Towards the end of last year, worried about Hong Kong’s street protests and the changing face of the territory where he had been born and grown up, Ali moved to the United Kingdom to start a new life.
He aimed to get a job and bring his wife and baby daughter to join him.
But it was so much harder than he imagined to find a well-paying job, and the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse.
“I thought it was going to be a piece of cake, but when I saw the jobs and the pay they give you, I thought how does anyone even survive here on that kind of money,” the former crane operator said, estimating his earnings at about 800 British pounds ($1,039).
Unlike the estimated three million people in Hong Kong who have British National Overseas (BNO) status and are being given a fast-track pathway to residency and eventual citizenship as a result of China’s imposition of a national security law in June, Ali is a British citizen.
He is one of an estimated 35,000 people of South Asian descent whose ancestors settled in Hong Kong during more than 100 years of British rule – often from countries which were also at the time colonies of the UK – but were not considered eligible for Chinese citizenship when the territory was returned to Beijing in 1997. Many were given British citizenship because they would have been otherwise left stateless.
But while Ali thought being British would make it easier for him to settle in the UK, he had not considered the British government’s so-called “hostile environment” on immigration.
Since 2012, in a policy that was touted as bringing an end to so-called “sham” marriages, British citizens have been required to have a job and earn a certain income – 18,600 British pounds ($24,159) a year for their partner, 3,800 British pounds ($4,937) for one child, and 2,400 British pounds ($3,117) for every additional child – before they can bring a non-British or European spouse to live with them in the UK. Even the application fee is steep – 1,500 British pounds ($1,948) – and spouses are subject to a health surcharge.
Even before the pandemic hit, about 42 percent of the British population would not have been earning enough to meet that threshold, according to campaigners.
“When they hear about these rules, people are flabbergasted to learn that a married couple would have to jump through all these hoops, even if they have children together,” Mary Atkinson, Families Together Campaign Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in London, told Al Jazeera. “It defies common sense.”
Atkinson says she has received several calls from other Hong Kong people in Ali’s position.
Ali’s wife and daughter both have passports from Pakistan, and as he is what is known as a ‘British national by descent’, Ali cannot pass on his citizenship to his children if they are born outside the UK.
When Jim Shannon, an MP from Northern Ireland, asked the Home Office in July on the steps it was taking to ensure ethnic minority Hong Kong residents who were UK citizens could immediately relocate to Britain with their non-UK families, the government reply failed to address the income requirement.
“If necessary,” it added in a written reply, “consideration can also be given to granting leave outside the Immigration Rules on an exceptional basis”.Amy Bantleman is a barrister at Richmond Chambers in London and specialises in UK nationality law and immigration.
“I think the government hasn’t thought about them at all,” she told Al Jazeera on the phone from London. “They feel they dealt with the issue in 1997 when they gave them citizenship.”