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Indo-British Row: Need To Take Into Account UK’s Concerns About Immigration – Analysis

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UK’s economic decline and mounting pressure on public services make it impossible to allow more immigrants and asylum seekers  

The ongoing India-UK row over immigration, which has put a question mark over the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) later in October, has caused dismay in India. It has been particularly hurtful because the British Home Secretaries applying the brakes on Indian immigration (Priti Patel and Suella Braverman) are both of Indian origin. 

But the issue is not new. When Prime Minister Theresa May visited India in 2016 she had said that any increase in visas to Indians would have to be tied to the “speed and volume of the return of Indians with no right to remain in the U.K.” 

After Brexit, which led to East Europeans like the Poles, leaving the UK, the Indians are the single largest group of immigrants in the UK at 1.5 million constituting 1.8% of the total population.

Estimates of Indian visa over-stayers vary from 200,000 (from the British point of view) to 2000 or even 200 (from the Indian point of view). The discrepancies in the figures are due to the absence of proper statistics (as in the case of the so-called Bangladeshis in India).   

Roots of British Fear

However, what is certain is that the British fear that uncontrolled immigration from India, or any part of the world for that matter, will ruin their country. This is the reason for their tough stand vis-a-vis Indian immigration and also vis-à-vis asylum seekers. The asylum seekers issue has led Britain to negotiate a controversial and extraordinary deal with Somalia to take the asylum seekers for payment. Channel crossing asylum seekers are a continuous threat to the British. Braverman is equally committed to packing these to Somalia as she is to sending back the Indian over-stayers.      

Speaking at the Conservative Party Annual conference, Braverman added another dimension to the Indian immigration problem. She blamed new migrants from the Indian sub-continent for the communal riots between people of Indian and Pakistani origin in Leicester in September. The UK had failed to “integrate large numbers of newcomers,” she said.

In May 2021, Home Secretary Priti Patel and India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar signed the Migration and Mobility Partnership agreement, aimed at supporting people to live and work in both countries while addressing long standing problems of illegal migration from India to the UK. As per the British official account, the “historic agreement delivered on the UK government’s fair but firm New Plan for Immigration – attracting the best and brightest and supporting people coming to the UK through legal routes, while stopping the abuse of the system and speeding up the removal of those who have no right to be in the UK.”

“The agreement will enhance and accelerate the processes to return Indian nationals with no legal right to stay in the UK and vice versa, and ensure greater co-operation around organized immigration crime.”

“In a first of its kind between the two countries, both governments have agreed enhanced mobility provisions for young professional Indian and British citizens which will allow people to live and work in the two countries for up to two years.”

However, the agreement has not worked. The UK said that India had not taken enough steps to take back illegal immigrants. But India accused the UK of not adhering to its part of the agreement.

Indian Immigration  

India became the most common country of origin for migrants in the UK after a large number of migrants from Poland left following Brexit. Jobless economic growth in India has been pushing Indians to migrate to greener pastures like the UK. 

According to New York Times, the Indian government reported that the Indian economy had expanded 8.7% in the last year to US$ 3.3 trillion. “But with domestic investment lackluster, and government hiring slowing, India has turned to subsidized fuel, food and housing for the poorest to address the widespread joblessness. Free grains now reach two-thirds of the country’s more than 1.3 billion people.”

But the social welfare regime has turned a blind eye to job generation. And that has been the historical pttern. “There is a historical disconnect in the Indian growth story, where growth essentially happens without a corresponding increase in employment,” said Mahesh Vyas, the chief executive of the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy. The Narendra Modi government has been concentrating on ensuring GDP growth turning a blind eye to the problem of unemployment. This has been a contributor to outward migration and to the phenomenon of overstaying visas.   

Declining UK Economy

Meanwhile, the UK’s economy has been declining. Britain is unable to host more immigrants. The Week (of the UK) quotes the Bank of England to say that Britain is set to fall into recession with inflation over 13%, causing the worst squeeze on living standards in more than 60 years. “The economy is expected to keep shrinking until the end of 2023.  The rise in interest rates and soaring energy prices will cause the steepest decline in living standards on record, with household disposable income forecast to fall by 3.7% over the next two years,” is the grim forecast. 

Mass immigration puts heavy pressure on the public services commentators say. Statistics show that there were an average of 2,000 new General Practitioner (GP) registrations by migrants per day in 2016/17. Current levels of immigration to England will require a home to be built every six minutes, a study says. 

It is estimated that, overall, immigrants were a net fiscal cost to the British Exchequer at £4.3 billion in 2016/17. However, Indians argue that Indian immigrants are a class apart – they give to the UK more than their due: The 1.5 million British Indians  (1.8% of the population) account for 6% of UK’s GDP.   

Be that as it may, the British feel that there has to be a “significant reduction” in the level of international net migration (the number of immigrants minus the number of emigrants) Net migration has averaged 300,000 per annum since 2014. Although EU net migration has fallen substantially in recent years, non-EU net migration remains at historically high levels at over 230,000 per year. 

And the UK is too small a country to keep admitting immigrants. At least England, which hosts most Indian migrants, is overcrowded. “At 430 people per square km, England is nearly twice as crowded as Germany (227) people per sq/km) and more than three times as crowded as France (117 people per sq/km),” one study points out.

Does immigration financially help the UK? Research shows that immigration results in high cost to the UK. Between 1995 and 2011, immigrants in the UK cost at least £114 billion, or about £18m a day, according to the University College London research dated 2014. A 2018 report for the Migration Advisory Committee estimated that immigrants overall cost to the Exchequer was £4.3 billion in 2016-17. 

It is pointed out that immigration does not generate the tax receipts needed for migrants to ‘pay their way’, let alone finance the new infrastructure or anything else required by rapid population growth. It has been found that despite the number of immigrant workers growing by over two million since 2006, productivity in the UK has not risen.  

A 2015 Bank of England study found a negative impact on the wages of those in the lower-skilled services sector. The Resolution Foundation found that immigration between 2009-2016 had “resulted in native wages for those in skilled trades (electricians, plumbers and bricklayers) being 2.1% lower.” 

However, Britain needs skilled workers to fill vacancies after Brexit. It is therefore looking to India. Fortunately, surveys reveal that the British public are for the immigration of skilled Indians. Therefore, there is room for a UK-India understanding on migration if both sides negotiate with mutual understanding.    

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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