Vidya Ram

Britain’s obsession with overstayers

Vidya Ram | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Back to the wall Illegal migrants face a hostile environment in the UK   -  wildpixel

The recent decision on student visas shows discrepancy in Britain’s approach to India and China

It was just over a week ago that Britain decided to remove foreign doctors and nurses from a cap on Tier 2 visas (the main work route into the UK). This was being hailed as a progressive step for bilateral relations with India, given the large number of Indian medical professionals who came to the UK via that route — often at the behest of NHS Trusts eager to fill domestic skills shortages — but had had their visas turned down because of a strict annual and monthly cap.

The move was seen as positive for other industries India was involved in too: because NHS visas took up a large chunk of the annual cap (an estimated 40 per cent), their removal from it entirely would free up hundreds of places a month for other professionals, including engineers, IT professionals and teachers. It appeared to go some way to tackling mobility issues — particularly those that applied to professionals — that India has long highlighted to Britain as the two countries seek to expand their bilateral relationship, particularly beyond Brexit.

Hopes that Sajid Javid, Britain’s new Home Secretary, would swiftly bring in changes that would help end a perceived “hostile environment” for migrants in the country legally and illegally, appeared to be confirmed.

Then came the news, a day later, that Britain would be extending the list of countries from which citizens would be required to produce less documentation for their student visas. While the list would now include China and the Maldives among others, India was not on the list.

The decision was based on India’s risk profile remaining “below the level required to consider a change at the current time,” the British High Commission said as it sought to explain India’s exclusion, and the subsequent outcry.

The controversy reflected long simmering tensions between Britain and India over the extent to which Indians overstayed their visas in Britain. Britain’s insistence that Indian overstayers presented a problem, without action on which Britain could not make progress on immigration reforms, has been repeated ad nauseum, with one senior official suggesting to this paper a couple of years ago that they represented the largest groups of overstayers, at around 100,000.

During her visit to India in 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK would consider an improved visa deal, “if, at the same time, we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK.”

“We welcome students coming to study but the fact is, too many of them are not returning home as soon as their visa runs out. I don’t care what the university lobbyists say: the rules must be enforced,” May insisted in 2015, while still Home Secretary. Earlier this week, Britain’s Trade Secretary Liam Fox stoked the controversy even further, linking the decision not to include Indian students with both the issue of overstayers and the failure to sign an MOU on the return of illegal migrants. India backed out of the MOU at the last minute because of concerns around the 15-day period Britain wanted to give Indian authorities to confirm the antecedents of undocumented migrants.

“I am sure there are many [overstayers] but where did this figure of 100,000 come from?” asked Indian High Commissioner YK Sinha at an event on UK-India relations post-Brexit earlier this week. He pointed to British Home Office figures from 2016 to 2017 that showed over 300,000 visas were issued to Indians. “Ninety-seven per cent of them went back…so I think this is important. We need to see this whole debate in the proper context.”

There may have certainly been an issue with overstayers, says Pratik Dattani of the London-based consultancy, the Economic Policy Group, and former head of FICCI in the UK, who argues that until recently the British government had been unwilling to press India on the issue of overstayers.

“The Indian government has been aware of this from 2005 or so onwards but it hasn’t done much about this because the British government was keen to build relations with India.” However, he too suggests the issue is far smaller than British estimates have suggested. “The 100,000 figure is not right, it’s a few thousand…”

Britain’s obsession with overstayers and illegal immigration has come under much scrutiny in recent months — as its ambition to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants resulted in the wrongful treatment of Commonwealth citizens who had settled in Britain many decades ago, as undocumented migrants.

‘Wrongly deported’

A study by The Times of London suggested that up to 7,000 students could have been wrongly deported under a government programme that returned thousands of foreign students — many from India — home after accusing them of falsifying their English language test they needed to meet visa requirements.

That obsession appears to continue, in spite of Britain’s efforts to present itself as a “global” nation ready to forge trade deals, once unencumbered by the EU, pointing to a fundamental internal contradiction within the government’s approach. “There are some parts of government that want to be outward looking in the Brexit process and there is the Home Office that is discharged with ensuring a restrictive visa regime,” says Gareth Price of international think tank Chatham House. To suggest the issue of students could jeopardise an entire relationship would be facetious but its significance cannot be done away with. India — and its advocates within Britain — have long highlighted the discrepancies between the British government’s approach to India and China, both of whom were courted with warm words but significantly different approaches.

Lack of action

Britain was accused of missing a golden opportunity by failing to use May’s 2016 visit to extent a cheaper two-year visitor visa offered to Chinese tourists, business people and those visiting family to Indians too, particularly ahead of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture and the celebration of the much-vaunted “human bridge” between the two countries. The lack of action, despite talk of Commonwealth bonds, has only served to reiterate the divide.

Neither can it be seen away from the wider context around India’s push for a relaxation of the visa regime, particularly for professionals. While welcoming the removal of the cap on medical professionals, India has played down its significance in the grand scheme of things.

“It’s a question of demand and supply. You need more doctors…we give you those doctors,” said Sinha earlier this week. “When we go in for negotiation for a free trade agreement…there will be priorities on both sides and we will need to see how we can match those priorities,” he said, stressing the importance India placed on the movement of professionals. “This is a much more important issue for India particularly because if the US is going to make it much more difficult for IT workers, the big Indian IT companies need to look for IT business elsewhere and that would come from Europe, the UK and South America,” said Dattani.

For now at least change on that count from Britain appears a world away.

Published on June 22, 2018
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