A proposed scheme by the UK government that would require first-time visitors from certain Asian and African countries to deposit a £3,000 bond to obtain a visitor’s visa to the UK has provoked outrage from these countries, notably Nigeria and India. The pilot scheme to commence in November 2013 would initially cover a select number of “high risk” visitors from countries whose nationales have a higher probability of absconding, and if successful, would be extended over other visa categories. The affected countries feel unfairly targeted and the scheme itself could have profound implications.
Since the announcement by the UK Home Secretary Theresa May, some of the affected countries which include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana have reacted with indignation on the grounds that the proposal is selective. The Nigerian House of Representatives has described the policy as “discriminatory and capable of undermining the spirit of the Commonwealth”. The Confederation of Indian Industry has described the scheme as “highly discriminatory and very unfortunate”.
While tackling illegal immigration and managing legal migration is a key concern for any serious country to ensure adequate access by residents to infrastructure and public services, targeting those who contribute to the economy is not only discriminatory, but is plain disrespectful. This scheme is perceived to be unfairly selective, applying to those countries whose nationales actually contribute to the UK economy, struggling to bounce back in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Over 140,000 Nigerians and 340,000 Indians visit the UK annually contributing significantly to the tourism sector which is Britain’s fifth biggest industry and third largest foreign exchange earner. Nigeria in particular is not only the UK’s second largest trading partner in Africa, but Nigerian shoppers rank among the highest spending tourists in the UK, sometimes outspending their Chinese, Arab and Russian counterparts. Middle-class Nigerians annually flock to the UK, not only for sight-seeing, but mainly to get good bargains especially during the annual summer and winter sales, with the British economy typically witnessing a bump within this period.
This proposed scheme seems to be the latest in the long list of rapidly changing and increasingly hostile immigration policies by the UK. In 2012, the UK closed the Post-Study Work visa which allows non-EU university graduates to work for two years in the UK (and pay taxes). The badly managed brief suspension of London Metropolitan University’s license in 2012, with little thought for the thousands of international students who had already paid thousands of pounds in school fees, and all the wrong signals it sent out to prospective international students, cannot be easily forgotten.
Although David Cameron’s coalition government has insisted that Britain wants to attract the “best and the brightest” to its shores, this seems to be a euphemism for “attracting the richest only”, especially with such steeply expensive conditions for securing a UK visa. There is a growing feeling especially among Commonwealth countries that the familiar bond with the UK is deliberately being severed by such antagonistic policies. One of the reasons why Britain has remained highly competitive as a tourism and shopping destination, despite higher VAT than the USA for instance, and as a higher education hub due to the historical link with former colonies. With this realisation, many have since been looking at more welcoming places to study and with this recent proposal, to spend their hard-earned money.
This proposed visa bond scheme is seen to be in reality, driven by the exigencies of domestic British politics, especially the Conservative Party’s campaign pledge of reducing net migration to the UK “from hundreds of thousands, to tens of thousands”. There is a sense that in a bid to stave off the growing threat posed by the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the Conservative Party’s core electoral base, and unable to limit EU migration because its hands are tied by EU migration policies, the Coalition government has chosen to target non-EU immigrants.
Such anti-immigration policies have been fuelled xenophobic rhetoric based on the mostly inaccurate assumption that African, Asian or other non-EU immigrants claim state benefits either legally or illegally depriving citizens, of these benefits, and jobs. For instance, a recent study by the British Department for Work and Pensions (PDF) reveals that only 6.4% or 371,000 of the 5.5 million people claiming work-related benefits in the UK are immigrants, and out of this 371,000, only 2% or about 7,500 have done so illegally. The number of non-EU immigrants claiming benefits will be much lower if the figures are disaggregated by EU and non-EU migrants. Obviously, it is incredibly difficult for undocumented illegal immigrants from outside the EU, who end up living on the fringes of society, to secure decent jobs, access the National Health Service (NHS) and other state benefits here because all these require detailed registration and identification.
Clearly, this policy ought to be considerably watered down or completely rescinded. Indeed, the backlash from the individual countries to be affected and the potential economic repercussions have prompted Cameron to embark on damage control by insisting that the policy hasn’t been finalised. If the British government does insist on pushing ahead with this Visa bond scheme, then the affected countries, especially, Nigeria, India and Pakistan which are hotspots for journalists and researchers, are well within their rights to diplomatically reciprocate by similarly demanding steep bonds for visiting Britons. A collective response, under the auspices of the Commonwealth for example, might be more effective in pressuring Britain to water down this discriminatory proposal. Either way, it is Britain that stands to lose more in the medium to long term by this knee-jerk approach to managing immigration.