London Diary: ‘Our Rishi’ unlikely to be soft on immigrants
Rishi Sunak has not been a public advocate of strong ties with India. His stands in public life show clearly that he is a Tory Brexiteer first, “our [Indian] Rishi” later
‘Our Rishi’ unlikely to be soft on immigrants
Many immigrants appear to be horrified by the sight of Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, themselves children of Indian immigrants, leading a crackdown against immigrants. It is, however, an old Conservative Party project which successive prime ministers—from James Cameron to Theresa May and Boris Johnson and the short-lived Liz Truss— tried to push through but failed.
They raved and ranted about how immigrants were abusing British hospitality, “stealing” British jobs, piling on pressure on already stretched public services, and undermining British “values”. Theresa May called them “people of nowhere” and made it an official policy to make their lives “difficult”. Even the once pro-migration Labour Party cracked under pressure with erstwhile PM Gordon Brown promising “British jobs for British people”.
The whole Brexit saga was prompted by a hue and cry over immigration. It was claimed that once Britain exited the European Union, immigration would fall automatically as free movement of EU citizens would stop. Swathes of Indian immigrants voted for Brexit after being promised that the end of immigration from EU countries would allow the government to relax visa rules for Commonwealth citizens.
That promise, vociferously pushed by the self-proclaimed Indophile Boris Johnson, was never kept. On the contrary, visa rules for all foreign students—including from Commonwealth countries—have been toughened. India, particularly, is under pressure following government claims that Indians account for the largest number of migrants who overstay their visas. Home Office statistics show that 20,706 Indians overstayed their visas in 2020, more than any other nationality.
For all the rhetorical bonhomie, India-UK relations continue to be bogged down in controversies over immigration. Britain has doggedly refused to heed India’s demand for a more liberal visa regime—such as enjoyed by China. Sunak was expected to be more accommodating. But, on his very first appearance in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister, he made it clear that his government would be “focused on cracking down on criminals and defending the UK’s borders”.
There is only one area where Sunak is said to differ from his xenophobic home secretary Braverman: while she wants a blanket freeze on all immigration, he favours a limited opening up for high-skilled immigrants needed to boost British economy.
But concessions, if any, are likely to come with strings attached—such as India agreeing to take back thousands of illegal immigrants that Britain claims are Indian; a claim Delhi disputes arguing that many of those Britain wants to dump on India have no documentary evidence of their Indian citizenship, and could pose a threat to national security.
As I write this, a row has erupted over a proposed new package of anti-immigration measures. Much of the Indian reaction is based on a slight misunderstanding. The new measures are specifically directed against illegal migrants who cross the English Channel from France in perilous boats to reach Britain. Almost every other day, innocent people including children lose their lives because their boat capsizes.
Most of them are not refugees fleeing war or persecution but potential economic migrants. They pay thousands of pounds to human traffickers to help them reach the UK. The smugglers load them on unsafe and overcrowded boats leaving them to their fate while they themselves run away with the money. Indians are said to account for the third-largest contingent of such migrants this year so far.
It’s an unprecedented development. Never before in living memory have such a large number of Indians been caught trying to enter the UK illegally. One motive is said to be to use a rule that allows asylum-seekers to study here paying the same fee that domestic students pay than the exorbitant rates international students are required to pay.
Officials have been reported saying they believe Indian students are using a loophole in asylum rules that allows asylum seekers to study in the UK and pay domestic rather than international fees.
It costs a typical Indian citizen £363 for a student visa, about £940 for the immigration health surcharge and an average of about £22,000 a year in international student fees to study for an undergraduate degree in England. But asylum seekers wanting to study pay only domestic fees which are frozen at £9,250.
The government says that asylum seekers should come through legal routes or would be immediately detained and deported. Admittedly, some of the rhetoric has been insensitive but there’s too much domestic pressure on Sunak to stop illegal immigration. And this even before we consider the constraints placed on him by his Indian ethnicity. He doesn’t wish to be seen as ‘soft’ on India.
As Rahul Roy Chaudhury, senior fellow for South Asia at London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told one newspaper, ‘Rishi Sunak has not been a public advocate of strong ties with India. As Chancellor of the Exchequer for over two years, he did not visit India even once. There is no indication that this outlook is likely to change as the Prime Minister.”
So, don’t expect an easy ride with Sunak. He’s a Tory Brexiteer first, “our [Indian] Rishi” later.