Shahrukh Khan, the Bollywood legend, once remarked that whenever he needed to rein in his arrogance, he would travel to the US: ‘The immigration guys would kick the star out of my stardom’. But the everyday indignity of airport immigration pales in comparison to the deep humiliation the current UK government seeks to inflict on citizens of states who are part of its ‘non-white’ Commonwealth.
Next year, we will be commemorating the centenary of the Great War –a conflict in which around 1.3 million South Asians and West Africans were mobilised and around 65,000 lost their lives. But before that, we will be expecting the citizens of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana to pay a £3,000 cash bond to enter the UK.
Very quickly friends’ and colleagues’ Twitter and Facebook feeds were sharing the cartoon of an Indian immigration official fining a suitably attired UK immigrant in India for ‘overstaying by 250 years’. From the perspective of my profession the joke has a darker side. The rules threaten long-standing research collaborations with these countries for the UK’s Higher Education sector. Visitors from these states share the cultures and languages of the UK’s most demographically significant minorities, and have contributed greatly to its economic, cultural and scientific successes. My last two publicly funded research projects and the last dozen UK based conferences I have attended, would have been impossible without the relatively free movement of colleagues from India.
But there are more troubling implications. The move has added to the sense of unease among the most important ethnic minority (BME) communities and residents of these countries, already roused by the government’s ‘go home’ vans, and who inevitably see this as a draconian and arguably racist measure.
Although Cameron’s visit to India in 2011 acknowledged the importance of the region for UK trade, retaliation is likely, making academic, cultural and business links difficult in both directions. My concerns are shared by a large number of academics in all fields, and it is for this reason that we have decided to start a petition and open letter to the Home Secretary. Already, leading researchers, teachers and academics across UK institutions have offered to sign.
Theresa May stated that ‘In the long run, we are interested in a system of bonds that deters overstaying and recovers costs if a foreign national has used our public services.’ Yet there is very little evidence that stable levels of immigration and out-migration have a significant effect on the cost of public services or the public purse. Indeed, as a recent OECD study has shown, immigrants in the wealthy nations of Europe do not have a negative fiscal impact. If anything, overall, their contribution to the public purse is very mildly positive.
Public debate on immigration is repeatedly used as a forum for political neurosis and national outrage, and is therefore rarely nuanced. But ignoring detailed research on its effects threatens our ability to adapt to a changing demography in which the working population is declining in relation to retirees. In the longer term, a growing and healthy economy should encourage successful working-age migrants, rather than deter them.
One of the greatest historians of the Indian subcontinent, fellow of a Cambridge college, who held an Indian passport, once told me of the repeated enquiries he faced at Heathrow about his ‘intentions’ on entering the UK. Then, and still more today, I felt dismay at this blindness, and the thought of how poorly my country had come to terms with its imperial past.