong Kong’s currently population stands at about 7.4 million.
“This program will ensure British National (Overseas) status holders and their families have the very best start as soon as they arrive, and support to help them find a home, schools for their children, opportunity and prosperity,” said communities minister Robert Jenrick.
But China condemned the resettlement offer and announced it would no longer recognize the BN(O) document as legitimate.
Britain has designated China as existing “in a state of ongoing non-compliance with its international obligations” regarding Hong Kong.