New UK-India pact: An end to London dreams of illegal migrants

— AP
— AP

The agreement includes a new exchange scheme by which 3,000 young Indian professionals would be allowed to take up jobs in the UK for two years

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 20 May 2021, 10:14 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:24 PM

When British and Indian prime ministers, ministers or senior diplomats come visiting each other, official discourse follows a script of platitudes to celebrate the achievements in bilateral relations since India’s independence in 1947 — from close ties rooted in history, to talking up the potential of trade, to Indians investing big and creating jobs in Britain, to highlighting India’s IT strengths, to hailing the ‘living bridge’ of the 1.5 million-strong Indian diaspora, and more. But as the legendary Cambridge economist Joan Robinson once told her student Amartya Sen, “The frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”

Rarely mentioned in the feel-good narrative is the flip side that hangs over diplomatic interactions: The issue of returning Indian citizens who are in the UK illegally. Their number varies — from over 100,000 claimed by the British, to a fraction of that figure assessed by the Indian side — but there is recent realisation that the situation has reached a ‘saturation point’ at policy and other levels that calls for a speedy solution. The extent of Illegal migration and its perception also influences the conditions of legal migration.

First as the home secretary and then as prime minister, Theresa May controversially set the template on dealing with the issue after the David Cameron government took over in 2010 with a promise to cut immigration. The illegal migrants are part of the sensitive issue that has long dominated the British public sphere, including during the toxic debates that led to the Brexit vote in the 2016 EU referendum. There is no published country-wise list or estimate of illegal migrants in the UK, but the Foreign Office said in a recent submission to a parliamentary committee: “India accounts for the largest number of individuals in the UK illegally.” There was a UK-India Returns Memorandum of Understanding on returning illegal migrants, but it was not renewed in 2011. It also lacked a formal framework and British officials claimed that the procedure set out to identify and return such individuals was unable to deliver emergency travel documents in sufficient number or at sufficient speed.

In 2013, as May began to put in place what she called a ‘hostile environment’ as part of efforts to curb immigration, she infuriated New Delhi by clubbing India with five other ‘high-risk’ countries in a pilot project in which their citizens would need to furnish £3,000 security bond at the time of applying for visas to prevent them from overstaying (other countries in the list were Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana). India’s strong reaction expressed by furious diplomats in London and others prompted the government to drop the pilot, but May carried forward her ideas when she visited India in 2016 as prime minister. Standing next to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she said: “The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK.” Rows over the UK’s student visa dominated her India visit, dismaying many in London. Another pilot project raised hackles in 2016, when Chinese nationals were given access to a two-year multiple-entry visa that is almost four times cheaper than that for Indian nationals. The UK government’s list of ‘low-risk’ countries that enjoy relaxed student visa requirements includes China, but excludes India. James Bevan, former high commissioner to India, told British MPs that the primary reason for the difference was the perception that Indian nationals were more likely to overstay, whereas the families of Chinese nationals might face ‘consequences’ if they did not return.

Official-level talks continued on the technicalities of returning illegal migrants, briefly interrupted by the 2017 mid-term election. May remained on course, telling me at the time: “The Home Office is discussing various ways in which that process (of returns) can be improved. It is something I have said internationally, that I think where there are people who are in a country illegally, they should be returned, but it is a question of getting a smoother process so that people aren’t spending quite so long waiting to be returned.” After a series of talks, a draft agreement committing both countries to taking a more flexible approach to verifying the identity and nationality of individuals was signed in London by then minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju in January 2018. It was to be formalised during Modi’s visit to London in April 2018, but was dropped when some reservations were expressed at the last-minute by senior functionaries in his delegation.

A new way forward

May’s idea to link a better visa offer with more and speedy return of illegal migrants has now been formalised in a Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement signed by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and home secretary Priti Patel on May 4. Patel said: “This landmark agreement with our close partners in the government of India will provide new opportunities to thousands of young people in the UK and India seeking to live, work and experience each other’s cultures. This agreement will also ensure that the British government can remove those with no right to be in the UK more easily and crack down on those abusing our system.” As the mayor of London, Boris Johnson once favoured granting amnesty to all illegal migrants so that they figure in official records and contribute taxes and make other contributions, but did not carry forward the idea as prime minister.

