By Alan Gibson
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Election briefing: Freedom of movement

This article is over 4 years, 8 months old
Issue 451

The terrible deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants last month once again brought to the fore just how murderous are the government’s anti-migrant policies. They are policies that have seen scores of Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani and others having endure untold miseries — sometimes ending in severe injury and even death — in their attempts to reach this country, as witnessed in the dreadful scenes around Calais and northern France and, indeed, across the continent. And they are policies that, as the Vietnamese episode horribly reveals, deliver desperate people into the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.

Yet such suffering, and such exploitation, has not stopped Boris Johnson and his home secretary Priti Patel wanting to make their policies even harder. This was made clear when they made sure that the first paragraph of the recent Queen’s Speech included their aim to get rid of free movement. That means the imposition of even stricter anti-immigration policies that are already the second-harshest in western Europe, after Italy’s.

Most of the people who will suffer the consequences will not, however, be Vietnamese or Syrians, terrible though their experiences have been. The vast majority will be EU citizens, bringing with it the inevitable return of a second, and probably even bigger, “Windrush scandal”.

Up to four million people already living here perfectly legally must apply for the government’s EU Settlement Scheme in order to continue to do so, with a deadline of 30 June 2021 if the UK leaves the EU with a deal; 31 December 2020 if it’s a no-deal exit.

Immigration experts, however, are already predicting many will not do this, making their status here illegal. Such people could include Polish contractors, Dutch Somalis, elderly people who have lived here for years and who may not be able to prove their identity, and the undocumented children of EU families. They will also include those who refuse to apply out of understandable disgust at being told to apply in the first place.

Despite government promises, even some of those who have received Settled Status face continuing uncertainty because many of its proposals re future immigration policy, including EU citizen’s rights, are scattered amid secondary legislation, which can be changed at any time, and government Green Papers.

Patel’s claim at the beginning of October that she would end free movement on 31 October — later deemed inoperable — sparked a 30 percent rise in applications to a total of around 1.8 million. Migration experts are, however, concerned that the percentage receiving Pre-Settled status — given to people living here for less than five years — is substantially more than the actual percentage of this category; 43 percent against 31 percent. This could mean either another Home Office cock-up or that a large percentage of EU citizens who have lived here for far longer than five years are either not bothering to apply or have not yet realised they need to.

Either way, despite comforting announcements that everything is under control, the chaotic mess that is today’s Home Office is clearly bending under the strain of an ever-increasing backlog of applications. It is therefore inevitable that, just like Commonwealth citizens caught up in the Windrush scandal, EU citizens deemed “illegal” will sooner or later find they cannot access NHS care, apply for benefits, legally rent property, apply for a bank account or a driving licence or send their kids to the local school. At worst, and as security minister Brandon Lewis has confirmed, they could face deportation.

Amelia Gentleman’s recent book The Windrush Betrayal documents just how nasty life could get for them. It tell of the thousands of British subjects, most of them from the Caribbean, who lost their jobs and their access to proper healthcare — and were in many cases deported to countries that they had last seen as young children. It also reveals the hardnosed instructions from Capita — the government’s chosen agent — that they received: “Message from the UK Border Agency. You are required to leave the UK as you no longer have right to remain,” and the vans hired to drive around London boroughs with billboards declaring: “Go Home or Face Arrest.”

In the meantime, even EU citizens who receive Settled Status face an uncertain future because the government has yet to agree what their “acquired rights” — issues incorporating the nitty-gritty of ordinary life for most people, such as a child’s future access to higher education, pension rights and so on — will be.

Meanwhile the government is set on replacing its immigration policy — one that will affect all migrants be they EU or not — with an Australian-style points system. Anyone who has delved into the government’s Kafkaesque immigration system will have left with a hefty dose of Brain Hurt. Now try Australia’s. Based on 11 criteria, such as age, skill, qualifications and so on, applicants for a Visa must “nominate a skilled occupation” on the country’s “Skilled Occupation List, OR the Consolidated Sponsors Occupation List” — both wish-lists of positions mainly requiring expensive education and substantial experience. And just to make things even clearer, applicants have six different Visas to choose from.

