Here’s a post I wrote about for the Black Feminists blog about the government’s plans for a visa bond for non-EU tourists from a select number of African and South Asian countries. Many thanks to the group for running it.
Is The Proposed Visa Bond for Asian and African Tourists Racist?
“Unfair and discriminatory”; “Unacceptable”; “Racist”; these are just some of terms being used to describe the proposals by Home Secretary Theresa May to impose a £3,000 bond on visa applicants from “high-risk” countries, a list that includes India, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The pilot visa bond system would start in November and require that visitors from the selected countries would have to pay a £3,000 bond, to be refunded when they left the country – provided they had not overstayed. It has been suggested that this policy would eventually be rolled out to other visa categories such as work permits and student visas
Unsurprisingly, the idea was floated in – and warmly welcomed by – the Daily Mail, which also pointed out that “The idea will be welcomed by backbench Tory MPs, who have been urging the government to take a tougher line on immigration to combat the threat of UKIP.”
It did concede however that the scheme “is likely to face legal challenges on the grounds that – because it targets only people from so-called ‘high risk’ countries – it is discriminatory.”
That’s one way of putting it, but this group has another thing in common: they are all countries of majority black and brown people. Canada, Australia and New Zealand feature nowhere in this list. And the while the Mail and other news outlets blithely accept the notion that certain countries are “high risk” in terms of illegal immigration, they do so without any statistics to support this claim. I’m not saying that abuse of the visa system does not happen, but policy-making in the absence of facts will be misguided and ineffectual at best and runs the risk of being problematic.
Is this policy racist? Yes, and a number of factors feed into this. The language of migration in the current political debate is loaded. A discussion on India’s NDTV unpicked some of the nuances in the visa proposal; for example, what is the statistical threshold for “high risk”? Furthermore, when you discuss immigration as a “risk” it begs the question, “at risk of what, exactly?” Fraud? Crime? Or the tabloid image of a “disappearing Britain” where breakdowns in community cohesion and even the current economic troubles are blamed on “mass immigration.”* Immigration is primarily framed as a problem, first and foremost, rather than a 21st century reality to be managed fairly and with an eye to the benefits that immigrants often bring to their host nation, not to mention tourists and their spending power. Language matters. In the USA a remarkable coalition pushing for immigration reform has succeeded, among other things, in seeing a change in the way that immigrants are referred to in news and public debate. The Associated Press updated its Style Book to state that the phrase “illegal” is not to be used in reference to people – switching to “undocumented migrants” instead. I would add that criminals aren’t queuing to get a visa like the rest of us. A crackdown on legitimate tourists, students and migrants doesn’t hurt people traffickers. Keith Vaz MP has pointed that out that someone determined to work in the UK illegally could recoup the money “in a matter of months”.
And then there’s the issue of statistics, or, rather, the lack thereof. As political commentator Mehdi Hasan has often pointed out, the problem is not, as is so often lamented, that immigration is not discussed in the UK, it’s that it’s not an informed discussion. Part of the blame for this does rest on the shoulders of politicians. David Cameron has pledged repeatedly to reduce net immigration to the UK from the “hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.” As the UK cannot target EU migration, non-EU migration is where the squeeze is felt. But here’s the thing: “tens of thousands” is an arbitrary figure decided with no reference to any statistics on visitor numbers, actual migration, economic or social impacts. Secondly, the Tories can’t out-UKIP UKIP because their desire to stop immigration is unrealistic. The politicians would do well to start having the honest conversation.
There are reports today that following a huge outcry in the countries affected, particularly Nigeria and India, the government is rowing back on the proposal. Nick Clegg is reportedly not in favour of the plans, but he can’t lay the blame at the feet of the Tory Party – it was his idea. Labour, too, has considered this idea in the past. I doubt that this is the last discriminatory immigration policy to be floated by the government, but after this furore, future visitors, students and migrants to Britain may well think twice about the UK.
*this phrase bears some interrogation too, but let’s leave that for another day.