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Why new UK visa figures are a big deal for Theresa May and Indians

Ninety seven per cent of Indians – including students – return from Britain before their visas expire but some Indian citizens continue to abuse the visa system.

world Updated: Aug 25, 2017 11:02 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
British visa,Thresa May,Visa abuse
The over 50% drop in Indian students visiting UK since 2010 is also attributed to the closure of 920 bogus colleges who were earlier admitting large numbers for purposes other than studies.(Reuters File Photo)

Indians have long been at the heart of the sensitive discourse of immigration in Britain – from Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood speech’, to plans to impose ‘visa bonds’, to the ‘Go Home’ vans driven around parts of London.

For most of the time, they have been seen in a negative light.

For the first time, official figures released on Thursday paint a rather different picture of visiting Indians in recent years: the vast majority of them (97%) – including students – return before their visas expire, busting some myths.

The figures not only brought cheer in Indian quarters, but also put Prime Minister Theresa May in the dock, who, as Home secretary since 2010 and now as prime minister, used the ‘overstayers’ card to make it tough for Indian and other non-EU students to come to Britain, leading to a major drop.

The good news for Indian visitors and students, however, needs to be tempered with the fact that some Indian citizens continue to be caught abusing the visa system, working illegally or entering into sham marriages or indulging in other abuse.

The over 50% drop in Indian student numbers since 2010 is also attributed to the closure of 920 bogus colleges who were earlier admitting large numbers for purposes other than studies, though many genuine students avoiding Britain due to the negative perception abroad may also have contributed to the fall in numbers.

The Indian component in UK immigration also includes many illegal immigrants, who entered over the decades and whose return is at the top of May’s agenda. As she said during her 2016 visit to India, “the UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK”.

The new figures have already enthused sections of the Indian community to demand improvement of the visa offer, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Nor is it likely that the May government brings back the post-study work visa that was popular among Indian students (it was closed in 2012).

Read more: New UK visa figures show most Indians do not overstay

For now, the hope is that the figures will mute some of the negative voices about India and Indians in the discourse of immigration, while the government faces more pressure to stop considering non-EU students as migrants (a view also shared by some of May’s cabinet colleagues).

May’s critics rounded on her after figures from the Office for National Statistics and Home Office showed that 97% of international students return after completing their studies, which amounted to a statistical U-turn when earlier estimates had put overstayers at 100,000 a year.

Vince Cable, who was May’s cabinet colleague in the David Cameron coalition government (2010-2015), called on May to apologise for the crackdown on foreign students: “We spent five years trying to persuade the Home Office that the figures they were using as evidence were bogus, but they persisted nonetheless on the basis of these phoney numbers”.

“The consequences were very serious. I would hope they would not just apologise to the individual students, many of whom have paid large fees and even found themselves deported in some cases, but simply acknowledge that the figures are grossly distorted and wrong.”

Home secretary Amber Rudd, who has been following the May doctrine and promised new curbs on non-EU students and professionals in her 2016 Conservative party conference speech, has tasked the Migration Advisory Committee to report on the impact of international students. Its report by September 2018 is expected to present May the fig-leaf to change policy.

The latest figures are based on an advanced system of checks introduced in recent years. But even when earlier estimates of overstayers were based on uncertain data, May used them to target international students in her drive to cut overall immigration: “Students, yes; overstayers, no”, was her mantra.

Shadow Home secretary Diane Abbott believes that May’s “long-running campaign to malign international students is based on fantasy, with no evidence of a major issue with students overstaying”.

“Some in government appear to be waking up to the idea that overseas students make a valuable contribution to our country and have belatedly asked the Migration Advisory Committee to gather evidence”.

UK universities and other stake-holders have lobbied intensely to remove international students from overall migration figures, but May has consistently refused to do so. Some studies estimate that the high fee-paying non-EU students generate more than £25 billion for the British economy every year and support over 200,000 jobs.

James McGrory of the pro-EU group Open Britain said: “The Prime Minister has spent years, in Downing Street and in the Home Office, railing against foreign students overstaying their visas, which was used this to justify crackdowns on foreign students, despite their importance to our economy”.

“But now it emerges that the number of overstayers is just a fraction of the numbers the Government previously thought. They have been using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, the new figures provide the May government the opportunity to partly deliver on its claim of forging a more open country after Brexit, if only for Indian and other international students for now.

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 09:18 IST