HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

What does Brexit mean for Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities?

By Seher Asaf.

People are always surprised when I tell them I’m a British citizen. I don’t have a British accent, nor have I ever lived in the UK. But British citizenship was granted to many members of ethnic minorities as a safeguard against statelessness in the wake of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty.

After China denied citizenship status to non-Chinese residents, about 7,000 ethnic minority families received full British nationality, granting them the ability to live across Europe and pass this status onto their descendants. Over the years, many families in my close-knit Pakistani-Indian community left Hong Kong for a new life in the UK and other European countries – a decision that was mostly prompted by something that continues to afflict ethnic minorities in the city today: the issue of unequal access to education.

ethnic minority minorities hong kong

Photo: Hong Kong Unison.

Ethnic minority children in Hong Kong generally attend poorly-equipped segregated public schools that have mired them in a vicious cycle of poverty for generations. So naturally, people want better options for their children’s education, and those with British nationality view their citizenship as a route to a fairer public education system that could give their children a chance to reach their full potential.

Thus, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last week has left many British passport holders wondering what this means for them. Our burgundy passports derived much of their power through their association with the European Union – mostly through the freedom to live, work and travel across Europe. At this point, it all depends on the post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU, but Britain’s vote to leave the EU could mean losing this freedom of mobility. Right now, the only certainty is uncertainty.

But there’s a more concerning outcome of Brexit that could lead to serious ramifications for minorities and migrants currently living in Britain, and those contemplating living there some day. Reports indicate that physical assaults, intimidation, calls to “go home” and other hate crimes aimed at non-white Britons and European migrants have spiked by 57% in the past few days. It appears that the ‘leave’ campaign’s 52% victory has legitimized a simmering antagonism towards immigrants, refugees and minorities in the UK.

march for europe

“March for Europe” in London. Photo: alexwhite via Flickr.

While dubbing all 17 million ‘leave’ voters as racist xenophobes is an inaccurate assertion that undermines the real concerns of those left behind by the impact of globalization, it’s quite clear that the anti-immigrant rhetoric spouted by malignant politicians has bolstered paranoia against immigrants and minorities in ways that’s proving to be quite dangerous.

We saw this in the highly charged language used by many of the ‘leave’ campaign’s key players – most notably Nigel Farage, the leader of the UKIP party, who zealously politicized immigration by insisting that the country has lost control of its borders. Farage has been completely unapologetic in his disdain towards immigrants and refugees.

Opportunists attacking immigration for political expediency are nothing new, but this appalling tactic becomes a winning ticket for devious politicians when the fallout from globalization is not addressed in a more meaningful way. Economic grievances and anti-immigrant sentiment are not incompatible – the former emboldens the latter when there’s a lack of genuine political leadership. This paves the way for scapegoating migrants.

This trend is dangerous. It legitimizes violence and intimidation by dehumanizing immigrants seeking better opportunities and refugees fleeing conflict – two groups who happen to be among the most vulnerable and marginalized. It creates a toxic environment for everyone, that fosters division and allows a dangerous nationalistic fervour to flourish.

I find it ironic that citizenship in Britain was granted to Hong Kong’s minorities as a safety net back in the day, yet recent events reveal that Britain is currently far from safe for immigrants, refugees, or anyone who resembles the “other”. Quite a few people, including my family friends living in the UK, have said that they feel like outsiders in a country they have called home for years, and that their right to live in Britain looks questionable following the Brexit vote.

zac goldsmith

Zac Goldsmith. Photo: Wikicommons.

Only a month before Brexit we witnessed a more promising side of Britain when Sadiq Khan – son of Pakistani immigrants and the child of a bus driver — was voted in as London’s new mayor, beating billionaire rival Zac Goldsmith, whose campaign was widely criticized for attempting an appeal to anti-Muslim prejudice.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Khan’s appointment became an emblem of tolerance, diversity, and progress. It represented a victory over bigotry, and what happens when immigrants and minorities are given equal opportunities instead of being demonized – an example for both the rest of Britain and Hong Kong to learn from.

Seher is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong. She holds a degree in Political Science from the University of British Columbia and previously worked as a Due Diligence Researcher in Vancouver. Her areas of interest include global politics, diversity and gender issues. 

What does Brexit mean for Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities?