In July last year Rainy dropped a bombshell on her flatmates: Hong Kong’s police were looking for her and she had decided to escape that night to the UK.
“I took my luggage out and said ‘I don’t want to put anyone in danger and I have to leave’. They drove me to the airport and we hugged and cried in the carpark. Then I took my luggage and left on my own,” she said.
Just 19 at the time, Rainy – who asked for her name to be changed – had joined the flight of young Hong Kongers heading to the UK to escape the political oppression following the 2019 pro-democracy movement.
She had already been on bail for a year after her arrest during a protest rally, when the police turned up at her former address to question her over charges including unlawful assembly and assaulting an officer. She said she had been protecting herself during a rough arrest.
They arrived days after the advent of a national security law that carries harsh sentences for dissent and she was “shocked, terrified and under tremendous pressure”.
The officers came on Friday and Rainy booked her plane ticket for Sunday, viewing the UK as her best option. But like many in her situation, she still faced uncertainty when she landed.
The British government in 2020 offered a pathway to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong residents who were born before the 1997 handover of the city to China and eligible for “British National Overseas” status.
Their dependents were included, but young people in Rainy’s 18-24 age group do not qualify as they are now adults but born after 1997.
A Conservative-led cross-party amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill now seeks to close that loophole by opening the BNO visa route to anyone with one parent with BNO status. A parliamentary vote is expected in December.
“This is an important amendment to support those who are more likely to be targeted under Hong Kong’s national security law,” said Tom Tugendhat MP, one of the signatories.
“The BNO scheme lives up to our obligations to Hong Kong, and we need to make sure that all are included.”
While Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests, which on several occasions reached an estimated 1-2 million people, were cross-generational, high school and university students were at the centre.
More than 10,200 people, a high proportion of them 16-20-year-olds, were arrested in relation to the protests.
Hong Kong has been on edge as the authorities pursue high profile activists, denying them bail and handing out tough sentences under the controversial national security law that Beijing suddenly introduced to crush the anti-government movement.
On Tuesday, Tony Chung, 20, became the youngest person to be convicted under the new law, receiving three and a half years behind bars for secession.
Mr Chung who was previously the convenor of Student Localism, a group he set up as a high school student to advocate Hong Kong’s independence, had pleaded guilty to one count of secession and one count of money laundering but defiantly declared he had “nothing to be ashamed of”.
Rainy, who was an active member of a student protest group, fears the law would have negatively impacted her own case, and that she would be immediately arrested if she returned.
The BNO amendment is too late to secure her own status in the UK, which is now subject to the asylum process, but she believes it would be a valuable option for others.
Rainy managed to find her feet quickly and secured a self-funded place at a top London university. But she awaits the finalisation of her asylum status, which would allow her to switch to lower domestic fees. Without it, she must drop out.
Others, alone and traumatised from the protest era, and without a secure legal status, can be easily exploited.
Ivan, 19, fled to the UK last November after he heard rumours the police were going to arrest those caught during the November 2019 siege of Polytechnic university, the scene of one of the fiercest clashes between riot officers and protesters.
He was only 17 when he was trapped for more than 40 hours in conditions so desperate that several protesters risked their lives trying to escape via sewers. Ivan was detained and charged with rioting.
Faced with the choice between prison or leaving his home and family, he opted for the UK to “continue fighting for democracy in other ways”.
Unable to work during the asylum process, he spends his time assisting other new arrivals, in particular those with mental health issues such as PTSD.
He said the amendment offered hope to vulnerable young Hong Kongers, and asked for further assurances they would not be deported to China.
Johnny Patterson, policy director at London-based advocacy group Hong Kong Watch, said the “heartbreaking” stories of young Hong Kong residents revealed why the government desperately needed to rationalise its BNO policy.
“The vast majority of those facing protest related prosecution are under the age of 25. All it would take is a simple rule change from [Home Secretary] Priti Patel to offer them a vital lifeline.”
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