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The Fueling of Xenophobia and New Economic Tests for UK Residence

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In 2012 it was announced that the UK government was planning to limit migration to those outside the EU uniquely to those individuals earning more than £35,000. This pay threshold was to be the first time that the British government requires an economic test to permanently settle in the UK. Now it seems that this economic test will soon be a reality on 6 April, 2016.

From this date, according to the Home Office, those in the UK on a Tier 2 visa originating from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) must be earning £35,000 or more to qualify for “indefinite leave to remain,” also know as permanent residence. Prior to this all that was needed for settlement in the UK by a skilled migrant worker was to show a certain amount of time living in the UK (usually a minimum of five years), proof that they meet a points threshold, and the salary requirements published in the Codes of Practice for their particular job. Last year when this new rule was announced, it was estimated that approximately 30,000 nurses would be deported. The numbers are far higher when you factor in what is termed “essential services” such as teachers, scientists, and diverse medical and pedagogical specialists who earn nowhere near £35,000.

The economic test was the brainchild of Theresa May, Secretary of State for the Home Department. Just last week, May’s quest was to push her snooper’s charter which allows for the government to hack into private citizens’ smartphones, resulting in many people simply unlocking their mobiles and using independent or international mobile carriers. It would seem that Theresa May’s career is becoming synonymous with forcing people away from UK businesses and now forcing foreigners from UK soil. Part of a larger plan to enforce David Cameron’s 2010 pledge to reduce net migration“from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.” The problem with such a promise is that Cameron has absolutely no control over the EU nationals who come to the UK settle. As a result, the only way he can keep his promise is to deter non-EU nationals. As the Daily Mail and The Sun inform us that we are deluged by Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians, with the likes of Katie Hopkins telling her readers that she would use “gunships to stop migrants,” the major strategy of this government is to focus its xenophobia elsewhere while making demands of immigrants so unbearable that they either do not qualify or they give up and leave.

May’s rational for demanding higher income brackets for permanent residents, despite this figure being far higher than the average income earned today (£26,500), is that those individuals who remain in the UK are not the top earners. The goal is also to cut the number of non-Europeans and their dependents granted settlement from 60,000 to 20,000 annually. In a written statement, May declared: “Up to this point, settlement in the UK has been a virtually automatic consequence of five years’ residency as a Tier 2 skilled worker. Those settling here are people often on lower wages and are lower-skilled, whereas higher earners and more skilled individuals are not settling.” But anyone who has ever studied in a school or university knows that quality is not measured by quantity of income. There are a slew of jobs in the UK held by perfectly professional and brilliant people earning well under £35,000 beginning with teachers and university lecturers. It is a strange irony that May’s response to people being underpaid essentially is to kick them out of the country rather than advocate for a higher minimum wage and higher wages for educators, for instance.

The majority of working age benefit claimants in 2014 were British with 4.9 million claiming benefits (92.6 %) while only 131,000 (2.5%) were EU nationals, and the number of recipients from outside the UK were 413,000 (a misleading figure since in reality immigrants coming from outside the EEA who are not political refugees cannot claim any public funds). All immigrants from outside the EU who do not have refugee status have clearly stamped in their passports “No recourse to public funds,” yet these individuals are earning money, paying taxes, and contributing to the skilled sector and economic infrastructure of Great Britain. They are also highly unlikely to go on benefits once attaining permanent resident status.

Since last week, there has been a petition which initially aimed for 50,000 signatures and at the time of writing this article is closing in on 85,000. By 100,000 signatures the Parliament’s Petitions Committee would normally consider this issue for debate in the House as a starting-point. The petition specifically asks the Home Office to scrap the £35,000 salary requirement which “discriminates against charity workers, nurses, students and other,” but more to the point, such a policy is draconian and pretends that excellence and quality of immigrant can be measured by salary. Many lecturers with PhDs in this country are not even making £35,000 and trainee doctors start at £22,636. Theresa May seems not only to be out of touch with the reality of what salaries people are earning today, but she seems to be completely out to lunch in understanding how these immigrants contribute to the economic health of the UK through their taxes without being able to receive any public funds whatsoever.

Typical to conservative views of immigration, yet not limited to the Tory party, many people around the UK often believe some of the myths about the drain on the benefits system which collective form a deeply xenophobic view of migrants. For instance, last November Prime Minister Cameron tried to convince the British public that 43% of EU immigrants drew benefits, a claim that has been completely derailed by facts. Or where it was shown that UK nationals use far more benefits in EU nations than those nationals do in the UK. Most media reports focus upon the negative impact of immigration without any ethnographic or statistical information to back up such claims, hence there is a disconnect between reality and what most Britons thin of immigrants.

For instance, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration notes that the public’s view of immigration is low because it is “based on low levels of knowledge about immigration, and generally not connected to direct experience of immigration impacts” with the “majority of British voters hold complex and often contradictory views on migration” (11 July, 2011). The report also states that the British public holds an “exaggerated view” of the impact of immigration on the country. Myths that claimed that immigrants are drain on social housing, that they commit more crimes than Britons, that they come to the UK to claim benefits, to be health tourists, and that they take jobs away from British people have all been debunked. Yet, perplexingly, the rhetoric amongst many nationals in the UK today is still largely—sometimes only behind closed doors—anti-migrant. And this time the tide has shifted from the days of spurious comments being made about Polish and other Eastern European migrants.

A taxi driver from Romania recounted his experiences of immigration to the UK to me the other day: “I have worked here for nine years and never once taken anything from the system. Both me and my wife have worked and contributed our skills and taxes. Now we just want to leave because there isn’t any future here for foreigners. You pay into the system but are suspect if ever you might need the system and we are constantly abused here. I was even afraid to talk with you now.” He went on to tell me how he and his wife would like to have a child but worry that they cannot afford to follow through given the lack of support for women to return to their jobs with daycare being largely unsubsidized. This is a sentiment I hear from many migrants to the UK from both EU and non-EU countries.

The fact is that no politician from either the Right or the Left wants to address the stresses to the benefits system by the British nor do they wish to honestly approach social problems without using immigrants as scapegoats for what are deeply entrenched domestic problems. While for some, blaming the UKIP is another escape from addressing what are more socially constructed narratives of rights and perceptions of those who “bilk the system.” Since the Calais crisis of last year, the language of migration is proving to be as difficult a challenge as is finding media which can honestly represent the issues and push the government to answer its false claims and hyperbole towards its constituency further creating a culture of distrust and fear for many migrants today.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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