Visa policy seen as hostile, warn submissions to a parliamentary inquiry on post-Brexit ties
India accounts for the largest number of individuals staying in the U.K. illegally, and the number of those subjected to forced returns to India has fallen by 50% in three years, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has said.
The problem of "visa overstayers" was highlighted by the department in its submission to a British parliamentary committee's "Global Britain and India' inquiry into post-Brexit relations with India.
Impact on students
The focus on overstayers is significant, suggesting that there is little sign of change on an issue that has overshadowed bilateral relationships. Tensions came to a head earlier this year when Britain's Trade Secretary Liam Fox linked the decision on excluding Indians from a relaxation of student visa requirements to cooperation between the two countries on the return of illegal migrants, including India's failure to sign an MOU with the U.K. on the issue during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit in April.
Subsequently, Indian High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha questioned Britain's focus and stance on overstayers. "I am sure there are many [overstayers] but where did this figure of 100,000 come from?" he said in June.
Backing his concerns, the think tank Chatham House, in its submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, pointed to Britain's visa regime for Indians as one of the key impediments to its relationship and highlighted U.K.'s emphasis on overstayers.
It was "unclear' how Britain had derived its assessment that 100,000 Indians needed to be repatriated, Chatham House said, noting the figure had recently been lowered to 75,000.
"Rather than providing easier access to Indians, the U.K. has threatened to expel many existing immigrants. Combined, this gives the impression that the U.K. is becoming more insular and hostile to foreigners," the thinktank said.
In its submission, the U.K.-India Business Council warned that Britain's stance on immigration had been characterised in India as a "directly hostile message" that suggested Indian citizens were not welcome to the U.K. any more.
Citing the decision to exclude India from the relaxation of student visa process, it said that it was a step in the wrong direction. The Council called for India to be included on the list of countries with reduced student visa application procedures, and the reintroduction of the ability to work for two years after graduation.
Impact on IT sector
Apex IT body NASSCOM warned that a restrictive immigration system, limiting opportunities for global talent, could hit Britain's economic growth and productivity.
Representing India's IT industry, NASSCOM stressed the need to treat the movement of highly-skilled workers, who came to the U.K. on a short-term basis under the intra-company transfer scheme, as a trade policy and not an immigration issue.
The movement of such workers had been crucial in driving Britain's competitive advantage, NASSCOM said in its written submission, adding that there was little evidence to suggest they had any negative impact on wages or employment prospects for domestic workers.
The Royal Commonwealth Society warned that the state of Indian visas into the U.K. was "abysmal" and reiterated its call for Indian visitors to be given similar conditions as Chinese tourists, who were able to get a two-year multiple entry visa at nearly 75% lower cost than others. "In recent years, the U.K. appears to have neglected the India relationship in favour of fostering better relations with China."
The immigration issue had caused "seriously ill feeling" in India towards Britain, warned crossbench member of the House of Lords Karan Bilimoria.
Foreign Office counter
However, on the issue of visas, the Foreign Office submission highlighted what it saw as key achievements on visas to Indian nationals. These included Britain having more visa centres in India than any other country in the world, Britain issuing more skilled worker visas to India than all other countries in the world combined and the fact that 90% of Indian nationals, who applied for a visa, were successful.
The "Global Britain and India' inquiry, which is looking at opportunities for cooperation with India beyond Brexit, took written evidence till late September and has been holding evidence sessions this month.
Foreign Office Minister Mark Field is expected to give evidence later this month.