What can we expect on immigration and asylum policy post-referendum?

What can we expect on immigration and asylum policy post-referendum?


Written by: Frances Webber

The round-ups for deportation of elderly people with generations of family in the UK indicate the ruthlessness we can expect from a government all too ready to ‘take back control’.

The first deportation charter flight to Jamaica for nearly two years took place on 7 September, carrying forty-two passengers.[1] Most of those rounded up for deportation, according to Glasgow’s Unity Centre, were long-term overstayers who had been in the UK since childhood, with British-born children and, in some cases, grandchildren. Many had committed no offences.[2] The UK was ‘home’ to them in all senses except the strictly legal.

We can expect many more deportations of pensioners who have spent much or most of their lives here. Their deportation has been made much easier by the removal of all in-country appeal rights under the 2016 Immigration Act – once they have been sent back to their legal ‘home’ only a fraction will appeal, and those who try will find that the fees for appealing go up fivefold in October, to £800 for an oral hearing and £490 just for a judge to decide the appeal on the papers, and that there is no legal aid to help them in the appeal.

Although we still don’t have much idea of the shape of Brexit, on immigration policy Theresa May has made it clear that she has heard and endorses the Leave campaign’s cries to ‘take back control’ of British borders. So far as EU citizens are concerned, as home secretary May always held a ‘deep-seated reluctance … to admit that free movement brings benefits as well as costs’, apparently to the extent of trying to suppress evidence of the economic benefits.[3] So now that she is PM, we can be fairly sure that free movement will not survive in its current untrammelled form. The Norwegian model,[4] which involves remaining within the single market and complying with its free movement provisions, has been ruled out; control of immigration will take precedence. May’s rebuke for David Davis, who said ‘if a requirement of [single market] membership is giving up control of our borders, I think that makes it very improbable’,[5] was an indication that he is expected to try to retain single market membership without the free movement. His chances of doing so are negligible: the Swiss government, trying to negotiate a similar deal following a 2014 referendum vote to cap EU immigration, failed to budge the EU from its stance that imposing quotas on EU workers would automatically exclude it from the single market.[6] Meanwhile, May’s refusal to confirm that EU nationals currently living and working in the UK will be entitled to permanent stay, signalling her intention to drive a hard bargain, leaves them in limbo, and at the mercy of the popular racism whipped up by the referendum campaign.

A ruthless home secretary

But as the pensioner round-ups show, May has never been one to concern herself with the effects of her policies on the individuals and families affected by them. As home secretary she was ruthless in her attempts to fulfil the Tories’ manifesto pledge of bringing down net immigration to ‘the tens of thousands’ (although totally unsuccessful – the latest figure for net migration is a record 327,000). Measures she introduced included an arbitrary cap on the numbers of non-EU skilled migrants admitted annually, set at five percent fewer each year; a minimum income requirement of £18,000 to sponsor the entry of a non-EU spouse or partner, and additional income for each child (on top of the existing requirement of no recourse to public funds); the introduction of the ‘health levy’ for non-EU migrants to access NHS treatment (in addition to the taxes they pay); and in April 2016, the removal of residence rights, and the threat of deportation, for non-EU migrant workers earning less than £35,000.[7]

May was an architect of the ‘hostile environment’ against undocumented non-EU migrants – through measures from the notorious ‘Go Home’ vans to the doubling of fines for those employing unauthorised workers, as well as making unauthorised working itself a criminal offence, with provisions to confiscate wages as ‘proceeds of crime’. She presided over the recruitment of private landlords as immigration officers, checking tenants’ and their families’ entitlement to live in the UK before renting a room, on pain of fines and even imprisonment, the criminalisation of ‘driving while migrant’, and requirements on DVLA and on banks to check immigration status before issuing driving licences and opening bank accounts.

May is also identified with the wing of the party opposed to the Human Rights Act. At the 2011 party conference she notoriously used a false story about a cat preventing a foreign offender’s deportation to announce tougher deportation laws.[8] During the referendum campaign, she said Britain should leave not the EU but the European Court of Human Rights (although since becoming PM she has put this on hold). And finally, as home secretary she presided over the wholesale removal of appeal rights for immigrants, who can now only appeal against decisions to refuse entry or stay, against removal or deportation on asylum or human rights grounds and – unless, literally, life is at stake – only from outside the country.

