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UK PM Theresa May intends to bring down net immigration into her country down to 1,00,000 per year. This could hit Indians who form a major chunk of the immigrants there  

By Sajeda Momin in London

When the UK voted to exit the European Union through a referendum earlier this year, there were many British Indians who had opted for the Leave box having been convinced that the EU’s loss would be India’s gain. Brexiteers like Priti Patel had persuaded some British Indians that lower immigration and trade with the EU would mean higher immigration and trade with the rest of the world, particularly India. None of them took the warnings that an anti-immigration vote could eventually boomerang on them, as after all, they were immigrants too, albeit older.

No one, not even the Brexiteers imagined that they would win, but win they did with a resounding 51.9 per cent of the votes pulling Britain out of the EU and into an unknown future. Apart from costing former prime minister David Cameron his job and his career, the Brexit vote has left a deeply divided country. Over the last three months, many of the warnings issued by the Remainers prior to the referendum, which Brexiteers had rejected as “fanning fear”, have come true, particularly those alluding to the economy.

HARD BREXIT

The pound has gone in to a freefall touching lows last seen as far back as 1985 and projections for economic growth have plummeted even further. Remainers had also predicted that a Leave vote would upset the EU and there would be no cherry picking of what the UK can take and reject from the relationship, and they have been proven right. EU is not ready to allow Britain to remain in the single market unless they give concession on free flow of people, which brings us back to loss of control on immigration—hence the UK is preparing itself for a “hard-Brexit”.

People hold banners in London during a "March for Europe" demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the European Union. Photo: UNI
People hold banners in London during a “March for Europe” demonstration against Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Photo: UNI

While soothsayers on both sides had been predicting many things from Armageddon to Independence Day, no one had expected the massive changes in the ruling Conservative Party that the Brexit result brought about. Cameron’s ouster and Theresa May’s installation as his successor happened with lighting speed. Following in the footsteps of Britain’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, May has shown in a very short time that she too has nerves of steel. Demolishing Cameron’s cabinet and fixing her own stamp on the government within hours of taking up residence at No 10 Downing Street, May proved that she was not going to waste any time. Though May was on the Remain side prior to the referendum, right from the time she became prime minister she has made it very clear that Brexit means Brexit, putting paid to any hopes that both Remainers or Regreters had that there may be a second referendum to elicit a different result.

Theresa May added that she sees the Brexit vote as essentially a vote against immigration and intends to bring down net immigration into the UK to 1,00,000 per year to start with and even less thereafter.

In fact, at the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham in the beginning of October, May proved that she was now more dedicated to leaving the EU than even the most staunch Brexiteer. She announced that she intends to press the Article 50 button to start the exit process by end of March next year. And to the horror of British-Indian Brexiteers, she added that she sees the Brexit vote as essentially a vote against immigration and intends to bring down net immigration into the UK to 1,00,000 per year to start with and even less thereafter. And here lies the rub for Indians—the reduction in immigration isn’t just to keep out Europeans and replace them with migrants from the rest of the world (read India), but to keep everyone out. Even before she gave her first speech as prime minister at the party conference, her team was sending out signals that British companies must “list” the number of foreign workers they employed. May wanted to “name and shame” companies which employed too many foreigners!

“When I came here in 1982, Britain was a closed country, full of prejudice, but it evolved into a meritocracy over the last 30 years. Glass ceilings shattered and Indians reached the top. Suddenly, this wretched EU referendum and its aftermath have shocked us all,” said Lord Karan Bilimoria, a successful British-Indian entrepreneur. An independent member of the House of Lords, Bilimoria said the signals coming out of the Conservative Party conference were “anti-business, anti-immigration and anti-international students”, when Britain should be sending positive signals to both businessmen and students from India and other countries.

INDIANS UNHAPPY

The British-Indian community is deeply unhappy with May and her decisions, but many are not surprised. “When she was home secretary, May had the bright idea of getting vans with a big sign saying “GO HOME” to drive around in areas of London dominated by families of Indian origin. Her department claimed they were only referring to illegal immigrants but the point she wanted to make was as clear as a “bat-signal on a dark night”, says Sunny Hundal, political commentator and lecturer in digital journalism. Even as home secretary, May had attempted to reduce immigration to below the 1,00,000 mark but without much success. Now thanks to Brexit, her target has been resurrected.

Immediately after the Birmingham conference, May announced her visit to New Delhi as part of the India-UK Tech Summit next month. This will be her first trip to a non-EU country since she took office in July, hence it is symbolic that she has chosen India for the honor.

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However, it could just remain symbolic. This will be her first major test to see if she can marry her hopes of stronger partnerships with non-EU countries while at the same time introducing a tougher immigration regime. Critics are arguing that the two approaches are fundamentally not consistent. “The impression Britain is giving to countries such as India is, we want your business but we don’t want your people,” says Manoj Ladwa, a London-based political strategist and former adviser to Narendra Modi’s electoral campaign.

OBSESSED MAY                                        

May has pledged GBP 140 million to a “Migration Control Fund” signaling a decisively tougher stance on immigration. She has ordered a clampdown on student visas, linking the type of visa to the quality of the university, arguing that bogus universities have for long been used as the way into Britain by illegal migrants. Changes have also been made to rules governing intra-company transfers used by India’s IT companies. FICCI and other such business organizations have warned that wrong messages are being sent out to Indian companies which are already worried about the impact of Brexit on their investments.

The results of the Indo-UK meet will be interesting to see—how far will each side be willing to bend to get what they want. It will be the litmus test for Theresa May as to whether she will be able to go forward with her two contradictory policies.

“We have the chance to forge a new global role for the UK—to look beyond our continent and towards the economic and diplomatic opportunities in the wider world,” May said when announcing her trip to India. “I am determined to capitalize on those opportunities, and as we embark on the trade mission to India, we will send the message that the UK will be the most passionate, most consistent and most convincing advocate for free trade,” she added.

However, Vince Cable, former business secretary, points out that May was personally responsible for stalling the India-EU Free Trade Agreement, which has been hanging fire since 2007, because she was obsessed with immigration. Cable said India had been keen to expand “Mode 4” market access: the ability to bring in staff—Indian IT experts, for example—as part of trading in services. “What the Indians were asking for was very modest—and these are the kinds of people who, if we were being rational, we would want to have in the country,” he said. But he blamed May, then the home secretary who refused to compromise because “she was obsessed by her target”, of bringing down immigration. May is now in an even stronger position to do what she wants.

The results of the Indo-UK meet will be interesting to see—how far will each side be willing to bend to get what they want. It will be the litmus test for May as to whether she will be able to go forward with her two contradictory policies. An India-UK Free Trade Agreement is on the anvil, but can only be implemented once Britain is out of the EU. As Ladwa put it: “There must be some concrete gestures on the part of the UK towards India that demonstrate it is open for business and recognizes and respects the value that Indian business, students and tourists can add to the UK economy.”

Lead Picture: (L-R) UK PM Theresa May; a group of Indian women in the UK presenting a crochet blanket to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photos: UNI

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