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Opinions of Friday, 28 June 2013

Columnist: Arhin, Albert A.

Why the UK £3000 visa bond is dead ...

.....on arrival—and potential good news for Ghanaians

Introduction

The British government's (recycled) proposal to demand a 3000 pound bond from visitors of certain "high-risk" countries such Ghana has created furore both in the UK and outside. Some call it “unfair" and "discriminatory. Others are urging for retaliation. Still others have pointed out the economic losses to the British economy. Here, I simply argue that the policy is dead on arrival—and the plans for pilot have to be discontinued.

Putting things in context

The immigration issue has become a very thorny issue in the UK and there are political promises to curb net migration—of which the government is really committed to.

Up to the half-year of 2013, at least two major changes (across different UK visa categories) have already been made—all seeking to control the high immigration rate to the UK. These include increment in visa application fees, the requirement for Ghanaian students to now sit for interviews, removal of right of appeal for applicants seeking entry to the UK as a family visitor and many more. The announcement of the cash bond is therefore not surprising as the hint had already been given at the start of this year. Of course the UK as a sovereign country has the right to determine its border policies so they may be lawful. But it appears the Home Office got it wrong on cash bond aspect of its migration control policy.

Let me emphasise that first it remains a proposal at this stage—and time will tell whether the pilot will be implemented as scheduled in November. I simply share in the UK's concern on illegal immigration but surely there are other more effective and non-discriminatory ways to put a check on this—not through cash bonds. The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, who had fought this all while is reported this week to have already raised concerns about the £3000 figure—and is hesitating before appending his signature. The nature of the policy can thus change.

Let me also declare that I have no competing interests as far as writing of article is concerned. I have been—and still am—a beneficiary of British education and a benefactor of British scholarship (s), which of course I earned on merit (not blowing my own horn though). When my several attempts to get employed in the public sector in Ghana failed some years back, it was a British-headquartered entity that employed me, nurtured me and gave me the space to utilise my talent. I therefore have no intention—not even the slightest of it—to cause any displeasure to the UK government with this article. However, I recall that at my very first orientation at a British University, I was told—and later trained—to be critical, to freely express my views and challenge decisions I feel wrong about in a very civil manner. It is in that same spirit and training through which I write this paper. Any misrepresentation of information is duly apologised for.

The Proposed Policy

The scheme is expected to be piloted from November, for people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ghana. They are being targeted because of the high volume of visitor visa applications and relatively high levels of abuse. Home Secretary Theresa May has pointed out that “the intention was to make the immigration system more ‘selective’ and deter people from ‘overstaying’ once their visitor visa has expired. In the long-term, it is expected to be expanded to cover foreign workers and students—who are already saddled with 1000s of restrictions and high costs. In principle, the bonds would be returned to visitors who left before their visas expired and forfeited by those who didn’t.

Fifteen categories of visitors: which ones are being targeted?

There are three broad categories of visitors recognised by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for visa application purposes. Infact, there are 15 of them as each broad category has several divisions, with each having its own application form. The categories are General visitor (comprising 6-months, 2 years, 5 years and 10 years entrants respectively), family visitor (comprising 6-months, 2 years, 5 years and 10 years entrants respectively) and Business visitors (comprising 6-months, 2 years, 5 years and 10 years entrants respectively, Academic visitor, Clinical attachment/dental observation and Diplomatic courier )

As of June 2013, visa cost for visitor application was ranging from £80 to £737 depending on the category. So far, it has not yet been clear which of these fifteen categories are being targeted by the proposed policy. While some media reports a possible target of the 6th month group, it is unclear whether the policy would focus on just the General, Business, family or all of them?

Bonds: Shooting wide, missing the target and giving licence to overstay! The proposed policy aims to target people who overstay on their visa. The policy assumes that visitor will be deterred by the bond and will thus make conscious effort not to overstay. This is where the policy got it all wrong.

Through the cash bond, the so-called ‘high risk’ visitor-migrants might even feel they have the licence to overstay (at least until such a time the law catches up with them). What the policy loses sight of is the fact that the minority ‘bad nuts’ who travel and remains illegally easily spends more than the £3000 on conmen to get their way through. For them, it is the getting there that is their problem—they hardly care about how much to pay!

