The announcement by the UK government to pilot a tough new visa bond scheme aimed at discouraging illegal immigration and reducing net migration will have gone down well at the Home Office. However, given the public perception of the scheme in the countries affected by the pilot, the announcement has damaged relations with some of Britain’s old colonial friends.
The pilot scheme targets six “high risk” countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The theory is that visitors from these countries will have to pay a refundable deposit of £3,000 if they wish to obtain a visa to visit the UK and this money will be returned to them once they leave the UK. The “security bonds” (or “visa bonds” as they are widely referred to) are aimed at discouraging visitors from overstaying their visas and remaining in the UK unlawfully.
However, the scheme has been widely criticised both at home and abroad. Critics have been quick to point out that the scheme is flawed and will not work. They argue that anyone intending to remain in the UK illegally after the expiry of their visa will merely view the cost of the bond as an additional expense and accept that they will lose the money. The argument goes that the scheme will only deter potential bona fide visitors from coming to the UK.
Whether the scheme will meet the policy objective of “preventing illegal immigration” is only a very narrow aspect of the debate. The wider impact of the scheme has been felt far away from the English counties that have been turning to the anti-immigration politics of UKIP, a party that advocates the UK leaving the EU. In a short sighted move by the Conservative-led coalition government, an attempt to win back disillusioned Conservative voters from UKIP has had the unfortunate, though predictable, consequence of alienating governments in New Delhi, Islamabad, Colombo, Dhaka, Lagos and Accra.
One government particularly frustrated by the announcement is that of India. It was only a couple of months ago that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was in Mumbai with one of the largest trade delegations a British PM has taken abroad. His message built upon his earlier 2010 visit: India is a “strategic partner” for Britain. There was much talk of forging and strengthening a “special relationship” with the former colonial nation and building upon the shared language and intertwined histories of the two nations.
The positive signs of partnership that David Cameron laid on his first visit were cemented when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, chose India as the destination for his first overseas trade mission in November 2012. During his six-day visit to “to promote London and further enhance economic links between India and the UK”, he also spoke of the opportunities that the UK can offer to Indian businesses.
In light of the new “special relationship”, Indo-British relations were looking like they had a promising future. Britain seemed ready to embrace India’s emerging market and capitalise on the opportunities that the world’s fastest developing economy has to offer. The economic benefits that partnership with a politically stable India could bring to a struggling UK economy made India an attractive and desirable match for the UK. However, despite careful courting, the relationship now looks to be on the rocks. The announcement that the British immigration authorities were placing India in the same category as struggling African nations, war torn Sri Lanka, or the old adversary, politically unstable Pakistan is viewed as insulting to India.
The introduction of the bonds has also caused uncertainty and alarm amongst India’s business community. The Confederation of Indian Industry described the bonds as “highly discriminatory and very unfortunate,” whereas other mainstream voices in India have called for retaliation against British nationals applying for Indian visas. With growing anger across the country, the Indian High Commissioner in London asked for further details. The Indian Commerce and Industry Minister, Anand Sharma then claimed to have received assurances from key UK government Ministers, including the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, that the scheme had not been discussed at the Cabinet and that it did not have the full support of the UK government.
The international reaction to the pilot, especially across the six affected countries, leaves the UK government in an extremely awkward position. Either they can push ahead with the scheme, thereby risking further alienation of nations that are key strategic partners or they can listen to the business community at home and abroad and scrap the scheme before it is formally introduced. The latter option is not particularly desirable to David Cameron for a number of reasons.
The first is that it creates the perception that he is a weak leader and one who is out of tune with the British public’s concerns about immigration. It would also be widely viewed as a humiliation for the UK’s tough talking Home Secretary, Theresa May, a figure popular with MPs on the Conservative backbenches as well as grassroots Conservative party activists. As May is tipped as a potential challenger to Cameron’s leadership, he will be very conscious that he needs to keep her on side.
He will also be acutely aware that any concession on immigration leads to electoral risks. Should even more of the Conservative’s core voters turn to UKIP in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, then there will be questions raised about whether Cameron can continue to lead his party.
If the Prime Minister acquiesces with the scheme for purely personal domestic gains, he risks weakening the United Kingdom internationally. Old colonial friends are looking elsewhere for support as their economies develop. India is a key example and is now looking towards the USA for more incentives to do more business there. Sri Lanka, strategically placed in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes has already seen massive investment from China, with a Beijing-funded $500 million super-port opening. Nigeria, despite the political instability, remains a key player in the African oil and gas market and an influential voice amongst African nations.
The choice David Cameron faces is unenviable. Government will always be Janus-faced, simultaneously looking to seek advantage both at home and abroad. However, this could have been easily avoided had the consequences of the visa bond announcement been thought through.
It remains to be seen how the visa bond plans will play out, though it is clear that the stakes at home and abroad are now high. The question will be whether the British Prime Minister acts in the best interests of the UK internationally or in the best interests of his own party at home. Either way, he has sent out mixed messages and Britain’s global reputation has been left tarnished by the affair.