The UK is not doing enough to provide mental health support to thousands of Hongkongers who have fled China’s increasingly authoritarian grip, according to advocacy groups and those politically displaced.
Following China’s introduction of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong and swift clampdown on dissent, tens of thousands of residents with British national (overseas) (BNO) passports and their dependants were granted the right to live and work in the UK in 2021.
However, those who have left say not enough support is being provided once they arrive in the UK.
After participating in Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, Seffyr applied for a BNO visa as soon as the scheme launched.
Almost a year later, he still fears being targeted under China’s national security law. He is awaiting a post-traumatic stress disorder assessment (PTSD) with the NHS and has been told there will be a two-year waiting period for treatment due to the backlog from the pandemic.
People often presume that those arriving in the UK from Hong Kong are prosperous and have not been traumatised by their experiences, said Seffyr, whose name has been changed. “This is not the true story, and nobody’s really caring or thinking about it.”
The current scheme is available only to BNO passport holders born before 1997. However, the government plans to expand the scheme in October to cover Hongkongers aged between 18 and 24, who were at the heart of civilian protests.
Sam Goodman, the director of policy and advocacy at the human rights NGO Hong Kong Watch, said that because Hongkongers were treated as an economic class, rather than frontline human rights defenders with complicated mental health needs, the government did not feel obliged to offer mental health services.
“It’s within the government’s own interest to ensure that people have the right mental health support, so that they can actually get jobs, can settle down in the UK, and contribute and integrate,” said Goodman. “At the moment that’s sort of being overlooked.”
In February, the government allocated funding for 47 national and local projects to help resettle Hongkongers. But Goodman says their complex needs are not likely to be met by a small amount of government grant funding.
According to a survey in May of new arrivals from Hong Kong, conducted by civil society group Hongkongers in Britain and a University of Cambridge researcher, the majority of 658 respondents felt that living in the UK had improved their mental health overall. However, 25.8% reported symptoms of anxiety and 23.8% reported symptoms of PTSD.
Simon Cheng, a former British consulate employee and founder of Hongkongers in Britain, said the true figures were probably higher due to the stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health. He said more needed to be done by the government to help new arrivals from Hong Kong settle into life in the UK and to recover from their experiences.
“[In] the NHS there’s now still a lack of Cantonese-speaking personnel, especially psychologists and mental health support, who not only can speak in Cantonese but they could be sympathetic or even show basic understanding of what happened in Hong Kong,” said Cheng.
There were 19,500 BNO visa applications in the first quarter of this year, according to government figures, of which 18,563 were made from outside the UK. In total there have been more than 120,000 applications since the immigration route opened in January last year.
However, not everyone has the luxury of accessing a BNO visa. Krobus, a university student at King’s College London, has been forced to seek asylum in the UK following her frontline involvement in the 2019 protests, as she is not eligible for the BNO government scheme.
Since arriving in August, the 23-year-old has struggled with anxiety, depression and PTSD and faces long NHS waiting lists to get help.
“As I see those people with BNOs walking in London, I sometimes feel really angry,” said Krobus, whose name has been changed. “How on earth can you enjoy your new life here and I had to seek asylum and I don’t even have enough money to live and I could probably be going homeless soon.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said it had supported tens of thousands of BNO holders settling in the UK through the new immigration route and a welcome programme.
“The programme includes targeted English-language provision and has funded 47 organisations to deliver national and regional projects for BNOs, including projects to support their emotional wellbeing and mental health needs,” the spokesperson said.
“The government is amending the BNO route to allow adult children of BNO status holders who are currently unable to apply independently to do so.”