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White Wall of Dover

Once the first choice for the migrating Indian, the UK is today both officially and economically unwelcoming. Dipankar De Sarkar writes.

world Updated: Oct 16, 2011 02:02 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times

Sameer Das (not his real name) quit his Mumbai job in 2004 in response to an advertising blitz about opportunities in Britain. After gathering his savings and borrowing from relatives, the accountant headed for Britain, nervous wife and two young children in tow. Seven years on, he thinks he should have stayed home.

"Of course we knew we were taking a risk, but a lot of our friends were leaving too." Das was offered a job within 15 days of arriving in London, through a contact in Mumbai.

Having made Britain his home, Das has had to hold down two jobs, which often means working weekends. Home is a rented semi-detached house in a working-class suburb (he can't afford to buy one yet), and vacations are out.

Wife Renuka, a part-time dance teacher, says it's worth it because their eldest child has just won a place in a sought-after secondary school. "There's no point in looking back. His job in Mumbai was transferable. At least we are together here."

The Das family was among 30,100 Indian professionals and dependents who moved to Britain in 2004 on a Highly Skilled Migrants Programme (HSMP) visa - introduced two years earlier with much publicity. Britain was booming and it made sense to lure skilled Indians with offers of settlement.

Indians seized the chance. Doctors, engineers, accountants and - most of all - IT specialists expected to ride the boom and make the kind of money they had only dreamt of.

Except, there was a sting in the tail of this fairy tale. As the financial storm from the subprime financial crisis developed into a full-blown recession, European dole queues grew longer. Between June and August 2008 alone, British unemployment grew by 164,000, taking the total to 1.79 million.

As the ranks of skilled non-European immigrants swelled, the Labour government, having invited Das and others, suddenly turned its back on immigrants. Now it wanted them to leave.

Because of European Union treaty obligations, there was nothing the government could do about European immigrants, so it opportunistically turned the heat on Indians and other non-Europeans. Immigration became a hot topic in the 2010 general elections and the Labour government buckled before the onslaught.

The tone is now turning ugly, and last week, rhetoric and wild claims on immigration dominated the annual conference of the Conservative party, the senior partner in the ruling coalition. "Up until now Britain was undoubtedly an attractive destination for skilled migrants from India - but the scenario is becoming more and more unpredictable," said Amit Kapadia, executive director of the HSMP Forum campaign group. "This is not a good time to come to Britain."

Leading the British charge is Prime Minister David Cameron. He is in a difficult position: damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. On the one hand, he has to deliver on his election promise to reduce net migration - the difference between those coming in and those leaving - to tens of thousands by 2015. The current figure is a daunting 239,000.

But he also has to ensure Britain has the skilled workforce needed to galvanise an economy that is growing - if that is the word - at a mere 1.1% while staring at another possible recession.

Cameron's knife has fallen most heavily on what are known as tier 2 migrants - skilled non-Europeans who have a job offer - because, the government says, many of them took low-level jobs that should have gone to unemployed Britons.

According to Cameron a tier 2 cap, set at 20,700 visas per year, has been undersubscribed each month, but his suggestion last week the cap could therefore be lowered caused alarm among businesses, who say skilled workers are staying away because Britain is no longer an attractive place to live and work in.

"What business needs is the flexibility to start recruiting again when the economy picks up," says Lady Jo Valentine, chief executive of the business lobby London First. "Reducing levels now is dangerous at a time when we need to be open to growth."

Cameron has a number of ideas, including forcing non-European immigrants to furnish a financial bond - something that was mooted by Labour in 2000 and 2007, but withdrawn after furious objections from New Delhi.

"The government risks harming two things with the bond idea: the settled British Indian community who want to invite visitors, and relations between India and Britain," said Keith Vaz, the Indian-origin Labour MP who heads the powerful home affairs select committee in parliament.

"Attempts to reduce immigration to tens of thousands won't work unless the government tackles illegal immigration. At the moment, they are only hurting the legal route - and the British economy."

First Published: Oct 16, 2011 00:19 IST