The immigration debate: Who should get to stay? – Published in The i

From the millionaire’s daughter to the asylum-seeker, applicants hoping to build a life in Britain all face a torturous process. Etan Smallman hears their cases

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“There is no other way of getting a visa in the UK without buying it,” says Valeriya, a 27-year-old Russian student, who moved to Britain aged 15 and whose fifth student visa is due to expire.

She is now applying for an entrepreneur visa, using a hefty injection of funds from her millionaire father to invest in a new fashion business.

Also pinning his hopes on making the UK his long-term home is Dillian, a gay man who fled Trinidad and Tobago seeking asylum three weeks after being shot. He says he fears being murdered because of his sexuality if he returns.

These are just two of the nearly 700,000 stories of people from outside the EU who applied to live here last year, both of them told in a new three-part BBC2 series – provocatively entitled Who Should Get to Stay in the UK? – which starts tonight.

With the Windrush scandal, Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for suspected illegal immigrants and a constant shifting of goalposts when it comes to who is deemed desirable to the economy, there are few issues more hotly contested than immigration. Last month, the Government missed its target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands – for the 37th time in a row.

Meanwhile, its Migration Advisory Committee warned that the country needs to allow for a wider range of immigrants – from archaeologists to vets – to deal with a shortage of workers.

A major sea change looks likely with the departure of Theresa May, who has been pivotal in dictating policy for almost a decade, as home secretary and then prime minister. Those vying to replace her have been laying out their visions.

Michael Gove wants an Australian-style, points-based system and a free-of-charge path to citizenship for the three million EU citizens living in the UK. Matt Hancock wants to lift restrictions on all foreign doctors and nurses. And last month the Home Secretary and leadership hopeful Sajid Javid ordered a review of May’s £30,000 post-Brexit immigration income threshold. He also wants to allow foreign students to stay for up to two years after graduation, rather than the current four months.

To be successful in her application for the special visa, introduced by David Cameron “to roll out the red carpet for anyone who has a great business idea and serious investment”, Valeriya needs to show that her projections hold water. She has never had a job and has no commercial experience, but has more than £200,000 from her father and says: “I get a lot of compliments [on my clothes] so I decided to start my own fashion company.”

Valeriya is still anxiously waiting while her application makes its slow journey through the system. She says the experience has not made her more sympathetic to those who are desperate to stay in the UK but do not have a windfall from their parents to oil the wheels of the process.

“I know there are a lot of talented people all over the world,” she says. “But, you know, you can’t fit them in one country. So there have to be the barriers to entry.”

At the other end of the scale are asylum seekers who, far from being welcomed to a land of abundant benefits, are banned from working for at least the first year and receive just £37.75 per week to support themselves.

Dr Lisa Doyle, of the Refugee Council, says: “Thousands of people have to wait years for a decision on their claim, meaning they’re left in complete limbo and unable to plan for their futures.

“Disturbingly, when people do receive refugee status they often experience homelessness and destitution because the support they have been relying on is cut off by the Home Office after just 28 days. Refugees’ first steps after being granted protection should not be towards the nearest homeless hostel.”

Britain remains the only European country not to have a legal time limit for the detention of immigrants and one of the few to deny child refugees the right to be reunited with family.

A Home Office spokesman says: “We are committed to a fair and humane immigration policy which welcomes and celebrates people here legally, but which tackles illegal immigration and prevents abuse of benefits and services.”

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says: “Any fair-minded person would be shocked by the cruelty with which the system treats many men, women and children who move to Britain for a better life or who escape here from danger, hunger or torture.

“They have committed no crime – migration is legal – yet they can be locked away indefinitely, no judge, no jury.”

Singh says the “hostile environment” policy crafted by the outgoing Prime Minister “must be scrapped without delay – a new Tory leader should make this his or her first priority on immigration”. But not everyone agrees. David Goodhart, of the think-tank Policy Exchange, says: “The silliest aspect of the current debate is the assumption that the ‘hostile environment’ is something morally monstrous.

“If you want to have high flows of people coming to the country temporarily on visit, study and work visas, then you need to monitor what they do and make sure they leave when they are meant to. That requires the co-operation of civil society – employers, landlords, people running public services. This can sometimes be done in an overzealous way but unless you have an internal border you have, in effect, no border at all.”

  • ‘Who Should Get To Stay In The UK?’ is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight


The facts about UK immigration

  • In 2018, 258,000 more people moved to the UK than emigrated, according to the Office for National Statistics, although longterm migration from the EU was at a five-year low.
  • A YouGov poll has found that 28 per cent of Brits think the benefits of immigration outweigh the costs, 37 per cent think the reverse and 20 per cent think the benefits and costs are about equal.
  • The Home Office charges £2,389 for an application for indefinite leave to remain, even though it only costs the department £243 to process – a profit of 859 per cent.
  • The number of newly registered nurses and midwives from the European Economic Area fell from 9,389 in 2015-16 to 968 in the year to March, the Nursing and Midwifery Council has said.

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