Immigration stirs a political and legal storm in UK

December 29, 2023 09:50
Photo: Reuters

In their 2019 election manifesto, the British Conservative Party promised to cut annual immigration to less than 220,000 a year. In May 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to reduce it to below 500,000 a year.

The Office for National Statistics recently announced the figure for net annual immigration in the year to June – a record 672,000.

This figure is the result of many factors – Hong Kong and Ukrainian arrivals, those taking jobs vacated by citizens of the European Union who left after Brexit, students and tens of thousands coming to look for a better life legally or illegally. As of October, 123,000 were asylum seekers waiting for a decision.

The numbers are a chronic headache for Sunak and his government, as they will be for the next one, probably Labour, that will succeed him after a general election next year. All the governments in the EU face the same dilemma, making immigration the ideal issue for right-wing parties across the continent to whip up popular discontent.

To address the issue, this year Sunak has proposed two laws. One, passed in July, allows the government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, in East Africa, or their country of origin. The plan was criticised by some opposition politicians, lawyers, and civil rights groups as inhumane, cruel and ineffective.

In November, the British Supreme Court ruled that the plan was unlawful because asylum-seekers would not be safe in Rwanda. It ruled that asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda would be “at real risk of ill-treatment” because they could be returned to the conflict-wracked home countries from which they had fled.

The second, to take effect in spring 2024, will double, from 18,600 pounds to 38,700 pounds, the minimum income a British citizen must earn to sponsor a visa for a non-UK partner. Among British people, 70 per cent earn less than this threshold – so only the well-off will be able to afford the visa.

Nationwide, more than 60 per cent of Britons will be unable to bring a loved one from abroad, a figure that rises to 75 per cent in the northeast. Many will have to decide whether to leave the country in order to be together.

The measure has caused outrage. “Britain welcomes someone to care for their old people and the sick but does not allow them to bring their partner to live with them,” said a member of one NGO.

Caroline Coombs, chief executive of Reunite Families, said that she had never seen her community so galvanized and upset. “The new threshold is a horrendous shock for tens of thousands of British citizens and their loved ones. To declare it just before Christmas and leave people with no details is just utterly cruel,” she said

Care homes rely heavily on immigrant workers, especially from India, the Philippines and Nigeria. They say that the new minimum will make it even harder to hire staff. Most British people are unwilling to do this kind of work – long hours, low pay and stressful.

Sunak is caught between a rock and a hard place. Public opinion is strongly opposed to the current level of immigration, especially illegal. Between January 2018 and June 2023, more than 96,000 migrants entered Britain after crossing the Channel in small boats – and only 1,319 or 1.4 per cent were removed from the country during that period.

Many say that the government health and education systems cannot absorb the numbers of immigrants who want their services. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2013, the quality of the health service and many public schools has deteriorated because of a shortage of funds.

The rich can afford private education and medicine, but the vast majority of the population cannot.

On the other side, Sunak faces migrants who are determined not to be sent back to their home countries, European law which supports them and well-organised human rights and legal groups which help them and challenge government legal measures.

So far Hong Kong people have been outside this debate. The British government, and the public, see them as wealthy, well educated, adaptable and able to integrate into British society. So there are no calls to restrict the arrival of BNO passport holders from Hong Kong.

But, if the immigration debate becomes more heated and more extreme measures are needed, the Hong Kongers may not be immune.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.