Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Return Ticket

 
 

A licensed host has to ensure his invitees leave the UK in time


SANJAY SURI
Licensed To Invite
  • A new immigration proposal says a person abroad can be invited by a British citizen only if he has the licence to do so.
  • It will be the responsibility of the licensed host to ensure his guests return before their visa expires
  • If the guests don't return, the host will have to pay a hefty fine and even face imprisonment
  • The new law will mostly impact those who aren't rich enough to stay in hotels.
  • Group visas for tourists will continue.

***

Ever keen to create new classes and categories, the British are now setting up yet another class: Licensed to Invite, to add to the "Sirs" and the "Members of the British Empire" and what not. The new category does not come with a title, but it's surely got a talking point: "Guess what, I've won a licence to invite my brother from India."

As the Home Office put it, "People will have to become licensed to sponsor family members to visit from abroad under the proposed changes to the visa system." A proposal so far, but who will oppose it? Not the Conservative party, for which immigration rules can never be strong enough. Not perhaps the Liberal Democrats either, ahead of an election where every party's nightmare is to be seen as 'soft on immigration'.

The proposal will have to go through Parliament, and that may happen quietly. Under the law, the secretary of state has authority to make rules on immigration. These rules will not require amendments to primary legislation unless, theoretically, the opposition were to demand it. Changes in basic law are usually such that they draw long debates, unlike those in rules, because they come in the nature of nuts and bolts of a law in place. So, Britain looks set to have now an upper strata of licensed hosts.

Not everyone will want that privilege, though. "Sponsors will have a duty to ensure that their visitors leave before their visa runs out," the government proposal says. "If sponsors fail in their duties, they face a ban on bringing anyone else over, penalties of up to £#5,000, or a jail sentence." Arriving, therefore, is the visitor's privilege; his departure the host's duty. And if the visitor does not leave in time, his host could be in jail, the sentence expected to be severe.

"This is completely unfair," says Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). "How can an adult person be responsible for the conduct of another adult person? A host can't become a jailer, he can't be responsible for the movements of someone else."

The move is set to target Indians since they are the largest minority in Britain. More than 1.5 million Indians live in the UK. In 2006, more than 2,12,000 Indian visitors came to London. And between them, the Greater London Authority found, they spent more than Japanese tourists. Britain earns £85 billion from tourists every year.

The new rules will not apply directly to the 'pure' tourist, once the British High Commission in India has determined they are well-heeled enough to leave, and to leave plenty of pounds behind them. For tourists, there will in fact be additional group visas available. But the tourist from India often doubles up as a friend and family visitor, given close links. Thus far, a letter was all that was needed from a host in the UK. Such invitations will now get clouded over by doubt and suspicion—once you become a licence-holding Indian in Britain, that is.

"These days you cannot trust your own husband or wife," says Harish Patel, a Wembley plumber. "How can I trust my family members who live in India, when I've been living here for 30 years? We will have to think hard before sponsoring anybody.Up to now, it was ok. But taking a chance of going to jail, no baba." Adds Preeti Pandya, a landlady, "What will be the fun of having my sisters and their children over if I'm always thinking that if one of them doesn't go back in time, I will go to jail."


Southall, the little Punjab of London The British government, however, doesn't care much for people like Patel, because they don't spend as much as the rich and professionals who stay in hotels—and usually return. Britain is estimated to have a population of 5,00,000 to a million illegal immigrants (or 'undocumented migrants') who arrived in innumerable ways, as family visitors, and then didn't make the trip back. And among these, too, the majority are almost certainly Indians. Other than the India of Tata and Infosys professionals, there exists an India—particularly in Gujarat and Punjab—scrambling for Britain, anyhow securing the most basic jobs. More than 90 per cent of legally settled Indians in Britain are from these two states, and family visits sponsored by the settled can be an inviting means for informal addition to the migrant population.

Border and immigration minister Liam Byrne placed the particular Indian concern behind a language smokescreen. Through a process of consultation on the new rules, he said, "I travelled around the UK listening to people, and led my own delegation of community leaders and businessmen to India to review first hand some of the issues in one of our most important overseas markets." British politicians have long been hard in action, soft on language.

The new rules will seek to block one of the last visible gaps for illegal arrivals. The riskier route of people smuggling, through many countries in many ways, will always be open. But there too, X-rays of arriving crates and containers (with suspected migrants in them) and closer inspection of coastlines and international trains has tightened protective nets. Few can challenge those measures, but the proposed rules on family visits can become legally controversial.

"This kind of move will need to be tested in a court of law, because it is against natural justice," says Rahman. "People will find their ways of migrating. But for that you cannot create a punitive society, and begin to punish people against natural justice." The UK government might well find itself having to defend this move before the European court.

The EU is debating its own unified law on illegal immigrants that would provide for tracing, imprisoning and deporting illegal migrants already there. British courts do protect illegal migrants who have been there long enough, certainly for as long as 14 years, or even 10. But that places illegally settled migrants in another kind of spot—they must legally prove that they are illegal, and for as long as they claim. The crate route offers no entry stamps, and overstayers have often shed their passports, making evidence of continued overstaying difficult. But if you break the law, it still pays to continue to break it for long enough.

 

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