Entry as a privilege

This is the mindset informing post-referendum immigration policy. Indications that the May government has now dropped the numerical pledge to bring net migration below 100,000 a year in favour of a more modest aim to bring net migration down to ‘sustainable levels’ show a shrewd avoidance of giving hostages to fortune, rather than a more liberal attitude. May has rejected the Australian-style points-based system for skilled EU migrants as too liberal – those with the requisite number of points have an expectation of entry, perhaps even a right, and May wants a system with discretion at its heart, one where the state retains the right to refuse entry, and entry is a privilege. Right-wing think-tanks Policy Exchange and Migration Watch advocate extending to EU citizens the current points-based work permit system for non-EU migrants in the EU, which combines clear eligibility criteria with an element of discretion (and the cap), but as the Guardian’s Alan Travis pointed out,[9] this would be very unpopular in Europe. Policy Exchange also advocates a new ‘population register’ to ease enforcement, under which citizens and legal migrants would have a unique identifying number, based on their NHS number, to replace the different numbers for national insurance, passports etc.

But it is also likely that a two-tier immigration system will be retained, with Europeans still given preferential treatment over non-EU citizens. Policy Exchange advocates a special ‘cut-price Brexit citizenship’ for those EU citizens who have lived in the UK for over five years. Migration Watch, which was influential in formulating policy when May was home secretary, has, according to Travis, suggested ‘a Brexit negotiating position that opens with an offer of free movement for EU tourists, students, pensioners and other self-sufficient people on the basis that it is reciprocated’,[10] presumably as a sweetener for the restrictions for EU workers. If the price for this level of restriction on workers’ free movement was too high, May could simply restrict entry for EU workers to those who have jobs to go to, something she herself advocated in 2015.

This last option might also help to answer the question: who will do the jobs in care work and nursing, catering, construction and agriculture currently done by EU nationals? They can’t all be done by undocumented migrants, particularly as enforcement gets tougher; with the worst will in the world, the government cannot criminalise an entire sector. They won’t all be done by British workers. The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which allowed Home Office-approved gangmasters to bring in eastern European workers to harvest crops before their countries joined the EU, may not attract workers who can now go to other EU countries instead, with minimal formality.  The May government, like its predecessors, might find itself caught between nativism and rotting crops.

Enforcement: more raids, more surveillance

On enforcement, the round-ups of long-term overstayers indicate that May’s government intends to be more proactive in deporting undocumented migrants than its predecessor. The Cameron government did not actually increase the numbers of undocumented migrants deported each year, relying on the deterrent effect of the combination of ‘hostile environment’ measures excluding them from jobs, homes, benefits and public services to ‘nudge’ them into leaving. It’s clear that such deterrent policies have never worked – and in a new report on immigration raids,[11] Corporate Watch suggests that in reality, forcing people to leave has never been their main function. The report argues that enforcement is designed not so much to stop illegal working but to create fear, to maintain a segregated ‘two-tier workforce’ where the undocumented have no access to the rights and safeguards available to other workers. Among indigenous and legal workers, fear of the ‘job-taking illegal’ perpetuated by the emphasis on enforcement militates against solidarity. More raids are likely.

Another straw in the wind is the new guidance to teachers put out by the Department for Education requiring them to record the country of birth and nationality of all pupils from age 2 to 19 as part of the School Census carried out each term. Previously such information was collected in anonymised form, enabling schools to access funding for extra English-language teaching. Campaigners are calling for a boycott of the new duty, which they say is unsupported by the law. They fear that the birth and nationality information, which is fed into a national pupil database containing all pupils’ names, addresses and dates of birth, to which the Home Office can have access, will lead to more raids on undocumented families.[12]

Asylum: gunboats and walls

On asylum, the May government is likely to be as tough as its predecessor, or tougher. In May 2015, when the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was at its height, May objected strenuously to the EU’s mandatory relocation programme for refugees which, she wrote in a Times article, acted as a ‘pull factor’ for ‘economic migrants’, who should be returned to their home countries after rescue instead. She repeated the message in September 2015, confirming that the UK would not take part in the relocation programme.[13] The Cameron government prioritised gunboats in the Mediterranean over rescuing unaccompanied children from the squalor and terrors of the camps in Greece and France; it seems the same priorities inform May’s government. In 1938, it took under three weeks from the government’s receiving a delegation of Jewish and Quaker leaders to the arrival of the first group of 196 lone children on the Kindertransport from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 2016, four months after the government agreed the ‘Dubs amendment’,[14] named for the Labour peer and Kindertransport beneficiary who promoted it, no children have yet been admitted to the UK from the camps in Europe, while only about thirty of the children stuck in Calais despite having relatives in the UK (which should entitle them to entry, under the Dublin regulation) have been admitted.[15] And Theresa May used her first speech to the UN General Assembly, on the occasion of its first global summit on the refugee crisis, to demand that refugees stay in the first ‘safe’ country they reach, and to call for more controls.

