U.K. toughens laws on immigration

Christopher Werth Aug 6, 2009

U.K. toughens laws on immigration

Christopher Werth Aug 6, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s had a rough time of it lately. He’s faced the same criticism officials here have about loose regulation of the financial system. He’s had members of parliament filing official expense reports for things like fixing the moats around their castles. And a poll out this week shows that two-thirds of the population is unhappy with way he’s handling the always-sensitive issue of immigration. So the British government is about to make it harder to get into the country and tougher to become a citizen. From London, Christopher Werth reports.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH: If you want to feel how crowded Britain is, there’s nowhere better than a busy train station like London’s Liverpool Street Station. Here, you really can believe that England recently overtook the Netherlands as Western Europe’s most densely-populated country.

Thomas, who wouldn’t give his last name, is an asylum seeker who sells flowers at a small kiosk on the station concourse.

THOMAS: Usually we have Gerber, we have Chrysans, now is the time for Peonies, I mean all the flowers from all over the world.

People from every corner too: Eastern Europeans working in finance or construction; people from the former colonies in Africa and Asia; refugees, like Thomas escaping war and poverty at home.

THOMAS: I’m from Eritrea, and you know because of the fights, my family moved here. So that’s why I’m here.

Thomas moved to London nine years ago. He’s about to apply for citizenship. It used to be almost automatic: live here for five years, keep your nose clean, and you’d get the good news in the mail.

But some Brits thought it was far too easy. Far right parties increased their vote in recent elections and now the government’s decided to introduce tougher requirements, an Australian-style system where you get more points for relevant work experience, greater skills and better education. Lyn Homer heads up the U.K.’s Border Agency.

LYN HOMER: It is a system where we can move the bar up and down as the needs of the country dictate. So we can welcome the people that have something to offer the U.K., but we can adjust so that we don’t bluntly end up with more work-force than we’ve got jobs for.

Under the new system, foreigners seeking citizenship, residence visas or temporary work visas, would lose points for committing a crime, or possibly, even for taking part in protests. The system would allow the government to adjust the flow of immigration to the level of skills shortages in the U.K..

TIM FINCH: I think at the moment the idea is very much to turn the tap off.

Tim Finch is with Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research. He says the U.K. has seen an influx of 1.4 million migrants since more Eastern European nations joined the European Union back in 2004.

There’s little the U.K. can do to curb EU migration. EU citizens are free to cross borders pretty much as they please. Finch says that’s why Prime Minister Gordon Brown is being pressured to control immigration from outside the EU.

FINCH: Many of the strongest opponents of migration now don’t take an economic argument. So they don’t say these people are taking our jobs or threatening our living standards because they know there isn’t any evidence for that. It’s become very much about do we want a population that’s going from 60 to 70 to 80 million as it’s projected to do, and the sense that we don’t want this to be some sort of humming Singapore or Hong Kong type place.

Finch sees different risks. He says tough new immigration controls may seem sensible, but stemming legal immigration may leave immigrants at the mercy of dangerous illegal traffickers. Also, the kind of highly-educated skilled foreigners who have poured into Britain’s financial services industry in recent years may be put off coming here because a system that was once too easy will have become too tough.

In London, this is Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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