UK immigration policy has fundamentally changed in 2021, but not in the way many people might have anticipated.
After Brexit, some might have expected the UK to pull the drawbridge and significantly tighten immigration, having firmly rejected the principle of EU freedom of movement.
Of course, COVID-19 has closed borders in ways previously unthinkable; a now universal tool for controlling contagion during the pandemic. But these disruptions mask what the UK thinks about longer-term immigration.
Ministers of each generation face a balance between international talent that is good for the economy and concerns about the effects of immigration on public services, cultural cohesion and wage stagnation due to increased competition for employment.
Lately, the latter argument has won at the polls, with elections favoring right-wing parties offering tighter immigration policies. Failure could be politically fatal, as former British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron discovered after failing to meet his own goal of pushing net in-migration to the tens of thousands.
The current outgoing Conservative Boris Johnson, the Brexit champion, should therefore double his reduction in immigration. But the reality has been more nuanced.
Johnson favors the principle of immigration control but has abandoned the trap of his predecessor’s targets and instead sees the value of highly skilled immigration as part of a ‘build back better’ strategy. after COVID-19. It removed the cap on skilled worker visas, revived the two-year graduate visa, and reformed a points-based immigration system that favors doctorates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The government’s big step has been to announce the most liberal immigration change in a generation in July 2020 – with the path open since early 2021 – reform of the British National Overseas Visa (BNO) for Hong Kong people eligible in response to national security laws imposed on the territory by the Chinese government.
This program allows BNO visa holders to live and work in the UK, with a path to UK citizenship after six years. The government predicts that 300,000 Hong Kong people will arrive in the next five years, but with all those born before the 1997 transfer to China eligible, that covers more than five million people, or 70% of Hong Kong’s population. This decision would have been politically impossible if the UK were part of the EU and still grappling with the unpopularity of free movement.
The economic benefits are evident, given the highly skilled skill base of Hong Kong residents, with economic think tank CEBR predicting an economic increase of £ 40bn ($ 55.5bn) for the UK if a fifth of those eligible come to Britain for five years, but ministers will make sure their onboarding goes smoothly lest the public mood darken.
In 2004, under the Labor government of the day, the UK’s borders were fully opened to 10 new EU countries, including Poland and Hungary, while most of the other home countries of the The EU have opted for a gradual transition. At the time, the government of the day believed that migration would help the economy, but the number of arrivals far exceeded expectations of 5,000 in the first year and was 20 times higher. Populist parties such as UKIP have created an image of Europeans taking advantage of the UK’s generous welfare state, with resentment growing only after the 2008 global financial crisis, dramatically increasing anti-immigration sentiment in the UK .
The key lesson for ministers managing the Hong Kong BNO visa program is to focus on obtaining and maintaining the consent of the local population for the long term. The government understands this and therefore launched the BNO policy with an initial £ 43million ($ 59.7million) program to help newcomers find housing, a place in school for their children, a job. or a way to start a business. . He has also established 12 ‘Welcome Centers’ across the UK to help BNO visa holders access services, in addition to consulting closely with the network of volunteers ‘Welcome Committee’ to support arrivals.
The government will also call on half a million British Chinese already in the UK to serve as a bridge. Conservatives are popular with the British Chinese diaspora. They were the only minority group to vote a majority for the Conservatives in 2019, when the Conservative Party also fielded five Chinese British candidates in parliament – more than all other opposition parties combined.
Hong Kong’s politics are popular in the UK so far, with YouGov polls giving it 64% support of the UK population. However, problems will remain; hate crimes against people of East and South East Asian descent in Britain have increased by 300 percent over the past year, in part due to misguided frustration over the origins of COVID-19.
Global tensions between China and the West can also have unintended consequences for East Asian Britons living in the UK. Nonetheless, this emerging British East Asian community will gain influence, just as has happened in the United States, Canada and Australia, where there are much larger East Asian diasporas. .
If this policy is successful, it will show the UK at the forefront of imaginative immigration policy after a generation of stasis. The fact that this is coming from a center-right party rather than the more pro-immigration left makes it even more intriguing.
Other EU countries can quietly envy the additional political avenues available to match labor demand with an economic and diplomatic strategy. For example, the new points-based visa system after Brexit in the UK allows entry thresholds to be adjusted based on industry demand. With the UK committing to cover 80% of trade with Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), tailor-made mobility agreements could also be concluded with friendly countries.
COVID-19 has reset the immigration debate for all countries and, as we emerge from lockdown, policymakers will have to weigh the pros and cons of maintaining a narrow border or having a liberal immigration policy. .
The UK has shown that there is a way, even for a center-right government, that can have a very positive impact on our society for generations to come.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.