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Recent Hong Kong immigrants: Reasons to move and challenges surrounding economic integration

By Jason Lam | Issue 23


Photo by Joseph Chan, Unsplash.

Migration is often perceived as a means for economic advancement and improvement of living standards, but these are not guaranteed. Many migrants face challenges at their destination, such as job search struggles and possible unequal treatment. While much attention has been focused on migrants from less developed to more developed areas, the challenges faced by emigrants from more developed areas are less studied. This article aims to explore this lesser-known aspect through the case of recent emigrants from Hong Kong.


Hong Kong has seen an emigration wave in mid-2020, set against the backdrop of the 2019 social movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill and the passing of the National Security Law. In February 2019, the Hong Kong government sought to amend the city’s extradition system following a murder case in Taipei involving two Hong Kong visitors. The proposed bill would enable the transfer of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including mainland China. This proposal raised concerns among Hong Kong residents and diverse sectors, fearing that such changes could tarnish the city’s international status and potentially be used to suppress political dissidents by sending them to mainland China for trial. The government’s insistence on proceeding with the legislation resulted in one of the largest protests in Hong Kong’s history, with over one million, or about a quarter, of the city’s population participating. The situation escalated as the government failed to meet the protestors’ demands, leading to confrontations between the police and protestors. Demands grew from withdrawal of the bill to include issues such as police abuse of power and calls for political reforms. This intense period lasted nearly one year, from March to December 2019.


The social movement in Hong Kong was silenced in 2020 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the passing of the National Security Law, aimed at preventing the interference of hostile forces. One year after the passing of the law, many active protestors and pro-democratic politicians have been charged with endangering national security. Pro-democratic newspapers have been forced to close or remove commentaries containing politically sensitive content. School education has also undergone changes, requiring students to learn about China and its national security issues to foster patriotism. These factors have led to a pessimistic outlook for Hong Kong’s future among its residents.


As the events in Hong Kong drew global attention, Western countries responded by introducing new immigration schemes or relaxing immigration requirements for Hong Kong residents. For instance, the BNO visa allows a large number of Hong Kong residents to live, work, and study in the United Kingdom, with the opportunity to apply for permanent residency after five years. Australia and Canada also offered pathways for recent Hong Kong graduates or British National (overseas) passport holders to work and settle in their respective countries. Against this backdrop, an increasing number of residents expressed the intention to emigrate or have already emigrated from Hong Kong. This emigration wave’s magnitude is evident in official statistics. The population in Hong Kong decreased from 7.5 million in 2019 to 7.33 million in 2022, and the number of usual residents decreased from 7.3 million to 7.19 million. A recent Policy Address also reported a reduction of about 140,000 in the local workforce over the past two years. These are significant numbers for a city with a population of only about seven million.


Despite the increasing number of Hong Kong residents intending to emigrate, the conditions they face in their new destinations remain largely unexplored. Many emigrants report challenges in adjusting to life in their new locations. The organisation Hongkongers in Britain conducted a survey on work and employment for these new arrivals. Their findings showed that although nearly 70% of Hong Kong migrants hold a high level of education (44.4% with an undergraduate degree; 23.6% with a master’s degree; 1.2% with a doctorate degree) and substantial work experience, an unexpectedly high 46.1% of respondents identified themselves as unemployed or still searching for jobs. The major obstacles identified were language barriers, a lack of relevant skills, and a mismatch in qualifications. Some respondents also mentioned earning significantly less than they used to in Hong Kong. Despite many Hong Kong migrants possessing professional expertise or qualifications, the institutional arrangements in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom differ. These differences may result in professional qualifications earned in Hong Kong not being recognised in the United Kingdom. This could potentially place Hong Kong migrants at a disadvantage in the job market, compelling them to settle for less competitive jobs with lower wages to make ends meet. Over time, such a situation could intensify inequalities between local residents and migrants.


This article provides insight into the situation and challenges faced by some North-North migrants, using the case of recent emigrants from Hong Kong as an example. Migrants from more developed areas are not immune to challenges upon arrival at their new destination. Despite the fact that many emigrants from Hong Kong are highly qualified, they may not necessarily maintain a similar living standard in their new location, and their qualifications may not be recognised in the labour market, which may lead to a brain waste. It is clear that these new arrivals may face challenges beyond economic aspects. Adapting to cultural and lifestyle differences and building connections with other communities can also be challenging. As new arrivals settle at their new destination, future research may continue to look into these issues.



Jason Lam completed his undergraduate studies in social science, majoring in sociology, at the University of Hong Kong. He can be contacted at lamkayuenjason@gmail.com.


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