Tricky visa issues hang over Gordon Brown’s India visit

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS

London : Gordon Brown flies in Sunday on his first visit to India as British prime minister not only amid unprecedented levels of comfort between the two countries, but also growing concern over his government’s proposed restrictions on the movement of Indians to Britain.

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Although political relations between India and Britain are at their warmest ever, and trade has grown exponentially to 4.4 billion pounds in goods alone last year, there is a major unresolved political issue that is expected to crop up during Brown’s visit.

It is to do with proposals that seek to restrict the movement of Indians to Britain – both those who want to work and settle down in Britain and those who want to visit relatives. It’s a complex issue with political ramifications on both sides.

While Brown faces strident domestic criticism – often based on contested statistics – over immigration, India’s Manmohan Singh and his Trade Minister Kamal Nath are faced with the task of showing educated middle class youths that globalisation, especially those based on the free movement of skilled workers, can work for them.

The first of the proposals the British government has come up with is a points-based visa system for highly skilled non-European citizens who want to work, study or train in Britain. Under proposed rules, an applicant would need to have earned at least 40,000 pounds in the previous year (more than Rs. 3 million/ Rs 30 lakhs) – among several other criteria – in order to qualify for the visa.

Informed British Asian sources who are connected with the process to evaluate the proposals, however, fear the bar may have been set too high and may impact on Asian businesses.

“Very few people earn that kind of money in India. How, for instance, are you going to get Indian chefs to come here? How are we going to deal with the chronic shortage of Indian chefs, which apparently is a real problem?” the sources told IANS.

“One of the reasons London won the 2012 Olympics is the diversity of the city, including of course its cuisine.”

India has long pressed developed countries such as Britain to allow its skilled workforce into their job market as part of wider global trade negotiations. Changes to visa regimes that may disadvantage workers from developing countries can be seen as protectionist non-trade barriers.

The second British proposal – part of what the government has described as the biggest shakeup of its immigrations system – is to introduce a 1,000 pound bond and lower the maximum length of stay from six to three months for people wanting to visit their relatives in Britain.

But the sources said there was no evidence that people visiting their relatives in Britain were abusing British hospitality.

“There is only anecdotal evidence that some of these visitors may be staying back. There isn’t a need to reform the visitor system. There is no evidence of abuse. We should be extremely cautious with the way this is being done.”

This proposal has now entered a period of public consultation that ends March 12, and some Asian Members of Parliament are worried that if it goes through it will affect the ruling Labour party’s core vote.

The sources also said there may be an element of discrimination against Indians applying for a working holidaymakers visa, under which Commonwealth citizens who are 17 to 30 years old can apply to holiday and work in Britain for up to two years.

With more youths from Australia, Canada and New Zealand availing of the scheme than Indians, the sources say there may an element of discrimination.

Both the proposed points-based system and the changes to visitors’ visas, as well as the working holidaymakers scheme, are going to be reviewed by the Parliament Home Affairs Select Committee. They will also be discussed in upcoming visits to India by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Home Office Minister Liam Byrne, who has promised to take a delegation of Asian community leaders with him.

Brown’s visit to India also follows a significant legal victory scored by Indian doctors in Britain over their right live and work in this country, after abrupt changes made to the visa regime left them in a lurch, forcing 6,000-8,000 of them to leave the country.

Following a legal challenge launched by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO), a court ruled last November that British and European doctors could no longer be given preference in training and jobs over those from outside the European region.

The ruling is expected to benefit some 15,000 Indian doctors who are in Britain, said Dr Ramesh Mehta of BAPIO.

“My message to Gordon Brown is that the British are known for their fairness and justice. We have won the case in court. Now the government should treat these doctors as they deserve to be treated,” Mehta said.