After the coronavirus crisis and the recognised contribution of key workers, many of whom are immigrants, has this changed the immigration debate?
One positive to emerge from the COVID-19 era has been the increased appreciation for migrants of all skill levels. From supermarket staff to surgeons, the national fight against the virus has highlighted the invaluable contributions that overseas nationals make towards the healthy functioning of the UK.
Yet despite this shift in attitudes, the government is pressing ahead with its implementation of a new points-based immigration system, a cornerstone of which is a minimum salary threshold of £25,600 per year. This ‘skills-based’ approach will prevent migrants from working in many of the roles that have proved so important in recent weeks, from carers to couriers.
With the current economic and social landscape so different to when the key principles of the Points-Based System (PBS) were first conceived, there is a pressing need to recalibrate the overall approach to immigration policy.
Rather than subjecting migrants to exorbitant fees for both visa and citizenship applications, and denying them entry to the country if their earnings are not deemed sufficient, it is time for a more humane approach. This means bringing an end to the ‘Hostile Environment’- the vindictive set of policies that resulted in the Windrush scandal- and taking decisive action to stop the exploitation of migrant workers once and for all.
The primary focus for UK immigration policy post COVID-19 should be to treat overseas nationals with decency and respect. A hostile, restrictive approach will only serve to undermine our recovery from the crisis.
Before Covid, this parliament was due to implement the biggest reforms in immigration policy for half a century. Those on different sides of the EU referendum debate four years ago should now see this as an opportunity to secure broader public confidence in the contribution that well-managed immigration can make to Britain.
The pandemic has changed perceptions of our society in several ways – but it would be an exaggeration to say it has transformed views on immigration. Political and media debates have caught up with where the public already were: the public were always appreciative of the positive contribution of migration to the NHS and social care. They hold pragmatic views of the case for migration, not just in high-skilled roles but also for people coming to do necessary jobs. Simple changes – such as extending the proposed NHS visa to cover social care workers – would reflect that.
The Immigration Bill creates a framework for future choices on immigration – but does not decide what choices should be made. The economic conditions in which those choices will be made look increasingly uncertain. If international students don’t come this autumn, that will hurt universities, and the local economies around them. The domestic labour market is also uncertain.
The immigration policy debate shouldn’t only be about who gets a visa. All EU nationals currently resident must be able to secure their legal status beyond the Settled Status deadline. The government should also review citizenship policy, looking at whether costs and processes are fair, and actively encourage those already here to take up citizenship.
The key to an immigration system that serves the economic and cultural needs of a country lies in its flexibility. The Government’s proposed immigration policy is an unfortunate over correction away from what was an unpopular policy of free movement with the whole of the EU to an inflexible and overly restrictive system. The points-based system, combined with arbitrary salary thresholds will result in many qualified, talented and valuable individuals being shut out of the UK.
COVID-19 is shining a new light on our deficient system. ‘Low-skill’ or low-paid jobs do not mean non-essential work in our economy. Thousands of immigrant carers, shop keepers, truck drivers, nurses, teachers, and more are keeping the economy going while so much is locked down. Ideally, UK immigration policy would be focused on making the UK the most attractive place to live, work and start a business, and be flexible enough to allow businesses access to skilled workers to fill the gaps in the economy which will inevitably arise.
The Government does not have enough information to manufacture a system that can adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. Businesses know best who fits the needs of their workforce, regardless of their place of origin. The UK should focus on making it easier for businesses to hire immigrants of any skill or salary level, commit to mutual recognition of qualifications from comparable countries, and reduce the financial burden on migrants and businesses of application fees and NHS health surcharges. With these priorities, we will see a truly productive and responsive immigration system.
A common thread running through our immigration research has been the extent to which the outcomes of so many policy decisions have differed so spectacularly from what was expected; take the impact of the UK opening up to EU8 migrants in 2004, or the Government’s attempts over the last decade to hit a 100,000 net immigration target.
The perception has been that most UK politicians care more about what they say, and how they sound, on immigration policy, than what its outcome is. And that in so doing they have been disinterested in the concerns of many ‘ordinary people’.
But even starker has been their seeming disinterest in migration itself, in understanding what drives different migrants’ choices and decisions around coming, staying, returning. Immigration policy can only better deliver on outcomes if it is more interested in this, at a more granular level.
The forthcoming points-based system might help. Elsewhere in the world such systems have encouraged a more curious approach. Greater accountability for outcomes versus policy intentions and expectations. Learning from the results. And adapting accordingly.
And the COVID-19 crisis has brought migrants in the UK more into focus as real people, with different opportunities and challenges – from those who are key workers, to those struggling with no recourse to public funds, to those whose immigration status makes them wary of approaching the health services. These challenges are not straightforward. But being more aware of these different realities, more interested in these different perspectives, would be a step forward.
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