Foreign policy determines why migrants from Hong Kong got a better deal than Syrians or Ukrainians
Brexit has changed who comes to the UK, from where in the world and on what terms. New immigration rules and regulations have been designed to ‘take back control’ of the country’s borders. Less visible is the role that migration governance is playing in the making of the promised ‘Global Britain’.
Since the 2016 referendum on remaining in or leaving the European Union, successive Conservative governments have tried to turn the Brexit vote into policy by controlling the number of people entering the UK from Europe. In a speech in 2017 the prime minister of the day, Theresa May, made it clear that this and other Brexit objectives were to be seen in the context of hopes for a renewed global appeal and outreach for the country.
However, there was more to the pledge to control immigration than just cutting numbers. From the referendum onwards, migration to the UK from the EU has indeed fallen. And not only are fewer people coming from the EU, but more migrants originating in the EU have returned to the other side of the English Channel.
At the same time, immigration from elsewhere in the world has increased in line with ambitions for a Global Britain, ‘open to the world’, with some within the British government calling for restrictions on immigration to be further relaxed in order to meet emergent needs within the labour market.
As the rise in those risking their lives to cross the Channel in small boats attests, the sanitised narrative of ‘taking back control’ has a flip side. Ironically, it is because of Brexit that the UK and its neighbours have had to renegotiate the international cooperation that had previously drastically limited the numbers of refugees arriving in the UK via what were then fellow EU member states.
But control of migration is not only about numbers. We turn here to the story beyond the statistics, to consider how, since Brexit, gaps have widened between the rights offered to different groups of migrants, pushed by different priorities in foreign policy.
Stratification of rights
Since Brexit, control of migration has not only been about curbing the numbers of people arriving in the UK. It has also been aimed at restricting their rights if they succeed in entering the country and distinguishing these rights further from those of British citizens.
The removal of quasi-citizenship rights from over 3m EU citizens who were living in the UK before Brexit lies within a broader context in which the rights of those arriving in the country are being radically reworked. Brexit and related changes to immigration policy and legislation have allowed the government to tighten its grasp on the lives of those variously classified as immigrants.
This process has been in train since Theresa May, as home secretary, introduced of the ‘hostile environment’ in the early 2010s. This institutionalised the direct involvement of ordinary citizens in immigration control – NHS workers, landlords, banks and employers for instance, are required to check people’s immigration status.
Indeed, there has been an overall levelling down of migrants’ rights: access to public funds, employment, housing, social and welfare entitlements were increasingly restricted. But this is uneven.
Take for example the Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme. This accounted for approximately 8% arrivals in the UK in 2021. A bespoke visa route, it was launched by the UK government to expedite the entry and settlement of the UK’s former colonial citizens – at least those who held status as British Nationals (Overseas) – seeking to leave Hong Kong in the wake of increased political oppression in the region.
There was no restriction of how many people could apply and, unlike other visa routes, the requirement for a minimum income was waived. What is more, the government provided funds for housing and childcare support under certain circumstances.
Other schemes rolled out since the start of 2021 do not contain the same generous provisions. There were quotas and stringent eligibility requirements for the resettlement of Afghans and Ukrainians, and the funds dedicated to supporting Hong Kongers on arrival in the UK were not matched for these populations.
Further, there are new, expensive temporary visas for those working in professions that have a shortage of qualified people in the UK. These visas offer no route to settlement.
This patchwork of new provisions and migrant rights seems at odds with the extension of the points-based immigration system that was supposed to simplify the UK’s approach to immigration and provide a coherent and merit-based alternative to the EU freedom of movement.
The foreign policy angle
Politicians often claim the schemes listed above are evidence of what the previous home secretary, Priti Patel, labelled as the UK’s ‘fair and generous’ immigration policies. Whatever the truth of that, they are certainly notable for another reason: each was initiated on the advice of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). As such, they show how foreign policy is shaping migration flows into the UK and their governance.
After Brexit, tensions between different government agendas have become more visible in the ad hoc migration schemes that have been put in place. The slow implementation and prolonged bureaucratic hurdles of the resettlement programme for Ukrainian refugees is a case in point. While the Home Office seemed concerned that welcoming these refugees would undermine its flagship ‘New Plan for Immigration’, others in government pushed for a more rapid and generous approach, their actions driven by diplomacy and by the wish to make the UK appear a world leader in humanitarian issues.
In contrast, the Rwanda plan is the product of convergences in the priorities of different government departments. The agreements to deport those entering the UK through irregular routes to Rwanda align with Home Office priorities but were included within a broader trade and aid agreement led by the FCDO.
At the same time, the reservations that home secretary Suella Braverman expressed about Indian migration to the UK could undermine the migration and mobility partnership agreed as part of the UK-India trade deal.
So Brexit has changed migration governance in ways far beyond the drive to simply reduce numbers. Look at the significance of rising tensions between China, the UK and its allies in the development of the Hong Kong BN(O) visa or the establishment of routes for relocating responsibilities for refugees to third countries like Commonwealth member and UK aid beneficiary Rwanda.
It is clear that to understand the new landscape of migration governance, and the stratified migrant rights it contains, you have to examine the strategic ambitions as well as the pitfalls of ‘Global Britain’.
The original article was published in the series of the Canada Excellence Research Chair Migration & Integration on openDemocracy.com
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