‘If I am sent back, I will be jobless’
Emily Hill meets some of the highly skilled immigrants whose lives have been turned upside down by New Labour’s knee-jerkism.
‘If Liam Byrne himself [the Home Office minister] came to Britain on an Indian passport, he’d be lucky if he got a job at Tesco. I came here with £15,000 and now I feel bankrupt.’
So says an exasperated-sounding Nitin, a skilled migrant from India who has an MA, speaks immaculate English, and who brought his wife and baby to start a new life in Britain. He currently earns £25 an hour lecturing in marketing. Nitin worked hard to get to this position; he had planned to set up a business, but when it ran into difficulties he went into lecturing instead. This means he has not earned enough money across the whole year in order to qualify for the New Labour government’s new salary-defined points system for a visa extension. He faces having to uproot his family, go back to India, and start all over again.
‘If I had known the government would change the rules like this I wouldn’t have come. But now I am here, I intend to put up a fight’, he told me, at yesterday’s protest in central London against the government’s surprise new regulations.
Welcome to the brave new dawn of the Highly Skilled Migrant Worker, many of whom have had their lives turned upside down by yet another round of New Labour knee-jerkism and policy U-turning. Four years ago, the government set up the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HMSP) to encourage highly skilled individuals to help make the British economy thrive. About 20,000 people applied, all experts in their field: entrepreneurs, scientists, IT specialists and banking professionals from around the world, who had to pledge to make Britain their main home and who in return would be offered permanent residence after four years of contributing to the British economy. In the world of New Labour’s usually petty and authoritarian approach to immigration, it wasn’t a bad deal.
In November last year, however, all of this changed: migrants must now apply to extend their visas under different criteria, which put a greater emphasis on high earnings and much less on work experience. And these changes have been retrospectively applied to those highly skilled migrants already living and working here, meaning that an estimated 6,000 people – who left their homes and travelled far and hard to establish new homes in Britain – may have to leave.
The wind rips chill gusts across Parliament Square in London, as the traffic whirrs around it and the rain spits down. Nitin stands among 100 or so other protesters, who unfurl umbrellas and carry on their well-mannered protest in the midst of the deepening drizzle. ‘Home Office, keep your promise! Home Office, keep your promise!’, they chant. They hold up photocopied sheets that read: ‘Dear All Immigrants, Today we are the victims of injustice; help us to fight or you will be next.’
The firebrand leader of the HSMP 2006 Campaign Group, Amit Kapadia, chivvies the protesters up for a march to Downing Street. They chant all the way under the escort of two police officers, and then present their petition to Tony Blair – or at least to one of his minions. The migrants are given five minutes to stand outside the Downing Street gates before being escorted across the road to protest between a set of metal barriers; stray members are herded behind the barriers by the police. A couple of MPs wing by to have their photos taken and make brief speeches of solidarity.
The protesters’ stories all have a similar ring to them. Highly skilled workers, with excellent prospects for Britain, are facing the threat of being denied visas because things just haven’t worked out fast enough for them, or because they will not earn £35,000 this economic year, or because they are ‘too old’ under the new criteria that were passed after they arrived. Many are stuck in a Catch 22. Lilian Ukulu, a striking and formidably dressed woman in her early forties, was a senior bank manager in her native Nigeria. After her husband died she wanted a change of environment. She applied for the HSMP and qualified, but she has not been able to get a job here in Britain.
‘The interview ends when they find out the duration of my visa, she explains. ‘They say, “Oh, renew it, and then come back.” But I cannot renew my visa until I have a job. So you see, it’s impossible.’ She doesn’t hold out much hope, because under the new rules she should ideally be younger – ‘under 32’, she says – to qualify for the higher points in the new system. It takes time and a degree of trust for immigrants to establish themselves, but time is running out for Lilian.
Ulku, a skilled migrant from Turkey, finds herself in a similar position. She is a finance specialist and her husband is a computer engineer. Although they’ve both found jobs in their particular sectors in Britain, they work at a lower level than they did in Turkey. It will take time for them to move up to the higher wage bracket they need in order to qualify under the new rules, so now they face the prospect of returning to Turkey. ‘I don’t know what to do’, Ulku tells me. ‘My husband and I had a prosperous life in Turkey. But we quit our jobs to come to the UK. We no longer have anywhere to live there. We like England. We want to stay. But now in one day, everything’s changed.’
Some cases are even starker. In Nepal, Chanbika Bhatta was a college principal and president of the National Association of English Teachers. He came to the UK under the HSMP, and found work in education and also private tutoring. When the Home Office changed the rules last year, and Bhatta applied to renew his visa, he was rejected. At 51, he is apparently ‘too old’ and his income is too low in order to qualify for a visa extension under the new system. On his return to Nepal, Bhatta ‘will be jobless’, he says. ‘I won’t get my old job back. It is social and political humiliation. I had a good property before in Nepal…. I had a good amount of money, but I will be returning bankrupt.’
Type the contract one month and rip it up the next: that seems to be the government’s approach to highly skilled migration. The demand by scores of protesters to be treated decently – or just that the government live up to its earlier basic promises – is a powerful illustration of how New Labour’s knee-jerkism can have disastrous consequences in people’s lives. The government cannot even be consistent with those who accepted an invitation under the HSMP that would have benefited both Britain and highly skilled migrants. As the protesters argued, the new rules should be scrapped and the government should stick to its word.
Visit the HSMP 2006 Campaign Group’s website here.
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