The surge in racist attacks since June has been laid at the door of the Leave campaign’s politicians, with the promise implicit in their campaign to shut the door on migration. But the referendum campaign was marked by hostility towards migrants and refugees from Tories on both sides of the Brexit divide. While the Leavers warned (falsely) that Turkey’s accession to the EU was imminent, meaning that millions of Turks would soon have the right to come to the UK, David Cameron warned that a likely consequence of Brexit would be the relaxation of border controls in Calais, meaning that all the undocumented asylum seekers and migrants currently stuck in the camps around Calais and Dunkirk would set up camp along the English south coast. When, after the vote, French finance minister Emmanuel Macron called for the end of the Le Touquet agreement (whereby British immigration officers conduct visa checks in Calais), Theresa May was quick to visit President Hollande and get a commitment from him that the agreement – and strict controls at Calais – would remain in place. The announcement was followed up in September with the beginning of work on a four-metre high, kilometre-long wall, equipped with lighting and video surveillance, paid for by the British government to prevent desperate migrants from reaching the lorries in or under which many currently try to enter the UK from France. The new government clearly intends to continue to prioritise exclusion.

May’s government has been given a forcible reminder that her government is not the only player, in the proposals reportedly drawn up by the European Commission to restrict free movement for Britons travelling to Europe. Home secretary Amber Rudd admitted in September that British tourists may have to apply online and pay a fee to travel to Europe, under an EU Travel Information and Authorisation Scheme (ETIAS) for non-EU countries, similar to the US visa waiver scheme.[16] This will doubtless be sold to the British travelling public as a small price to pay for ‘taking back control’. As usual, the real price is being and will be paid by others – the denizens, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who bear the brunt of Britain’s ever more inhuman migration policies, and the racist hatred they encourage.

Related links

IRR News article: ‘Theresa May: one nation-ist or nativist?

IRR discussion paper: Entitlement and belongingsocial restructuring and multicultural Britain


References: [1] Luke de Noronha, ‘The deportation charter flight: what’s all the fuss about?’ The Gleaner, 11 September 2016. [2] ‘Protest at Jamaican embassy in London against deportation flight’, Guardian, 6 September 2016. [3] See ‘Theresa May accused of trying to alter immigration report before Brexit vote’, Guardian, 27 September 2016. [4] Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the European Economic Area (EEA) and (with Switzerland) of EFTA. EEA member states share membership of the single market and are subject to free movement provisions. Switzerland has bilateral arrangements with the EU to essentially the same effect. [5] David Davis statement on Brexit, HC Hansard 5 September 2016, col. 38, 54. [6] ‘Swiss climbdown over free movement may deal blow to EU hopes’, Guardian, 22 September 2016. [7] Those living in the UK for over ten years, and those in certain occupations such as nurses, are exempt. [8] ‘The case of the cat deportation tale’, BBC News, 6 October 2011. [9] ‘What are the alternatives to points-based immigration?’ Guardian, 5 September 2016. [10] Guardian, ibid. [11] Corporate Watch, Snitches, stings and leaks: how ‘immigration enforcement’ works, August 2016. [12] ‘Bringing borders into the classroom: the new immigration duty in the School Census’, Migrants’ Rights Network, 6 September 2016. [13] See ‘Theresa May says EU must return economic migrants to homelands’, International Business Times, 13 May 2015. The British Refugee Council pointed out that 84 percent of arrivals to Europe came from the world’s top ten refugee-producing countries: ‘Theresa May maintains tough stance on “economic migrants”’, Guardian, 22 September 2015. [14] Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016 which commits the government to provide sanctuary for some of the estimated 90,000 refugee children travelling alone in Europe. [15] See ‘Peer condemns shocking delays over help for unaccompanied child refugees’, Guardian, 27 July 2016;  ‘Home secretary urged to act over refugee children stuck in Calais’, Guardian, 3 September 2016. [16] ‘Brexit may mean Britons have to pay to visit Europe’, Guardian, 10 September 2016.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “What can we expect on immigration and asylum policy post-referendum?

  1. I have been called a racist for voting, LEAVE, not so.
    How can being patriotic be termed a racist ?
    Some years ago the UK took in 30,000 Ugandan Asians.They integrated, and were of great benefit to the country.
    However ENGLAND is the most densely populated country in Europe, we cannot have open doors, we see our NHS struggling
    the extra 300,000 arriving every year are not immune to illness
    Not enough housing, schools. The roads are near capacity.
    Think on this, most are not heartless, but a lot of ” refugees” are economic migrants, The problem is when it becomes too many
    there is trouble, in Germany many want to return because of racism. The ” children” were not little kids but single adults.
    Not PC but there would have little trouble in Europe had they been Christians.

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