The government claimed in April 2013 that it was scrapping free legal advice to migrants applying to stay because the immigration system was so simple such advice was unnecessary. Migration experts have since pointed to the scrapping as a factor in the Windrush scandal. Yet the government has no plans to reinstate free advice, despite the arguably greater complexity of its proposed migration policy.

On the contrary, the government has cut legal aid by more than 40 percent, equal to £1 billion, over the past five years. It has also raised significantly the cost of applying for non-EU migration status; costs that will affect all migrants once Britain leaves the EU. For example, right now it costs non-EU migrants £2,000 each for 2.5 years access to NHS care. That’s on top of the around £1,000 to apply. The costs mean that even families that are entitled stay under the rules can’t afford to do so.

As a result, they are forced into irregular employment and susceptible to super-exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous employers and landlords, and sex traffickers. They also slip into the Theresa May’s “hostile environment” — since January 2017 relabelled “compliant environment” — with its system of “citizen-on-citizen” migration checks incorporating employers, landlords, bank clerks, hospital administration staff, teachers, lecturers and a host of others into the government’s border guards.

Meanwhile the plight of British nationals who want to bring non-EU partners and children into the country continues. In July 2012, the government raised the income threshold they must be earning to £18,600 pa before they could apply, effectively separating tens of thousands of families.

And still the government’s cruel policies affecting asylum seekers continue, with most disallowed from working and having to survive on what typically amounts to just £5.39 per day. It is a regime that can see some of the most vulnerable ending up in detention centres; centres that can keep people locked up indefinitely. It is also a disgusting regime that can take people away without warning, sometimes from in front of their children, in order to either lock them up or deport them.

Would a Labour government be any better? If the magnificent motion passed by delegates on the last day of Labour’s conference in September was anything to go by, then the answer would be a massive yes. It called for not only maintaining existing free movement, but for extending it. It called for the closure of detention centres, and an end to all measures incorporated in the “hostile environment”. It called for unconditional rights to family reunion and a host of pro-migrant policies.

Sadly, just two days later, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott disowned the motion, saying Labour would remain committed to a work visa system. In doing so she echoed the party’s position outlined in its 2017 Manifesto, and repeated by Jeremy Corbyn in April.

Questioned on BBC Radio 4’s Today, Abbott explained: “What we are suggesting is a new system of work visas, which would be looking at what the needs of the country are, what is appropriate, what is just, what is family reunion.”

In doing so, Abbott was following in Labour’s dismal history of anti-migrant policies. As Paul Foot said in his Immigration and Race in British Politics, published in 1965, in opposition Labour “bitterly opposed” immigration controls, “yet possessed of power…it manipulated these controls much more ruthlessly than had its political opponents”.

A case in point is the massive toughening of the Tories’ 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, carried out by Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 government. This effectively limited free movement rights to those whose parents or grandparents had been born in the UK.

The Windrush scandal largely involved those commonwealth citizens who arrived with free movement rights but then lost them as the tightening legislation gradually reduced those rights. When they first arrived in Britain they had access to services on the basis of their nationality, but they then had to prove it on the basis of their immigration status, which many could not do.

Another is the race to the bottom between the Tories and Labour during the 1980s and 90s over who could be nastier to asylum seekers. As one migration expert has commented: “It got to a point under David Blunkett’s regime that just about every asylum seeker was to be deemed ‘illegal’.”

Delegates to Labour’s conference showed, however, that there is resistance to such brutality, just as a Pew Survey last year found three-quarters of Britons supported taking in refugees from countries where people are fleeing war and violence. And several other surveys have found attitudes to migration have softened since the 2016 referendum.

By taking every opportunity to unite such resistance — such as around Stand Up To Racism’s campaign to defend EU migrants — it is possible to begin to bring an end to these vast networks of rules and controls, border guards and detention centres. But ultimately the only real answer to a brutal system that systematically ruins people’s lives and condemns many to horrible deaths is to get rid of borders entirely.

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