Government agenda - Roll back the rights of all migrants
The immigration policies which Theresa May and her home secretary, Amber Rudd, revealed at the Conservative party conference last week seem to have got short shrift from just about everyone.
Business interests weighed in with heavyweight warnings of conflict if the government pushes ahead with plans to make firms account for every foreign worker they take on. Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “It is clear that immigration will continue to be a major bone of contention between companies and this government. Businesses know that the EU referendum result means change to free movement of workers from the EU, but people were not voting to make the economy weaker. The evidence is clear that migrants are a benefit to the economy.”
The passage in home secretary Rudd’s speech in which she threatened policies that would end the right of large numbers of universities to enrol international students brought strong condemnation. Eyebrows were raised when she said claimed that the current system “… treats every student and university as equal… “ She promised a consultation “…that will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.”
“The diversity of institutions and the range of high-quality courses offered is one of the many strengths of our university sector. Any criteria must reflect that diversity. The criteria must also support the critical role that many universities play in their regions, where the impact of international students directly supports regional economies, supplies high level graduate skills and ensures the sustainability of many courses at regional level.”
Economic growth v border controls
The programme spelt out by Amber Rudd came after the prime minister had given earlier warning that, between the interests of the UK economy and the continued flow of migrants, she would come down firmly on the side of reducing net migration. The so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ option in which the UK would continue to have access to the EU single market was declared a non-starter if it meant conceding rights of free movement.
Despite this, government sources were claiming that the position of the 3.6 million EU residents already living in the UK is moving towards a resolution.
Apparently contradicting the prime minister’s statements that she would not ‘reveal her hand’ on the issue prior to the onset of Article 50 negotiations, news reports quoted a senior Home Office source saying that people will not be losing residents’ rights when Brexit becomes a reality, which is expected to happen sometime in 2019.
Home Office research is said to show that 80% of EU nationals will have what are called ‘acquired rights’ under the terms of the Vienna Convention and so it be unlawful to require them to quit the country. The same official source expresses confidence that the rest will be granted the right to remain under an ‘amnesty’ arrangement.
Other analysis of the law as it stands, taken together with the difficult politics of actually negotiating Brexit, are not so reassuring. Article 50 – the procedure that must be followed when a state leaves the EU – makes no specific mention of acquired rights and because of this many legal analysts take the view that the matter will have be settled as a part of the Brexit deal.
Trade secretary Dr Liam Fox - one of the three ministers responsible for managing Brexit – think so. Fox is quoted as believing that the position of those EU nationals already in the UK is “one of our main cards” in the negotiations. The trade-offs here mainly concern the plight of the 2.1 million British nationals living in other EU countries whose rights to reside, work, receive health and welfare benefits are similarly thrown into doubt as a result of the Brexit vote.
In short the outlook for immigration policy as Mrs May’s administration beds in is one of intensifying politics at just about every level. As anxiety levels are further ramped up by the messages that have come from the Conservative conference see a situation in which 3.6 million EU nationals are finding themselves in the same boat as the hundreds of thousands of third country national workers and international students who have lived the life of precarious uncertainty for decades. On top of this the future of humanitarian policy with regard to refugees and other forced migrants is also being thrown into the deepest of doubt.
Normally you would expect that when things get this bad they can only be the harbinger of even worse to come. But another element in this unpredictable mix is the response of the migrants who have been caught up in this vortex of uncertainty, as well as some of the other stakeholders whose interests point towards a continuation of rights to cross frontiers in more-or-less the way it has been happening for decades.
Instead of skirmishing across scores of separate battles over immigration rights and interests it would help us all if all the people and institutions concerned with the issue could agree to some degree of coming together to provide support and mutual reinforcement of the arguments about the positive role that the movement of people plays in the modern world.
A major reason we are in this confused and frankly dangerous situation is that the powers-that-be have failed to offer an account to citizens as to why we are once again living in an age of migration. The time is long overdue for some more objective perspectives on what is going on in the world today and why people are on the move. We have a few years ahead of us when the need to formulate this unified understanding. It will be amongst the highest of priorities. We should buckle down and get on with it.