UK Election 2017: As Britain readies to choose between Tory and Labour, fate of Indian migrants hangs in balance

 As the United Kingdom readies itself for its first post-Brexit election on Thursday, there have been frenzied debates about the economy, cuts to the National Health Service, and, in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack, cuts to essential services like the police.

File photo of Theresa May. Reuters.

File image of Theresa May. Reuters.

But another key concern has been that historic driving factor behind political debates in the country for years: Immigration. Specifically, proposed shifts in legislation that have left many countries worried about the future mobility of their citizens to the British Isles.

Among the most concerned is India, which is unsurprising, given the history between the two countries that has led to sustained migration of citizens seeking higher education and work in the country that once brutally colonised the subcontinent.

The number of Indians who migrate to the United Kingdom, according to data from the National Office of Statistics, has, for several decades, been around 200,000 per year. Last year saw 248,000 immigrants from India alone and according to the Home Office, 20 percent of all visa requests made in January to March were from India.

Despite continued interest in travelling to the UK, there is a legitimate fear on the part of Indians that Britain’s already strict immigration policies, which were further tightened following the decision to leave the European Union last year, will verge on the draconian if the Conservative Party manages to win Thursday’s elections.

It was a defining point of last year’s discussions when British Prime Minister Theresa May visited India to strengthen bilateral ties in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Despite demands from the Modi government insisting that May cut the cost of the two-year visitor visa, and lower restrictions on the number of Indian students entering the UK for higher studies, the Tory leader refused to commit to increasing visa numbers without India accepting the return of illegal immigrants from the country.

While the Labour Party has pledged to ensure the “development and implementation of fair immigration rules” without mentioning specific figures, and the Liberal Democrats have committed to removing limits on overall immigration into the country and not counting students when it comes to statistics, it is, unsurprisingly, the Tory party that has the most stringent proposals.

May has committed to reducing the number of migrants to “the tens of thousands,” as well as a slew of measures targeting the employers of said migrants, such as a proposed doubling of the immigration skills charge, making firms pay up to £10,000 per non-EU worker.

The prime minister’s optimism at the British government’s ability to actually put said curbs into place is slightly baffling, given her failure to reduce net migration during the six years she served as home secretary.

But perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised given that this is the same May who once thought vans with large signs proclaiming “Go home or be arrested” driving around areas of London dominated by Indian communities were an appropriate means of encouraging immigrants to pack up and return home.

The proposals by the current ruling party have invited significant criticism from the other parties, with Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron warning that the curbs would hurt the relationship between Britain and India.

“India is a key strategic partner for the United Kingdom and the British-Indian community contribute so much to our country. Liberal Democrat immigration policies will therefore seek to maximise the economic, cultural and social benefit of these relationships and welcome immigration as a blessing, not a curse,” Farron said in May.

Feasibility aside, many Indian students in the United Kingdom, following the Tory government’s decision last year to end the popular two-year further studies visa option, feel that that they are in a precarious position.

According to data from the Home Office, 10,704 Indians migrated to the UK to study by the end of March 2016; that figure currently stands at 11,642.

“If it wasn’t for that, I’d be more than happy to live and work here after I graduate,” says Srishti Gupta, a Journalism Masters student at the City University of London (CUL). “I’m still willing to work here despite the difficulties, but it looks like the new Tory manifesto will never let me,” she adds.

“I’m not planning to live here for the rest of my life, but the sort of career growth you can get here in two years is equivalent to ten back in India,” says Aashna Jawal, who also is pursuing her Journalism MA at CUL. “But I just don’t think it will work with such strict policies for employers.”

While Srishti believes that the proposals from the Labour party, especially the promises to not punish the employers of migrants with high fees, she also thinks the present situation is indicative of the country's political lurch towards right-wing policies. “There’s definitely that sense post-Brexit,” she says. “ ‘Britain for the British,’ that kind of thing.”

“The visa restrictions won’t stop Indian students from coming here, though,” adds Aashna. “The United Kingdom and its universities have far too much charm for that to happen.”

As the country prepares for its most crucial election in years, those with the right to vote are pondering their future, which seems more uncertain than ever before.

The question for Indians is equally uncertain: For how much longer will they be welcome here?

This is the first part of a series on British immigration policy restrictions and changes towards Indian immigrants. The second part will look at the history of past restrictions in the latter half of the 20th century.

Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 20:33 PM

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