13 April 2018

Britain’s immigration system mixes ineptitude with cruelty


The Isle of Mull, population 3,000 and a 45 minute ferry ride from Oban off the west coast of Scotland, might not seem an obvious place from which to begin an examination of Britain’s broken immigration system. But it is a good one, nonetheless.

From the ferry terminal – not much more than a waiting room, really – at Craignure it is a further 45 minute drive to Bunessan, a small village on the south-west of the island. Keep going west and you reach Fionnphort. After that it’s the holy island of Iona and then, across thousands of miles of ocean, Newfoundland. For centuries, that westward journey has been a feature of Scottish, and especially highland Scottish, life.

Sometimes, however, the journey can be made from west to east and not just by tourists either. Last year Bunessan’s primary school advertised a newly-created position for a gaelic teacher. It may not surprise you that such posts are hard to fill. A candidate needs, obviously, to be fluent in gaelic; they also need to be qualified, and certified, to teach in Scotland. Few people meet both criteria.

In this instance, in fact, only one person did. And she was — indeed, is — from Canada. Sìne Halfpenny, from Nova Scotia, was the only applicant for the post. Despite being a teacher of Gaelic in Canada and despite, thanks to a period of study at the Sabhal Mór Ostaig college on the Isle of Skye, being qualified to teach in Scotland, her application for a visa was rejected by the Home Office. Not just once, but twice. First because of incomplete paperwork, then because Ms Halfpenny failed to meet the “points” required to live and work in the United Kingdom.

You might think a case such as this — where there is a transparently obvious skills shortage that could, in this instance, be met by a talented and much-needed immigrant — would be easy. That it wasn’t is grimly revealing. Common sense is something most easily recognised in its absence; the Home Office, as an organisation and a culture, revels in denying common sense.

Ms Halfpenny’s case is hardly unique. Scarcely a week passes without the publication of fresh and further horror stories from the immigration system. Sometimes these reflect the manner in which the cap on skilled workers from outside the EU leaves business frustrated and unable to recruit the workers they need to expand; at other times they demonstrate a callousness towards individuals so severe you begin to think it must be deliberate.

Consider, for instance, the case of Elwaldo Romeo. As the Guardian reported last month, Mr Romeo moved to the United Kingdom from Antigua when he was four years old. Now 63, he has lived here ever since. Despite holding a British passport, he was informed by the Home Office that as a “person without leave” he is now “liable to be detained”. A letter from the Home Office informing him of this new, and surprising, status, continued: “You have NOT been given leave to enter the United Kingdom within the meaning of the Immigration Act 1971”. Mr Romeo must now report to Home Office premises on a fortnightly basis. Cheerfully, the letter he received offered him advice on “help and support on returning home voluntarily”.

Mr Romeo is part of the so-called “Windrush generation” of immigrants who, despite living in the UK for almost their entire lives, must now, largely on account of bureaucratic incompetence, prove their entitlement to live in this country. Doubtless most of these cases will be resolved in time, though not without significant inconvenience and considerable emotional heartbreak.

There are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of citizens in the same position as Mr Romeo. These immigrants, many of them from the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent, were able to take advantage of the freedom of movement afforded Commonwealth citizens until 1971. When that ended, however, the Home Office — with its characteristic ineptitude — failed to keep records of these citizens’ presence in Britain. Now they must prove they have always lived here legally.

According to a Home Office spokesperson quoted by the BBC, these individuals “should take legal advice and submit the appropriate application with correct evidence so we can progress the case”. Helpfully, the Home Office says “We have no intention of making people leave who have the right to remain here.” Past experience, however, demands we note there is often some difference between the Home Office’s intentions and its actions.

The Windrush fiasco is symptomatic of a still larger problem. As the Law Society’s president Joe Egan told the BBC, “Almost 50 per cent of UK immigration and asylum appeals are upheld”, providing “clear evidence of serious flaws in the way visa and asylum applications are being dealt with.”

Brexit, as always, complicates matters still further. A system that is already broken must now accommodate applications for residency from the millions of EU citizens who, disgracefully, have seen their lives — and futures — used as bargaining counters in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Anyone who thinks this will go smoothly deserves a prize for their optimism.

Nor is this simply a question of bureaucratic organisation and procedure. It delves deep into the heart of Brexit itself and the kind of country the United Kingdom aspires to be. It is not obvious that the idea of “global Britain” is what voters thirsted for when they endorsed Brexit; nevertheless that is, as a matter of rhetoric anyway, what the government has promised.

You can take a prime minister out of the Home Office but you cannot so simply remove the Home Office from the Prime Minister. Theresa May’s stubbornness on immigration issues is remarkable. The public, for instance, does not view foreign students as “immigrants” yet Mrs May’s government continues to include them in migration statistics, inflating numbers unnecessarily and, for good measure, creating a misleading impression of “out of control” immigration.

Numbers, in any case, are only part of the story. When EU free movement ends, there are some three million people who will need their status “clarified”. Liberal Brexiteers waxed lyrical about a Britain open to the world yet this jars with the inclinations of a bureaucracy seemingly obsessed with limiting immigration, almost regardless of circumstance.

This is a matter of individual agony but also, collectively, of national economic foolishness. From agriculture to the NHS, significant parts of Britain’s economy depends on immigrant labour at all levels of the skills spectrum. Those labour shortages are likely to become more, not less, acute post-Brexit.

Once again, the government is hoist upon a Brexit petard. Brexit can be liberal and open or it can be conservative and closed. Balancing Britain’s economic needs with what are perceived to be its social necessities forces the government to choose between those rival visions of Brexit. Satisfying both seems improbable.

In the meantime, a manifestly broken immigration system will have to be jury-rigged to cope with the still greater challenges it will face in the years ahead. In the absence of common sense and even if you allow for heroic levels of optimism, can anyone truly say they are confident it will be able to do so? The current system isn’t just broken and incompetent; it is manifestly disgraceful too.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.