In a move that seems to combine inefficacious policy, obtuse public relations and moral tastelessness, the U.K.'s Conservative-led government in June announced plans to roll out a pilot scheme that will require visitors from "high-risk" countries to put down a steep 3,000 pound ($4,690) deposit before they are allowed to enter the country.
The so-called "visa bond" scheme apparently may be inaugurated this November and initially apply only to selected visa-seekers from six countries, most prominent among them India. (The others are Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Ghana.) The announcement by the U.K. Home Office wasn't exactly what India was anticipating after the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron declared in February, "I think Britain and India can be one of the great partnerships of the 21st Century."
Both members of the Indian government and prominent business federations have suggested the decision is discriminatory and unfair. (The U.K. has tried to highlight the un-finalized, trial nature of the plan.) But if the scheme is not reconsidered, it will certainly affect Indian tourist and business links with U.K. Some voices in India, such as Kishan Rana, a former ambassador to Germany, have called for a reciprocal scheme to be imposed on British tourists.
The controversial scheme seeks to deter asylum-seekers who enter the country on tourist visas and stay on illegally; it would initially apply only to visitors entering the country on a six-month visa. In the 2010 elections, the Conservative Party promised to dramatically lower immigration to the U.K. to the "tens of thousands" of people per year. (Net migration was more than 200,000 in 2011.) The British High Commission in New Delhi has tried to calm ruffled tempers, declaring in June:
The pilot will be highly selective and focused on the highest risk applicants. We will not require all visitors from the select pilot nations to pay a bond. The number of bonds issued during the pilot will be limited. The level of the bond will be set at £3000 per adult; children under 18 years will be exempt. The bond payment will be returned if the visitor returns home after their visit visa has expired and within the time period specified by their visa.
There's nothing discriminatory about a government studying what data it has on illegal immigration and deciding that visa applicants from some countries are more liable than others to transgress rules. But there is something both morally and financially perverse about believing that the policy response to such concerns can lie in a visa bond (even if the U.K. Home Office wants to hide behind the phrase "pilot scheme").
First, it would be an exceedingly unpleasant way for an Indian national -- or a citizen of one of the other countries to which the new scheme would apply -- to enter the U.K. if such a journey were accompanied by the knowledge that one had been labeled a potential illegal immigrant. Every person picked out by the proposed scheme would in effect be presumed guilty until he proved his innocence at the exit gates of Heathrow or Birmingham.
Second, the sort of visa applicant most likely to be labeled high-risk would be precisely the sort of person unlikely to have 3,000 pounds -- at today's exchange rates about 290,000 rupees, or more than four times the yearly per capita income in India -- in spare cash to give up to the British government for permission to enter the country. In effect, the U.K. Border Agency would be saying to a certain kind of applicant, "Look, we're letting you in -- it's you who doesn't have the money."
Last, the scheme doesn't seem a very good idea even as a strategy to contain illegal immigration. As two journalists argued in the Guardian in June:
Anyone coming to the UK with the intention of overstaying illegally will probably just accept the loss of a bond as part of the sunk costs of doing so (it is likely to be cheaper than arranging illegal entry to the country, for example). There is probably no price you could set that would both put off those who intend to abuse the system and not put off genuine visitors.
In India's Business Standard in July, the former diplomat Kishan Rana took a few steps back from the controversy to think about two kinds of people in the world, those who have to worry continually about visas and those who don't:
A British company, Henley and Partners, offers on the internet a global "visa restrictions index" showing the number of countries citizens of different countries can visit without a visa (www.henleyglobal.com). The 2012 index ranks India at joint 82nd position (with Morocco and Uzbekistan); Indians can now go to 51 countries visa-free (an improvement over the 2008 figure of 37). Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and UK are in the 169 to 167-country range. US citizens can "only" go to 166 countries without visas. This happy situation inures the West from understanding the travails that many other travellers face.
Rana calls in his piece for India to impose a reciprocal system on U.K. visa-seekers. But it might be too late for that. After all, India has over the last three centuries let in thousands of high-risk British visitors likely to destabilize the Indian economy. And they did more than just get an illegal job somewhere in the new country as a cab driver or a restaurant employee. They were the agents in the 18th and 19th centuries of the East India Company, and then of the British Raj, and the economic system they put into place drained colonial India of vast amounts of wealth and helped build modern Britain.
The ravening predations of colonialism, only a few generations past, provide an ironic frame for current immigration debates in the U.K., especially when the solution to check illegal immigration is visa bonds targeted at citizens of its former colonies.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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