A welcome correction to citizenship oversight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2009, 12:00am

Questions raised by Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule should have been resolved long ago. Come July 1, 12 years will have passed, providing ample time to deal with the political and social ramifications of the handover from British sovereignty. Unfortunately, this is still not the case for the perhaps 1,000 non-Chinese Hong Kong residents who were effectively made stateless by oversights in the British government's immigration provisions. It is good that it is finally living up to its obligations and moving to grant them citizenship.

No one knows exactly how many such people there are. They are mostly of South Asian descent and have British National (Overseas) passports which do not confer right of abode in Britain. Circumstances meant that they had missed out on the British citizenship offered to the non-Chinese members of ethnic minorities who held British Dependent Territory Citizen passports issued in Hong Kong on or before February 4, 1997. They fell into citizenship limbo because they were either overseas at the time or too young to hold their own passport. At the same time, they had also ceased to be recognised as nationals of the countries from where they or their parents had originated.

International law provides that states have an obligation to prevent people becoming or remaining stateless. Such an oversight should never have happened. That it did, and the British government has for so long refused to acknowledge the error, is inadmissible. These people are not Chinese and do not want to apply for a Hong Kong SAR passport, which, assuming they were accepted, would effectively make them citizens of China. They instead have wanted British citizenship granted to 8,000-plus of their compatriots.

Complications abound in sovereignty issues. This was especially so in Hong Kong's case given the history and uncertainties involved. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration made provisions for ethnic Chinese residents to be recognised as Chinese citizens. This answered a specific concern of Britain: that it would not be flooded by an influx of migrants from its most populous colony.

For years before the negotiations began in the late 1970s, Britain had progressively been tightening immigration laws. The British Nationality Act 1981 went a way towards achieving this, and the door was firmly shut five years later with the creation of the BN(O). The status of ethnic minorities was far from the minds of the negotiators and bureaucrats preparing for the handover. As it was, the matter was among the last loose ends to be tied - and as is clear from the people missed, not adequately dealt with.

Lord Avebury has thankfully come to the rescue. Through his efforts in pushing the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, the oversight will be taken care of. The mistaken belief that these people have the right of abode in Hong Kong will finally be corrected. With full British citizenship, they will have found an abode and no longer have to fear deportation and losing their civic rights.