London will allow Hongkongers holding the new British National (Overseas) visa to start applying this month for social housing or homelessness assistance if they are suffering extreme poverty after relocating.
The new regulations for accessing housing support – taking effect on June 29 – expand on earlier changes to immigration rules permitting destitute BN(O) holders to apply for access to public funds in Britain through a change in their visa conditions.
New arrivals from Hong Kong with neither jobs nor credit history have reported struggling with renting homes in Britain, where landlords tend to thoroughly screen prospective tenants. Many landlords request those without the right documents to pay between six and 12 months’ rent up front, according to civic organisations in Britain.
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In a statement to the Post, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said BN(O) holders who successfully had their visa conditions changed would “still need to apply for social housing in the same way as anyone else”.
“They would be placed on a waiting list and the waiting time would depend on their priority and the pressure on social housing in that area,” it said.
Waiting lists for social housing in the country are long, with more than 1 million people in England already in line, according to the British charity Shelter. Some have been waiting years.
Immigration specialist Antonia Grant, of Bowers Law, called the provision “very generous”, and one that was offered to relatively few categories of newcomers.
“It is the UK government cementing that commitment that they have made in terms of opening up this visa route,” said Grant, a Hong Kong and British dual-qualified lawyer.
But she said it was not a blanket opening up of access to public funds, with applications to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“There will be lots of things that you will have to show to get through that threshold and get that marker removed and get access to public funds,” she said, adding the requirements could include sharing bank statements and a monthly breakdown of income and spending.
Hongkonger Roney Chan, 35, who arrived in London in January, said it was good that the government would start providing assistance to those on BN(O) visas.
Chan, who is slated to begin a one-year patisserie course at Le Cordon Bleu London Culinary School in July, used the money from the sale of his flat in the New Territories to move to Britain, and plans to live off his savings while he studies.
“It doesn’t mean that we can just come here without financial preparation, as the queue for council housing is long and you still have to pay rent,” he said of the rule change. “So having savings is still necessary.”
A 36-year old, surnamed Ho, who got his BN(O) visa last month, welcomed the announcement, and said he “definitely” would apply for the benefits if he lost his job and ran out of money.
“I see it as a good thing. It would be better as a safety net,” he said, although he admitted that he believed the scrutiny would make it difficult to get support.
He arrived in London last September with HK$65,000 (US$8,376) in his bank account and worked as a waiter before landing a job in a real estate agency, earning a monthly salary of HK$17,000. He pays HK$6,300 in rent every month for a room in an East London house owned by a mainland Chinese family.
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Under the new BN(O) visa scheme that launched in late January, successful applicants are entitled to live, work and study in Britain for five years, after which they can apply for citizenship. The visa programme was launched on the basis that applicants would not be able to access public funds, including social welfare benefits such as those offering housing and income support.
However, the Home Office announced that BN(O) holders from Hong Kong who came became destitute, or were threatened with destitution, could from April 6 apply for the lifting of a visa condition denying them recourse to public funds. Decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.
In a new estimate, the British government says the number of people who could apply for the change would be between 2,400 and 15,000 in the first five years.
Britain introduced its plans for a new visa last July in response to Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong.
As many as 5.4 million Hong Kong residents are either BN(O) status holders or their dependents, a legacy of the city’s history as a British colony until 1997.
More than 34,000 Hongkongers had applied for the new pathway to British citizenship, as of the end of March, with 7,200 already approved, according to official figures.
The British government website said applicants could apply for a change of visa conditions if the their financial circumstances had changed since they were given permission to stay in Britain.
According to the government’s website, applicants can apply for a change of conditions if they are “no longer able to provide food or housing for themselves or their family [or] the applicant’s child is at risk because of their very low income”.
In April, the British government launched a £43 million (US$59 million) package to support BN(O) families settling in the country, funding local councils nationwide to help the new arrivals from Hong Kong with housing, education and employment.
Benedict Rogers, chairman and co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, said the assistance was welcome for those looking to build new lives in Britain.
“Many Hongkongers will be able to establish themselves very quickly, but no one wants anyone to end up destitute, so being offered social housing provides a lifeline to those who may need it,” he said.
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