New immigration figures this week will likely show a fall from recent record levels of net migration. Debate about the right level of migration to Britain often failed to note that high numbers were largely driven by deliberate policy choices of the government: to recruit more healthcare workers and care staff to fill vacancies; to support our thriving higher education sector to attract more international students; and to offer a place of safety for tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the war in Ukraine. Net migration will probably fall because this last group prompted a large spike in numbers that is unlikely to continue at the same scale in future.
A further policy choice on immigration, made in 2021, was to welcome Hong Kongers fleeing increasing clampdowns on democratic freedoms in the former British territory. More than 120,000 have made their homes in the UK over the last two years under the British Nationals (Overseas) visa route. Estimates suggest that 300,000 BN(O) Hong Kongers could move to Britain over the next few years.
The profile of Hong Kongers suggests their journey from new arrival to migration success story could be more rapid than most. New research published this week by the Welcoming Committee for Hong Kongers and British Future finds they are nearly twice as well-educated as the average Brit, often professionals, usually able to speak and write in English, and keen to settle and integrate into our society. Many have funds from the sale of their home on Hong Kong’s inflated property market.
Unlike other migrant groups, BN(O)s have settled more widely across the UK, rather than being centred in London or other major cities. In fact, Hong Kongers have often preferred to move to suburbs and smaller towns. This means that the economic benefits they can bring could be spread around Britain.
Yet the new report, From HK to UK: Hong Kongers’ new lives in Britain, also finds that BN(O) Hong Kongers may need some help on this journey from new arrival to thriving citizen. At the moment, only half of working-age BN(O)s are in employment. Almost one in five (18%) describe themselves as unemployed, compared to the current UK unemployment rate of 4.3%.
Many of those in work are employed in jobs considerably below their skill level and qualifications. Almost half of those with a job said it doesn’t match their skills and experience at all (27%), or only a little (20%). Most of those aged over 45 with a professional qualification said they were not using it in their current job.
BN(O)s see confidence in speaking English as the biggest barrier to finding work or a job that matches their skills and qualifications. Recognition of qualifications and lack of experience in the UK are also significant issues. More than three-quarters of respondents said they had not received careers information or advice, with most saying they would like this type of help. Without the right kind of targeted support, there is a risk that BN(O) Hong Kongers do not realise their full potential to thrive in the UK and make the contribution that they could to our economy and society.
That would be a real missed opportunity. One in eight UK businesses currently suffers from a shortage of workers, according to the ONS; the UK has 1.19 million job vacancies; and the FSB reports that 80% of small businesses have experienced difficulties recruiting staff with the right skills.
So what needs to happen? Help with language, particularly spoken English at intermediate or advanced level, is key. Quality careers advice and support with job matching could also help people to understand the UK jobs market and how to secure a job that matches their skills and experience. Unusually for the UK, an integration programme already exists, the BN(O) Hong Kong Welcome Scheme, with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities funding welcoming programmes to provide support, including access to English classes and careers advice. Researchers found that only a minority of Hong Kongers knew that this support was available, however: so part of the solution involves connecting people to the help available.
There is a wider point here too. Hong Kongers will not be the only people arriving in the UK via humanitarian routes, rather than on a work visa, with skills and experience that are not being fully utilised. With the right support, this talent can be unleashed. That will take a more proactive approach to integration than we have at present, which tends to be rather laissez-faire until things go wrong. Give people the help they need at the very start and we could find that doing the right thing can bring economic benefits too.