People with a passport to nowhere

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 July, 1995, 12:00am

VANDANA Rajwani is gifted, bright and articulate. A law graduate, she is about to officially begin her career in the chambers of a leading Hong Kong barrister. The affable, ambitious 24-year old is the sort of woman who would be welcomed by any reasonable company, community or country.

But Ms Rajwani, who only a few years ago saw a future full of promise, doesn't feel particularly welcome anywhere anymore. Two months ago, she received a letter from the Immigration Department, turning down her application for right of abode in the United Kingdom. No explanation was given - just a terse note stating 'the Governor has decided not to recommend you' for British citizenship.

The letter ended a year of waiting in hope. Under the British Nationality Selection Scheme, Ms Rajwani was reasonably optimistic: she had obtained her degree in law and politics in England, had worked in the country, English was her mother tongue and she was a consistent high-achiever.

But it wasn't until the rejection arrived that Ms Rajwani realised that time is running out for her.

'I feel like I have only two years to do the best that I can do. Who is to say how the Chinese will treat people like me after 1997? I thought if I could have a British passport, I would have some security. I was born here and consider myself British. Doesn't that count for anything?' Evidently not. Hong Kong's minority groups with no travel document other than a British Dependent Territories Citizen (BDTC) or a British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport are among those to be most critically affected by the takeover. They are entitled to neither Chinese nor British nationality. The BDTC will cease to exist on June 30, 1997 and the future status of the BNO is still unclear: it does not guarantee the holder the right to enter Britain much less live and work there. They will have no nationality, no guaranteed right of abode anywhere, and they can only remain in Hong Kong as long as the Chinese allow them to. Unless they have made other provisions, they will have nowhere to go.

When the BNSS was launched - under duress from Hong Kong - in 1990, this group of minorities was confident: surely, they reasoned, the British government would be sympathetic. This was a unique situation, unprecedented in the history of the British Empire: minorities had proven their contribution and dedication to Hong Kong, the place they called home. They would, of course, be treated with compassion.

But with its second and final selection process still underway, this minority community has realised that the British Government has, ultimately, failed them.

'The British Goverment has a special responsibility for these people and they cannot duck it,' said legislative councillor Jimmy McGregor, who has long supported the cause of Hong Kong's minority population.

'And if, in the final analysis, it comes down to the fact that on 1 July 1997 there are minorities here who are not permitted to have Chinese nationality and who have no other nationality, then the British Government has a very direct responsibility for them,' he said.

As the majority of those affected are Indian by race, they have been the most vocal about their dilemma. For them, this is an emotive issue that provokes uncertainty about their future in the territory and fears of imminent statelessness. Minority group leaders began lobbying a decade ago, asking British Members of Parliament to consider them as a special case and gaining the support of the greater Hong Kong community.

But today it is questionable if the pressure made any impact was made at all. The most recent figures from the Security Branch, which is responsible for processing BNSS applications, indicate that the success rate for minorities is the same as that of rest of the population - about 60 per cent; this despite 'verbal assurances' given to minority groups by the British government and given that applications from non-Chinese are only a fraction of the total. Under the second phase, there were more than 41,000 applications fo 13,000 places.

Almost half have already been registered as British subjects and the rest are being interviewed and are one step closer to nationality. A significant number of applicants are still waiting to hear, but given that almost all categories were over-subscribed by five times, the assumption is that it is unlikely they will be allowed to slip under the fence. One applicant, who has yet to hear back, wrote to a British MP, who put forward his case to Governor Chris Patten. The governor wrote back stating that 'he (the applicant) is unlikely to score sufficient points....his chance of success is slim.' The arbitrary nature of the selection scheme has created 'minorities within minorities,' said Guy Lam, chaiman of the Hong Kong Alliance of Chinese and Expatriates.

'The British Government should have given preferential treatment to all minorities because they are in a unique situation. They have no guarantees against future statelessness,' he said.

Those who have been rejected under the scheme would appear to have no recourse or grounds for appeal. The governor, in his 1993 policy speech, said of minority community that it 'is very proper for this Council and for our society to ensure that the anxieties of these people are not forgotten' and that these concerns were conveyed 'very vigorously' to British ministers. But in April, the British Government again turned down renewed pleas for right of abode for non-Chinese Hong Kong-belongers after 1997.

'A lot of people feel let down by the British Government. It's like playing Russian roulette with someone's life. It doesn't get more emotional than that,' said Kishore Sakhrani, co-founder of the three-year old Indian Resources Group which placed the nationality issue on the top of its agenda from the outset.

'We're not just fighting for ourselves. We're fighting for everyone,' said committee member Ravi Gidumal, 27, who, with his older sister Anita, is still waiting for a decision on their applications. Their situation highlights how potentially divisive the scheme is: the Gidumal parents were accepted as British nationals while another brother has at least been summoned for an interview.

Anand Panjabi, 23, realised that his youth worked against him in the selection process when he was rejected. But when his father died a few years ago, this only son knew that the responsibility of his family's security rested on his shoulders.

'My father didn't apply under the scheme because he thought he had no hope of getting in. I wish he had tried. Because I was 18 at the time and a dependent, if he had gotten it, so would I, my mother and younger sister. Now, I don't just have to think about my future but theirs as well.' Jacob Zirinsky, 29, a Hong Kong-born steel trader of Russian descent is the only member of his family still outside the EEC. His father, at 70, was accepted for British nationality under the first phase but died shortly after; his newly-issued passport died with him. The younger Mr Zirinsky's application was turned down, and he has still not heard back in his second attempt. 'The British Government just doesn't understand that we don't want these passports so we can leave Hong Kong. We want them so we can stay.' Which perhaps is the most contentious issue for the British, who have all along refused leniency towards minorities.

'They don't want to see their country over-run by these brown-skinned people without realising that the bulk of people who applied have no intention of moving there anyway. And even if they do, they are successful business entrepreneurs who can invest and give so much to the economy,' said IRG's Mr Sakhrani.

Now the community believes it has been misled by both the Hong Kong and British governments, is being ignored by the Chinese government and is the victim of buck-passing by all sides.

At the core of the debate, and the most significant point of argument, is that the British government believes huge numbers of immigrants will flood in from Hong Kong; popular politics dictate that immigration to the United Kingdom by ethnic groups should be discouraged, and the surest way to achieve that is to deny them any rights at all. In reality, there are reportedly less than 5,000 non-Chinese minorities who hold only a BDTC or BNO and who are therefore most vulnerable.

'The minorities who have been here all their lives will continue to contribute to the society and the economy and have the right to stay here if they wish,' said Mr McGregor.

'But they want the assurance of being able to go somewhere should anything go wrong, and that's the assurance they must be given. The British government has been prepared to grant British nationality for whole groups of people, including the Gibraltarians and the Falklanders, so their attempt and their clear policy intention not to accept the claims of the minorities in Hong Kong is simply unacceptable.' Even the numbers support the minority cause: the British government initially pledged to hand out 225,000 passports, through 50,000 heads of household. Given the fact that this has sometimes been only to one or two passports per family, the final number issued so far is significantly under the quota stipulated, even if the 50,000 heads of household criteria has been met.

The Indian Resources Group believes it is not too late for the British and Hong Kong governments to act sympathetically: they could obtain full assurance from China on the right of abode for non-Chinese residents; they can negotiate with other governments to treat potential emigrants from the territory as a special case and especially to fully recognise the BNO.

And while the group acknowledged that it was not easy to keep the lobbying up, it was crucial.

'It is difficult to keep an issue like this on the front-burner all the time,' said Mr Sakhrani.

'The issues that affect ethnic minorities are hardly going to inflame the rest of Hong Kong to go down to Statue Square and start protesting. But as a community, we have to keep trying.' Mr McGregor believes much of the outcome on whether minorities are ultimately given British nationality depends on them.

'They are reasonably well-organised and very gentlemenly in how they do things, and they don't want do come out publically and say they don't have faith in Hong Kong. But the pressure must come from themselves, through the legislature, and there is no reason why this campaign should diminish. It rests in their own hands. They should be working as one group.' Vandana Rajwani is keeping her fingers crossed that her father's application, which has so far met with silence, is approved. With that, her mother and younger sister will have some measure of security - even if she will be the only one left.

'I feel such a sense of gloom and despair. I keep hoping that if my father gets British nationality and my family start a new life there, I'll beg Britain to please let me in too,' she said earnestly.

'Do you think they will?'