Besides setting out details how suspected illegal Indians would be identified and returned within specified time limits, the agreement includes a new exchange scheme by which 3,000 young Indian professionals would be allowed to take up jobs in the UK for two years (similar number of young Britons will also be facilitated in India). Official figures show that Indian professionals are already granted the largest number of UK work visas. Some logistics of verifying the identity of suspected illegal migrants are yet to be sorted, but the Indian side is keen to ensure that the nationality of suspects will be confirmed by New Delhi by a thorough process to prevent non-Indians from south Asia claiming Indian citizenship and moving to India in what could amount to a security issue. For those who overstay visas, copies of Indian passport and other documents submitted while applying for the visa will be used to confirm their nationality. Indian quarters are broadly satisfied that their concerns have been addressed, but remain unsure how the agreement will play out on the ground; some believe the agreement may have some long-term implications for India’s diaspora policy, but agree that it is no longer tenable to allow the situation to continue as it did in recent decades. India signed a similar agreement in 2018 with France.

There are several categories of migrants who do not have the legal right to be in the UK, including those who overstayed visitor, student and other visas; those who may have submitted unreliable documents while applying for visa; failed asylum seekers; those apprehended while trying to enter into marriages of convenience or committing crime; and those who entered the country through illegal routes facilitated by human traffickers. Britain has long been the destination of economic migrants seeking a better life, who believe the streets of London are paved with gold, and hand over large sums of money to the traffickers to help reach their destination. Some make it; others don’t, but the stories of those who succeed drives others back home to follow the illegal path. For such Indians who brave hazardous journeys and wily traffickers, their ‘London dream’ often turns into a nightmare. Many destroy their passports and other papers on arrival to frustrate attempts to re-establish their identity, obtain new travel documents from the Indian high commission, and deport them home.

Living on the fringes

Says Swansea-based filmmaker and academic Savyasaachi Jain, who produced the acclaimed documentary Door Kinare (Shores Far Away) that highlighted the plight of such Indians: “The people I interviewed had their dreams shattered and wanted me to warn others not to be mad to try and come here. Many were destitute; they were living on the fringes of British society, homeless and sleeping rough. They weren’t making any progress here, and neither were they able to go back. To return home without having been successful would mean a huge loss of face, apart from the loss of the amount invested in travel. It’s a very desperate and stressful situation, and drug and alcohol abuse is common. These people are not criminals; they are enterprising young men who set out to make their fortune. But in this country, they have no social capital, nobody to turn to. They don’t have the support networks that they would have in their villages back home. The recent developments might help to find a way forward for the undocumented Indian migrants who have been in a legal limbo for years. Now, the decision to return or to keep trying to make a living here has been taken out of their hands. It brings an end to their journey, not the ending they had hoped for, but nevertheless one that might help them to move on with their lives.”

On any day, such individuals can be seen huddled together in parts of London and towns with a significant population of settled Indian-origin people, such as Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester, seeking odd jobs for small sums in the parallel cash economy. They often visit gurdwaras and charity organisations for free food, while many end up in cramped, unhygienic slum-like conditions in ‘beds in sheds’ or extensions in gardens of houses, let out illegally. In recent years, several councils and immigration officials have launched drives to clear such ‘modern day shanty towns’, as the British tabloid press calls them.

The new agreement with initial validity of seven years allows ‘forced repatriation’ of individuals who refuse to cooperate but whose nationality is confirmed. In cases where the UK has evidence that an Indian national is unlawfully present in the UK, and is the parent of a minor child born in the UK but whose birth has not been registered with the Indian mission, India will accept a UK birth certificate as evidence for securing an emergency travel document for the child only if the nationality of both the parents and their relationship with the child is conclusively established. The costs associated with the return of illegal migrants will be borne by Britain. Other key areas outlined in the agreement include join action to tackle human trafficking and forgery of travel documents, with the UK offering to share expertise to train specialists in the fight against document fraud and to provide its expertise in the field of detection equipment.

Says Avinash Paliwal, senior academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS): “The agreement is a big move for India and the UK as it removes a core irritant from the way of a future India-UK Free Trade Agreement. For years, the key ask for India has been relatively freer mobility of labour (along with capital) from India to the UK, whereas the UK was reluctant to accept this in context of Brexit and related concerns regarding migration. This deal seems to offer a compromise solution on both these counts i.e., repatriation of Indians residing illegally in the UK thereby addressing London’s overall heightened concerns about illegal migration (not just from India) whereas also offering freer visa regulations for Indian citizens visiting the UK. In the changing domestic contexts with India and the UK, as well as the international strategic environment (rising importance of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad in face of China’s assertive rise), the agreement demonstrates the urgency for both sides to iron out political differences and settle long-festering issues.”

(Prasun is a London-based journalist.)

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