Since publishing my piece yesterday at The Conversation about the Conservatives’ war on foreign intellectuals in Britain, I have been flooded with phone calls and emails from people with their own stories of dealing with the constantly shifting goalposts set out by the UK Home Office. One American sent me a photo of a teabag chucked into a glass of water, a nod to the American Revolution and the fight over “taxation without representation”. He was clearly frustrated not to be voting today, despite paying taxes here for over two years. Another called me to say that they had not had any specific problem with the Home Office, over and above the normal bureaucracy, but that the “irritating experiences with visa procedures almost stole the joy out of getting the job!”
Some stories were seething with frustration. One person wrote to say that “on a personal level, I can attest to the nightmares associated with trying to get a student visa to study in the UK. I would not even have been able to do my PhD if I hadn’t involved my [US] Congressperson in contesting the (erroneous) denial of my student visa. By the time I was finishing my doctorate, there was a fervor of jingoistic anti-immigrant sentiment in the [UK]. As a result of this, my opportunity to stay in the country to seek work was taken away from me. I may not be in England anymore, but I am watching the election carefully. A UK full of solely British-born people and wealthy foreigners who can dodge the visa rules would pale in comparison to the vibrant and dynamic place it is today.” This “anti-immigrant sentiment” the researcher describes is clear in the streets, as I outlined in my piece, but is also institutionally systemic. It is clear that the Home Office is willing to go to great lengths and spend a great deal of taxpayer money to make staying here as difficult as possible for anyone with an even slightly “complicated” application, regardless of how valuable their presence is to the country, how long they have been here, whether or not their degrees were finances by UK taxpayers or what familial ties they harbour here. There is no reasoning with the machine – for Cameron and May, immigration is not about people; it is about statistics and metrics. Of course, the way this policy is applied under the Conservatives is grossly unequal: if you have £2million, you can essentially purchase a visa under the Tier 1 ‘Investor’ scheme. You can also get fast-tracked to citizenship in two years if you invest £10million.
One person that wrote to me to say they had been collecting immigration horror stories as I had. They told me that in just the last two years they have met:
- A mature student from India who was awarded a prestigious PhD scholarship but very nearly didn’t take it up because the Home Office would not allow her bring her 7 year-old daughter into the country. The father has had nothing to do with the child and the student’s parents were very elderly and in poor health, so she was the sole carer. However, she was forced to leave her daughter with her parents for a year in order to take up the scholarship – a once in a lifetime opportunity in her case – because UKBA [Border Agency] insisted she had a carer in India (i.e. the absentee father). Eventually the Home Office allowed her daughter into the country after two years and considerable pressure from the university.
- An Ethiopian PhD student who suffered several nervous breakdowns (including being sectioned) while dealing while visa extensions. Mental illness is deeply taboo in Ethiopia, which also made their condition worse.
- A South African scholar who completed a PhD in the UK and married an Italian after they both graduated. She couldn’t get an academic job here because she is non-EU, so they tried South Africa. He couldn’t get a secure post in South Africa because he is white and not South African. The result is that he now has a lectureship in the UK (which he can take as an EU citizen), while his wife is working in Cape Town. Who knows what the future holds for them.
- A Palestinian PhD student who already faces restrictions on movement by virtue of being Palestinian. This has been made worse by UKBA’s refusal to grant her mother (a law-abiding citizen from Hebron) a tourist visa for a two-week visit to see her daughter. No reason has ever been given.
- A colleague, who is a US citizen but has worked in the UK for many years, but still has to abide by the 180 days absence rule. Given that her husband works in the US, this does not make life very easy. Needless to say, she will not be working in the UK for too much longer.
This person agreed with my piece broadly and suggested that the “current visa restrictions are inhumane and pernicious in the effects they have on individuals and families. Moreover, the UK and universities, in particular, are poorer because of them. Universities need to be at the forefront of fighting against visa restrictions, but instead they are so threatened by UKBA that they seem more concerned with turning academics into border police through persistent monitoring of overseas students.” Another person summed up the general feeling of being unwelcome here under the current political climate when they told me they were “thinking seriously about what I should do if offered the post-doc position that I have an interview for at the end of this month…” How many good people are being driven away by shortsighted immigration policy with the Conservatives at the helm?
Immigrants like us (highly skilled or not) can’t vote today. Please place a proxy vote to kick the Conservatives out of Downing Street so that talent will flood back into our island and so that those of us who have chosen to bring our talent here can remain. After all, in many cases your taxes paid for our education and we would like to return the favour to the next generation.