In Hong Kong, Exodus Has a Colonial Past

Hong Kong is no stranger to goodbyes. In the lead-up to the 1997 handover to China, thousands left, often for Canada and Australia. Now, hundreds of thousands more may be contemplating a new British immigration program aimed at providing solace to a former colony increasingly in Beijing’s grip. It’s a long-delayed wave of departures from a defunct empire, with all the potential haste, finality and loss that implies.

The vast range of projected outcomes, whether in numbers of travelers, cost or fiscal benefit will worry both Hong Kongers considering an exit and those who would receive them in the U.K. Migration is impossible to predict with precision: Not everyone who applies for the program will leave. For policy makers, though, learning from the past is a start — not least for a British government aiming to right historic wrongs.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, millions fled once-bountiful colonies and repatriated to Europe. Though they’ve settled or at least largely melted from public view, grave mistakes were made with their reception. Governments underestimated the numbers that would actually turn up, many with next to nothing. They misjudged the impact on a frequently resentful population and on housing stock. No one even considered the deep alienation that would engulf people who arrived and suddenly felt they belonged nowhere. At least the economies then were growing, or hopeful.

There were still more broken promises for the non-White arrivals from distant possessions who came alongside former colonists, like the Caribbean migrants sailing aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948 and on subsequent ships. The so-called Windrush generation had often been invited to work in postwar Britain, only to be met with overt racism. Decades later, many were caught in a tangle of tightened immigration policies and denied basic rights. Some who had arrived as children on their parents’ passports were threatened with expulsion. Despite official apologies, too few have been compensated.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal and the path to citizenship offered to Hong Kongers born before 1997 atones for some of that. It’s good politics, given pressure for a tough response after China introduced a national security law last year that undermined agreements protecting the territory’s freedoms. It’s also a moral obligation for a colonial power that succumbed to xenophobic pressure in 1981 and cut off Hong Kong’s people. They were never offered self-determination as an alternative.

China’s objections to Johnson’s open door have been loud. Beijing says it will not recognize the British National (Overseas) passport as a valid travel document. That does not alter the right to leave leave, nor Britain’s freedom to welcome arrivals.

Remarkably little is known about what Johnson’s grand gesture will mean in practical terms. More than 5 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents are eligible, either directly or as dependents. Not all will go. But those who do could still, in short order, add anything from several thousand to a million or more new people to a British population of close to 70 million, grappling with a post-Brexit economy.

There are few exact precedents for a migration that lies somewhere between gradual economic movements from Europe and brutal forced departures, as from Uganda in 1972. Today, there is no deadline. There is, however, urgency for many as Beijing toughens control and its stance on dissent. The warning from history is clear: Don’t underestimate the impact.

The most striking example is probably the arrival in France of so-called pieds-noirs from Algeria after independence in 1962. Authorities in Paris had predicted migration would be gradual, in the order of up to 400,000 people over four years. President Charles de Gaulle in particular downplayed the numbers and permanence of the newcomers. As it turned out, by the end of the summer 600,000 had arrived, a figure that reached nearly a million not long after. Many had no close family ties and little money in a country ill-prepared to receive them. The mayor of Marseille, overwhelmed as hundreds of thousands disembarked, became infamous for his frustration: Que les pieds-noirs aillent se réadapter ailleurs! Let the pieds-noirs settle somewhere else. 

Housing shortages didn’t help. France had already accommodated 500,000 people arriving from Indochina and elsewhere during the preceding decade and still bore the scars of World War II. Many of the pieds-noirs sought to settle in southern France, with warmer climes similar to what they had left behind, but where employment was already scarce.

Portugal found itself equally engulfed when nearly five decades of dictatorship ended in 1974, followed by swift self-rule for Angola, Mozambique and other colonies. The integration was a relative success, in time, partly because returnees had left more recently and still had close relatives to help. Officials were also conscious of the need to resettle them swiftly to prevent resentments from festering, as occurred in France. The magnitude of the problem was vast. Official figures and academic estimates vary, but somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 people arrived in a nation of barely 9 million. They filled every hotel, hostel and campsite. 

Hong Kong will not see such an abrupt exodus. Yet the risk of underestimating the impact is real. Current forecasts for visa applications from 2021 to 2025 range from 9,000 to over a million. Recent applications for the special passports give an idea of imminent departures — before July 2019 there were 167,000 holders, a number that, including those being processed, had climbed to 612,000 by last August after a year of protest, crackdowns and Covid-19. The medium-term outlook is less clear. Past experience shows that Hong Kongers seek escape routes as a precaution more often than they actually use them. The flow may ease if political pressure moderates, or accelerate swiftly if, say, education comes under stricter control.

There’s also no firm idea of who will actually make the move. The British government projects that many would be young, with up to 12.5% of eligible 18-23-year-olds migrating in the next five years. Some will be the wealthy professionals coveted by the government. Yet many others, with no access to state benefits, will require practical support and resources to get going. Are official structures, local authorities, schools, prepared?

Rob McNeil of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford points out that Britain has been able to absorb large numbers of migrants before. New arrivals from the European Union after 2004 included a Polish population that rose to nearly a million in not much more than a decade. When the economy cooled, though, those numbers — and ample misinformation — fed anti-immigration, nationalist rhetoric that played a significant role in Britain’s departure from the EU.

Hong Kongers are better placed at the moment when it comes to popular feeling. In 1960s France and 1970s Portugal, returnees met anger and resentment. They were often seen as exploitative colonialists and blamed for lengthy, brutal wars. In Britain today, immigration isn’t the key concern it was five years ago. There’s widespread support for Hong Kong. The government’s gesture is seen as magnanimous and corresponds to the country’s vision of itself. Perhaps in part because of long-held stereotypes, the potential new arrivals are perceived as educated and hard-working. The government estimates their direct contribution would amount to a net benefit to the economy of up to 2.9 billion pounds, or just under $4 billion, by 2025-26. 

Whether that warmth continues will depend to a large part on the speed of post-pandemic economic recovery. Covid-19 showed, after all, that anti-Asian sentiment is not far from the surface.

It will also hinge on coordinated efforts to settle and integrate the new arrivals, something Britain hasn’t always done. Local authorities, under strain from repeated budget cuts, may require a fund to cope with the immediate pressure on services, as existed in the late 2000s. That will help provide basics like subsidized language classes or to tackle mental health concerns. Arrivals from Libya, Indonesia, Algeria or Angola in the postwar decades felt trauma, grievance and loss. They’d left behind entire lives, often in a hurry, and found themselves aliens. It may not be so different for many Hong Kongers. Charities and church groups that have already sprung up, plus buddy systems, are only a partial fix.

Britain’s government has in recent years caused great pain by reneging on promises made or implied to once-colonized people. Hong Kong offers an opportunity to make some amends. Practical preparation will help.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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