This week's newsletter looks at immigration, nationality and citizenship in the UK in light of the Ukraine conflict.
The conflict in Ukraine and parliamentary debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill have raised issues around the UK’s immigration rules, which I want to devote this week’s newsletter to. For more analysis, take a look at this week’s #RightWingWatch stories on the Nationality and Borders Bill and citizenship for Chagos Islanders.
In taking policy cues from the most reactionary right wing elements of the British press, the Conservative Party have ensured that they must make life as hard and expensive as possible for anybody thinking about settling in the UK. There’s no long term planning for settlement and integration of people moving to the UK, as the government is simply responding to whatever barely concealed racist screed the right wing press have published that week.
I wrote this week about the case of the Chagos Islanders, a people forcibly evicted from their homes in the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s, so the UK could let the United States build an airbase there – a base later used for extraordinary rendition and the torture of detainees during the ‘War on Terror’.
Chagos Islanders were unable to pass on their British Overseas Territory Citizenship to their children born outside of the islands from which they were evicted. The UK government argues that giving British citizenship to Chagossians would set a precedent allowing others to claim British citizenship.
The situation reminds me a lot of a similar loose end of nationality law affecting a small number of Hong Kong residents who were left without either British or Chinese citizenship when Hong Kong was given back to China in 1997. The last Labour government fought a long and pointless battle to deny them British nationality until the issue was resolved in 2009.
In contrast to this, in 2021 the UK created a special visa scheme for Hong Kong residents wishing to escape the Chinese state’s anti-democratic rule, with around 90,000 Hong Kongers applying to settle in the UK. This visa scheme expands the rights of British National Overseas citizens born in Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, and offers them a 6 year pathway to citizenship. When it becomes politically useful to do so, UK immigration policies can change quite quickly.
Calls for the UK to offer protection to people fleeing the war in Ukraine have now turned attention back to the Nationality and Borders Bill. The EU’s offer of the right to reside in the Schengen Area to all Ukrainians for 3 years led to criticism that the UK’s offer of increased visa rights was not generous enough. Immigration minister Kevin Foster refused to appear before a parliamentary committee this week to discuss the UK’s response to the crisis.
Some British people seem surprised to learn that the UK has never been generous or kind in its immigration rules for non-EU citizens. Chris Boyd, an infosec researcher who, like me, has a non-EU spouse and regularly comments on the Byzantine and infuriating rules for spouse visas, was unsurprised to learn that the Home Office was charging Ukrainians for visa queries.
A sudden attack of empathy
Of course, as we’ve learned this week, Ukrainians are ‘just like us’, according to right wing commentators like Tory peer Daniel Hannan, who wrote in the Telegraph that “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts”.
We know from the EU referendum campaign – where the Leave side used Turkey’s stalled EU accession process to convince voters that they would soon have millions of Turks moving in next door to them – that Turks are not like us (Boris Johnson is only 1/8th Turkish, but we currently have no word on exactly what percentage Turkish you must be to be considered Other in Britain).
Otherness, however, can be remedied by money. My partner, who is Turkish, could get a spouse visa to live and work in the UK if we stump up enough money. Current spouse visa fees plus legal costs and the ‘immigration health surcharge’ come to over £6000, and you have to renew the visa after two and a half years. This path to residency will cost you at least £10,000 in total, if not a lot more. It often feels to me like a kind of governmental extortion for marrying someone from the wrong place.
The arrogance and lack of empathy for migrants and refugees was on full display from Sir Edward Leigh, another Lincolnshire MP (I’ve not forgotten about South Holland and plan on visiting the Fens in a couple of weeks time) who congratulated Priti Patel for not allowing more Ukrainians to travel to the UK because “we’ve done our bit in terms of migration for Eastern Europeans”.
This kind of attitude is one that believes the UK was doing Polish people a favour by letting them come and pick fruit in Lincolnshire’s farms. Now we’ve left the EU, these same farms are struggling to hire enough workers. It’s an ignorant attitude that looks at migrant workers as a burden that must be suffered under duress.
Out in the Cold
In leaving the EU, however, Britain is going to increasingly find itself outside the European club, and subject to the kinds of paperwork, fees and restrictions which our government has so eagerly imposed on people coming to the UK from abroad. The fact that this is just now dawning on ardent Brexiteers like Desmond Swayne would be comical, if it wasn’t so frustrating. This week, Swayne complained about the extra paperwork British businesses have to do, saying “it’s monstrous that we’re filling in forms”.
So much immigration and nationality legislation has been written since the 1990s that the Immigration Law Handbook’s 2022 edition stretches to 2176 pages. We’ve tied ourselves in knots with mountains of legislation that will never ‘solve’ the problem because no matter how harsh and cruel we make our laws, it will never be good enough for those who do not want refugees and migrants full stop.
It is a right protected by the UN Refugee Convention for people to seek asylum, yet the Nationality and Borders Bill will make it a criminal offence to cross the channel for that purpose. Amnesty International says the bill “will only increase the reliance of people, already vulnerable to exploitation, upon the gangs that remain the sole source of any prospect that people may have to ultimately escape their situations of insecurity, exploitation and deprivation by reaching a place of safety.” Even senior Tories like David Davis have said that the bill undermines the Refugee convention.
The votes in the House of Lords this week saw the Government defeated on some of the most repressive measures of the Borders Bill, such as powers to remove asylum seekers whose claim is pending, and criminalising arriving in the UK without entry clearance. The Bill will now go back to the Commons, where the large Tory majority could simply choose to reject all the Lords amendments.
A truly progressive government would aim to simplify and reform the immigration system along ethical principles that guaranteed the right to asylum, as well as investing money in places where new migrants live. So far however, the Labour party has refused to back an open door policy for Ukrainians, and may feel that a more tolerant and positive attitude towards immigrants would hamper their aim of retaking Red Wall seats.
John Lubbock leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward