The government published its strategy statement on Legal Migration and Border Control, outlining its vision for the British border and legal migration system in the next three years. They plan to implement the strategy through the New Plan for Immigration, which came into force earlier this year and made significant amendments to the immigration system. Some main changes include reforming how refugee claims are processed, introducing a points-based system for skilled workers, and adding and changing multiple other visa routes in the UK.
The New Plan for Migration is based on five core positions. Firstly, taking back control of the legal migration system. Ending free movement and introducing the new points-based system purportedly achieve this goal. In her foreword to the strategy statement, Home Secretary Priti Patel writes that this government has “implemented a global points-based system which has gone from strength to strength, with visa application numbers above those of pre-pandemic levels.” Visa applications have, indeed, soared above pre-pandemic levels, but that is not necessarily something to boast about. Since leaving the European Union and ending Free Movement, millions of EU/EEA citizens have been made subject to visa rules they previously did not need to take into account. These people are now required to apply for visas if they want to work or live in the UK; naturally, visa application numbers would soar if the eligible population grows. Additionally, together with an increased number of visa applications come increased delays, which the Home Secretary fails to mention.
Secondly, the government wants to focus on individual circumstances rather than broad categories for everyone arriving in the UK. In plain language, this means relying on more forms of discretionary leave and tailored schemes for applicants rather than standardized forms of protection. Examples of tailored schemes include the one for British Overseas Nationals in Hong Kong, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Schemes, and the Ukraine Schemes. These bespoke schemes can be helpful, but they have severe downsides. For one, they often rely on the goodwill of volunteers (especially the Homes for Ukraine Scheme). Most importantly, they grant more power to the government, as opposed to the courts, to choose who gets to come and/or stay in the UK. Additionally, they do not absolve the UK of its obligations under international law, including the obligation to offer refuge to those seeking asylum regardless of whether they fit into these newly created categories.
Thirdly, the government wants to welcome those returning to the UK or arriving to support the UK’s prosperity. Again, this refers to attracting the “right” kind of migrants (e.g., those with money or specific qualifications versus those without university degrees or with lower salaries) whilst keeping/kicking the rest out. This links to the fourth stated goal of the government, to strengthen borders against those who should not be in the UK. Proposals to enforce these stronger borders include the introduction of Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) for everyone wanting to travel to the UK, as well as the Rwanda Plan.
ETAs are similar to the United States ESTA system, where every visitor must pay a fee and fill out documentation before getting into the country, regardless of their nationality. Introducing such a system means two things: that there is a clearer overview of who enters the country and when, and that the government can make a lot of extra money. Under the Rwanda Plan, then, asylum seekers can be deported to offshore detention seekers in Rwanda whilst awaiting the outcome of their asylum application. The Rwanda plan has been denounced by many, including not only charities and experts in the field, but also government officials and international organizations such as the UN.
Lastly, the New Plan for Immigration seeks to put “the customer at the heart of our system and protecting the public and our security.” It aims to do this by simplifying application processes, going entirely paperless, and introducing automated checks at various points of the application process. The government aims for applications to be “digital by default.” For example, the government seeks to introduce chatbots and voice bots functionalities from 2023 onwards to provide applicants (whom the statement calls “customers,” a tell-tale of the current government’s business-like approach to migration) with “digital support to resolve their queries effectively.” As the roll-out of the all-online EU Settlement Scheme has shown, issues with a paperless system are abundant, but this does not seem to be of the government’s concern.
The way countries shape their policies towards migrants tells us a lot about how they see themselves in the world. When countries prosper and need labour, they tend to be more relaxed about borders and migration. Until relatively recently (around the early 2000s), the UK fell under that category. That quickly changed with the introduction of deportation of foreign offenders, the hostile environment, and later, BREXIT. As the domestic situation declines (e.g., slowing economic growth, post-Brexit and COVID labour gaps, collapsing public services, etc.), anti-migration rhetoric thrives.
In this context, symbolic fights against foreign crime become useful political tools to distract from the issues at hand. That is how we now have a government in place stating that we are truly taking back control of our borders whilst the ex-Chancellor running for party leadership goes around saying we don’t want a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland at all, effectively confirming that some kind of customs union agreement with the EU, of which the Republic of Ireland is a member, is unavoidable. It is how Brexit came to be, and it is why Ms. Patel writes that at the heart of the government’s plan is the principle of “fairness,” whilst differentiating between refugees and narrowing the definition of human trafficking. She may have her own definition of the word, but in popular discourse, such measures do not seem particularly fair.
Words are double-edged swords, and our government makes a good effort at using both edges. As always, we see these politics of distraction come to a head at the cost of the most vulnerable, including homeless people, refugees, and migrant workers.