The UK's immigration system should not be a pawn in trade negotiations.
With The Times reporting that Liz Truss’s flagship UK-India trade deal is in danger after Home Secretary Suella Braverman supposedly angered Indian ministers over her comments on “visa overstayers” from their country, a fault-line has emerged at the heart of government.
As part of both her domestic “pro-growth” agenda and post-Brexit “Global Britain” internationalism, Truss has entertained the possibility of further liberalising the UK’s immigration rules for Indian citizens.
This follows on from figures that showed that from 2019 to 2021, the number of Indian citizens granted a “skilled work visa” rose by 14%. When it comes to sponsored study visas from 2019 to 2021, this has risen by an astonishing amount for Indian nationals —164%. A total of 98,747 Indian nationals were granted sponsored study visas by the UK in 2021, with a further 64,839 on skilled-work visas.
Braverman went on record to express concerns over Truss’s plans, telling The Spectator: “I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country — the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.” Sources from both governments have reportedly told The Times that the Home Secretary’s comments sparked a furious reaction from Indian government ministers and officials.
However, there is much reason to be concerned over the liberalisation of the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system for Indian nationals. One of the motivating factors behind the Brexit vote was the freedom of movement for EU nationals. But it appears that the Indian government has linked freedom of movement for Indian nationals to the viability of any trade agreement.
Liberalising access to Indian markets for British scotch whisky and reducing barriers for Indian basmati rice and spices exported to the UK can be a mutually beneficial trade development. And India is undoubtedly a strategically important partner in the post-Brexit international system — especially when it comes to defence and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. This is one of the five pillars of the UK-India “Roadmap 2030” which also envisages the two countries working closer together over cyber-related threats.
But recent sociopolitical developments in India mean that the UK should tread carefully when it comes to liberalising migration arrangements with the world’s secondmost populous nation — nor should it take lectures from the Indian government on matters of social cohesion in places such as Leicester.
India is considered to be only a ‘partly free’ country by American non-profit Freedom House. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Democracy Index report concluded that there has been “a serious deterioration in the quality of democracy under leader Narendra Modi, whose Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over increased intolerance and sectarianism towards Muslims and other religious minorities.” Indeed, charity Open Doors UK has placed India in the top ten nations of the world when it comes to the persecution of Christian minorities.
The UK should be in the business of deepening its trading ties, security relations and defence co-operation with India. However, post-Brexit foreign policy should not include the promise of liberalising the UK’s immigration system when in trade negotiations with governments whose own record on preserving democracy is questionable, and whose nations are frequently hotbeds of sectarian hatred. As well as disincentivizing much-needed investment in Britain’s domestic workforce, it has the potential to threaten social unity in our country.
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Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Credit: Getty