The idea that the bond is to serve as deterrent and send strong signals for ‘bad entrants’ fundamentally defeat that purpose. The truth is that the policy can deter people to enter the UK (because of the high cost involved) but it cannot deter people from overstaying (because they know seem to have the permit to overstay anyway). In the end, the policy rather creates breeding grounds for more ‘overstaying’.

The proposed policy rather risks targeting the majority ‘good nuts’ who want to follow due process. With people knowing that, they can overstay a little bit and work to recoup their bond, people might actually be incentivised to flout the 6-month stay policy. While the overall visitor-entrants to the UK might decrease, the proportion of visitors likely to overstay might actually increase. This policy clearly misses the targets; it targets symptoms and could highly be ineffective. It has to be rejected outright!

Discriminatory tendencies

The discriminatory tendency embedded in the proposed policy has been expressed in various quarters and would not be overemphasised here. When this proposed policy was first considered 13 years ago, it was dropped—for good—because of concerns on its discriminatory and racial tendencies. How does this re-introduction aim to take way these tendencies? At its present form, it shows no direction to tackle the potential discrimination and racism inherent in the policy. These concerns are even more relevant in the present day England. Why Africa? Why Asia? Why everybody in Ghana rather than case-by-case assessment?

Summing up this point, I will paraphrase Rodney Boateng who asks:, will it be fair and rational to suggest that a senior Ghanaian civil servant be required to deposit a cash bond because he is suddenly deemed to be a ‘high risk’ on the basis of his nationality while another unemployed young man from another African country ( who has just completed school, has no UK immigration history, yet says he is planning to spend about £2,500 to go and tour the UK for a week) does not need to make a deposit because he is not seen as ‘high-risk? Which of these categories of people are actually at risk? This proposed policy has to be reconsidered and thought-through well. It appears a still-birth policy as far as controlling overstaying is concerned!

Possible legal tussle: Revisiting the Baiai-related cases

As part of the same immigration control efforts, the Home office introduced what it termed Certificate of Approval (CoA) in 2005 which required all foreign nationals who were subject to immigration control to obtain Home Office permission before marrying.

The scheme was challenged in a group of cases known as Baiai (the name of one of the people appealing in the case, [2007] EWCA Civ 478). On 23 May 2007, the UK Court of Appeal gave its judgment in this case of which the Home Office lost. The Court upheld that the blanket policy was a disproportionate interference in the right to marry and was discriminatory. The Baiai case established the point that the Home Office need to examine each application on its own merits rather than a wholesale approach which carries the real risk of unfairness and injustice. The cash bond proposal has a number of resemblances with the Certificate of Approval—and has to be scrapped just as the CoA was scrapped in 2011. More costly judicial review might await this proposed policy long before it gets approved.

Conclusion

The UK’s plan to demand a hefty visa bond from visitors of certain "high-risk" countries appear dead on arrival—potentially long before its gestation. The policy has to be thought-through well, or even be scrapped—just as it scrapped the previous proposal on similar issue in 2000. First, it is not deterrent enough for those it targets and gives licence for people to rather overstay. Second, it appears to punish the ‘good nuts’ with high fees and end up creating spaces for more violations of immigration rules. Third, it is discriminatory and unfair. Lastly, it may not be rational to apply a blanket policy of this nature on all citizens of a country.

In the worst case scenario, a case-by-case scrutiny and analysis of applications seem a more practical and a fairer way of ensuring that genuine visitors are not loaded with unnecessary burden of having to spend huge amounts of money to deposit, in addition to the already costly visa costs and travelling expenses. The UK is famous for its rigorous screening process and it needs to concentrate on that so as to weed out those who, on the basis of evidence provided, clearly have no incentive to return to their countries at the end of their visit.

But….come to think of it…political Independence did not really set Ghanaians free in 1957. Perhaps this cash bond might finally liberate us (an issue I turn to later). We don’t necessarily need retaliation. What we need is to appreciate what we have and consciously develop our homeland in a way that ‘chilling’ outside really become less attractive. It starts with you and I.

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Albert A. Arhin

E: rainfallaaa@yahoo.com