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The UK immigration system – and why we should care about it

UK immigration laws are becoming a recurring horror story in today’s news. Stories of missing boats, deportations to Rwanda, floating migrant camps, even the detainment of a Stirling University postgraduate student over accusations of visa violations. An open letter advocating for Muhammad’s appeal headed by Amnesty at University of Stirling, Student Action for Refugees Stirling, NUS Scotland and the No Evictions Network is available here

Image Credit: Muhammad Rauf Waris

Muhammad Rauf Waris has been detained in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre for the past 2 months, after coming to Stirling from Pakistan to study business management. He has said that he is mentally and physically ill. The Home Office claims to possess credible evidence that he worked more than the 20 hours a week outlined in his visa conditions. A senior solicitor at McGlashan MacKay, Denise Okan, has said that Waris’ lawyers have been ignored when presenting evidence that allegedly demonstrates he had not exceeded this limit. 

Which begs the question, when did UK immigration become a dystopia?

Some important words

There are separate, distinct terms for people wishing to come to the UK.

Immigrant – someone who makes the decision to leave their home country and intends to settle somewhere else.

Asylum seeker – someone seeking international protection because of dangers in their home country. They must prove they meet certain criteria to be appointed ‘refugee’ status, and be given this protection.

Refugee – someone forced to leave their home due to dangers there. A governing body (in the UK, typically the Home office) decides whether protections are appointed.

Migrant – someone who moves from place to place mostly for economic reasons, like seasonal work.

With that covered, let’s examine the letter of the law.

Image Credit: UK Government

The wild and woolly world of UK immigration law

To begin, one must first apply to enter the UK. 

So far, so obvious, right? Fasten your seatbelts, readers.

Depending on why you want to come to the UK, you’ll need to apply for a specific category of visa. It can also depend on personal circumstances, employment, and any children or partners you have. These categories are called ‘tiers.’

Tier 1, High-Value Migrants – wealthy migrants who want to start or invest in UK businesses. An investor must have at least a million pounds to invest, and an Entrepreneur visa is only valid as long as the business you set up is running.

Tier 2, Skilled Workers;

Tier 3, Unskilled Workers;

Tier 4, Adult Students – for adults pursuing ‘tertiary studies’ (like university), Student Visitor visas for study courses less than six months, and Prospective Students touring visas to visit UK schools

Tier 5, Temporary Workers – including seasonal and voluntary charity work

The points system

The UK visa system is ‘points-based.’ This means that you must meet specific criteria to be eligible for the visa you’ve applied for.  Each criteria is worth a certain number of points, and you need to have accrued 70 points to have an application considered. These categories can include proof of a job offer, formal qualifications, and English-speaking abilities.

Image Credit: UK Government

All the forms for each category of visa are regularly updated (often in very small ways), and an application can be denied if it is made on an out of date form. The form must also be filled out completely, as applications with mistakes can be denied, or a mandatory section is missed. If you are rejected, it goes on a permanent record and makes future visa applications even more difficult. It can even be grounds for future rejection.

Some immigration applications also require a fee to be paid, which must be paid in full. Fee waivers are available for some forms, but require specific criteria for an applicant to be eligible. 

As for supporting documents, like passports and birth certificates, the Home Office will generally only accept original versions of documents. The processing time for applications can also be incredibly long, with many applicants waiting for months, sometimes over a year. Keeping travel documents for such a length of time means that applicants are stuck where they are.

Where do applicants go in the meantime? 

In the case of applicants, chiefly asylum seekers, who need housing while their application is assessed, you can be provided with temporary accommodation (although you do not get to decide where in the country you go), and a small amount for living expenses, depending on your situation.

However, the temporary accommodation used to house migrants is heavily criticised, with numerous reports of overcrowding and poor conditions, with a group of 40 migrants being left on the street in London for two nights with no Home Office intervention. Health concerns have also been raised over a diphtheria outbreak at the Manston detention centre, and scabies in accommodation in Westerfield military facility.

Asylum seekers and immigrants are also currently being housed in temporary accommodation on board the ‘Bibby Stockholm,’ a large floating barge currently docked in Portland. The vessel has been likened to a ‘floating prison,’ with 500 people planned to be packed onto the 222-cabin barge with more expected to be housed on board. Legionella bacteria  has also been found on board.

Why is the system so complex?

British immigration legislation is informed by laws that were created as a product of colonialism. This has allowed colonial sentiments to thrive within the system.

The gradual collapse of the British Empire saw the independence of African countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Each of those countries had established Indian populations, who had been transported to those countries by Britain as labourers. Since this had occurred before India’s independence, these labourers had British citizenship. This caused a panic within a British Government, who realised that these displaced Indian labourers were suddenly eligible to freely travel to the UK.

To prevent this, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 was passed extremely quickly. Now, British subjects would only be free from immigration control if at least one of their parents or grandparents had been born, adopted into, or raised in the UK (these people were later referred to as patrials). The Act deliberately favoured white Commonwealth citizens who were more likely to be of British descent.

A Cabinet paper was released in 2002 stating that this was the plan all along.

Image Credit: Getty Images

The hostile environment policy 

Theresa May once said in an interview in 2012 that “the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The hostile environment policy was passed in 2010 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition. The goal was to make staying in the UK as hard as possible for those without legal permission to stay, in the hope that they would leave the UK of their own volition. The Conservative government recently created policy to deport migrants to Rwanda to claim asylum there. The Court of Appeals recently ruled the process unlawful.

The policy has been heavily criticised on several fronts.  The UN Human Rights Council has said that the policy fosters xenophobia in the UK.The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that it not only breaks equalities law, it can be considered a human rights violation.

The ‘Windrush generation,’ predominantly Caribbean migrants who were granted permission to come to the UK from 1948-1973, to work and stay indefinitely, had their right to remain disputed after it emerged in 2018 that the Home Office had not kept accurate records of migrants. An unknown number were denied legal rights and re-entry to the UK. There are also at least 83 cases of wrongful deportation. 

Finding an immigration lawyer to help with applications is incredibly difficult for a number of reasons. A restriction on immigration to the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an enormous backlog of applicants. The war in Ukraine has also dramatically increased the numbers of asylum seekers needing UK protection.

However, with a system stacked against them, will they ever be guaranteed it?

Feel free to express your solidarity with Muhammad here.

Featured Image Credit: Niamh Brook

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