The UK’s immigration policy has fundamentally changed in 2021 but not in the way many people might have predicted.
Post-Brexit, some may have expected the UK to pull up the drawbridge and dramatically tighten immigration, having firmly rejected the EU’s principle of freedom of movement.
Of course, COVID-19 has shut down borders in a previously unthinkable way; a now-universal tool to control contagion during the pandemic. But these disruptions mask what the UK is thinking about immigration in the longer term.
Ministers in every generation face a balancing act of embracing international talents that are good for the economy against concerns about the effect of immigration on public services, cultural cohesion and wage stagnation due to increased competition for jobs.
Lately, the latter argument has won at the ballot box, with elections favouring right-leaning parties offering tighter immigration policies. Failure to deliver could be politically fatal, as former UK Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron discovered after failing to meet his own goal of bringing net inward migration to the tens of thousands.
The current Conservative incumbent, Boris Johnson, the champion of Brexit, would therefore be expected to double down on reducing immigration. But the reality has been more nuanced.
Johnson favours the principle of immigration control but has ditched the trap of his predecessor’s targets and, instead, sees the value of high-skilled immigration as part of a strategy to “build back better” post-COVID-19. He has removed the cap on skilled workers’ visas, relaunched the two-year post-graduate visa and is reforming a points-based immigration system that favours PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The government’s big move has been to announce the most liberal immigration change in a generation in July 2020 – with the pathway open since the start of 2021 – reforming the British National Overseas (BNO) visa for eligible Hong Kong people in response to the national security laws imposed in the territory by the Chinese government.
This scheme allows BNO visa holders to live and work in the UK, with a path to UK citizenship after six years. The government predicts that 300,000 Hong Kongers will arrive over the next five years but with all those born before the 1997 handover to China eligible, this covers more than five million people, representing 70 percent of the Hong Kong population. This move would have been politically impossible if the UK was part of the EU and still grappling with the unpopularity of freedom of movement.
The economic benefits are obvious, given the highly educated skills base of Hong Kong residents, with the economic think-tank, CEBR, predicting an economic boost of up to 40 billion British pounds ($55.5 billion) for the UK if one-fifth of those eligible come to Britain over five years but ministers will be mindful to ensure their integration goes smoothly lest the public mood darkens.
In 2004, under the then-Labour government, the UK’s borders were fully opened for 10 newly added EU countries, including Poland and Hungary, while most other original EU nations opted for a gradual transition. At the time, the then-government felt migration would help the economy but the numbers of arrivals far outpaced predictions of 5,000 in year one and were instead 20 times higher. Populist parties such as UKIP created an image of Europeans taking advantage of the UK’s generous welfare state, with resentment only growing after the global financial crisis of 2008, dramatically increasing anti-immigration sentiment in the UK.
The critical lesson for ministers managing the BNO visa scheme from Hong Kong is to focus on gaining and maintaining the consent of the local population on a long-term basis. The government understands this and has, therefore, launched the BNO policy with an initial 43-million-pound ($59.7 million) package to help new arrivals find a home, a school place for their children, employment or a route to setting up a business. It has also created 12 “welcome hubs” across the UK to help BNO visa holders access services, alongside consulting closely with the volunteer network ‘Welcome Committee’ to support arrivals.
The government will also draw on half a million British Chinese already in the UK to act as a bridge. The Conservatives are popular with the British Chinese diaspora. They were the only minority group that voted in majority for the Conservatives in 2019, when the Conservative Party also fielded five British Chinese parliamentary candidates – more than all the other opposition parties combined.
So far, the Hong Kong policy is popular in the UK, with YouGov polling giving it 64 percent support from the UK population. Yet issues will remain; hate crimes against people of East and Southeast Asian origin in Britain have increased by 300 percent over the past year, due in part to a misguided frustration about the origins of COVID-19.
Global tensions between China and the West may also have unintended consequences for the British East Asians living in the UK. Nevertheless, this emerging British East Asian community will grow in influence, just as has happened in the US, Canada and Australia, where there are much larger East Asian diasporas.
If this policy succeeds, it will show the UK leading the way on an imaginative immigration policy after a generation of stasis. For it to come from a centre-right party rather than from the more pro-immigration left makes it even more intriguing.
Other EU countries may quietly envy the additional policy avenues available to tailor labour demand with an economic and diplomatic strategy. For example, the new UK post-Brexit points-based visa system allows the tweaking of entry thresholds based on sector demand. With the UK pledging to cover 80 percent of trade with free trade agreements (FTAs), bespoke mobility agreements could also be arranged with friendly nations.
COVID-19 has reset the immigration debate for all countries and, as we emerge from lockdown, decision-makers will have to weigh the pros and cons of keeping a tight border or having a liberal immigration policy.
The UK has shown that there is a way, even for a centre-right government, which can have a highly positive impact on our society for generations to come.