Difficult times in store for non-EU migrants to the U.K., with the government set to cap the annual migration at 21,700 from April.

If 2010 was a difficult year for Indians looking to migrate to Britain for work or higher education as the new Conservative-led government imposed more stringent rules for migrants from outside the European Union, the coming year is set to be even more difficult.

“Bleak, bleak, bleak,” warned an employer commenting on the prospects of non-EU migrants in the new year. From April, the annual non-EU migration will be capped at 21,700 as part of the Conservative Party's election pledge to bring down migration to “tens of thousands” from the existing “hundreds of thousands.” The cap, which will sharply reduce the current intake levels, is much tighter than what was recommended by a high-level advisory panel. Such significant reduction will be achieved by what one critic described as “wholesale slaughter” across all entry routes from highly-skilled professionals to students and family reunions.

An unsuspecting casualty would be students, with plans to cut down student visas by a 1,00,000 a year over the next four years. Only those who signed up for degree-level courses in officially recognised institutions would be eligible to apply; and even those who finally get in would face huge restrictions if they wish to renew their visa. Under the existing system, degree graduates are allowed to stay on in Britain for up to two years to find employment.

These harsh measures are being brought in despite protests from Britain's cash-strapped universities which are heavily dependent on fee-paying overseas students. It is estimated that international students contribute something like £8.5 billion a year to the British economy.

The government claims that there is “significant abuse” of student visas with many using this route to enter Britain for economic reasons. It is alleged that loopholes in the student visa regime are exploited by potential terrorists and spies. Immigration Minister Damian Green says there would be a “thorough evaluation” of the rules to make sure that only “genuine” students are allowed into the country.

Critics, while acknowledging that bogus students often fall through the net, say government claims are grossly exaggerated. And in any case, they argue, there is no foolproof system. Even the toughest system is vulnerable to abuse. There is also the view that it is wrong to club students with economic migrants.

“They are not here for economic reasons. Unlike workers, their time in the U.K. does not count towards any later application for settlement and they have no recourse to public funds,” Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Universities U.K., told The Financial Times.

Rules for professionals and other highly skilled workers would also be made more stringent under a radical review of the points-based system introduced with great fanfare by the Labour administration only two years ago. The number of people eligible under “Tier 1” — which allows people with specialised skills to come without a job offer — is to be heavily reduced. According to Home Secretary Theresa May, the system has failed to attract the best talent. “At least 30 per cent of Tier 1 migrants work in low-skilled occupations such as stacking shelves, driving taxis or working as security guards and some don't have a job at all,” she told the Commons.

“Tier 2,” which covers those who already have firm job offers, would be expanded and, within it, a new category created to cater for people of “exceptional talent” such as scientists. But critics say this is a “fudge” as the old Tier 1 already covered scientists.

The axe would also fall on dependents of families settled in Britain. They would be required to demonstrate a prescribed level of knowledge of English in order to qualify for family visas.

However, in a concession to big global corporations, the government has agreed to exempt intra-company transfers from the proposed cap though the exemption would be restricted to high-earning senior staff whose presence in Britain is considered essential to a company's operations. Indian IT businesses and Japanese car manufacturers had argued that any restriction on bringing in people needed for their specialist skills would hamper their operations. Some even reportedly threatened to close their British plants if in-house transfers were included in the cap. Their campaign was backed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which called for a more flexible policy to “enhance the U.K.'s attractiveness as a global location for investment and jobs.”

Currently, there is no bar on such transfers and it is estimated that a majority of non-EU skilled workers coming into Britain are on intra-company postings, prompting allegations that many firms bring in cheap labour to fill vacancies that could easily be filled locally. Anti-immigrant campaigners such as the influential right-wing think tank MigrationwatchUK have been lobbying for a substantial reduction in intra-company transfers by raising the income threshold and restricting such transfers to “key staff” in order to keep out (in the words of its chairman Andrew Green) “tens of thousands of Indian IT workers on £24,000 a year when British IT workers face 16 per cent unemployment.” Under the new plans, companies would be able to transfer only those who earn more than £40,000 a year.

Grudging and conditional though the concessions are, they have been welcomed as a sign of the government's willingness to compromise on a difficult issue. But broader concerns over the proposed cap remain. Leave alone foreign companies, even British businesses are extremely uncomfortable with a policy that they fear would take away their freedom to recruit the best talent from around the world. They are concerned that it would undermine their global competitiveness, besides damaging Britain's relations with the big emerging economies India, China and Brazil at a time when — more than ever before — it needs their vast markets for trade and investment.

Likewise, British scientists are worried that a bureaucratic, politically driven cap that does not take into account the needs of academic institutions would deprive them of world-class scientific talent and jeopardise research. In a rare public intervention, Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan cited his own case, pointing out that he might not have been able to move to Britain had such a policy been in place when he joined the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge University in 1999. This, in turn, would have caused a serious setback to his work on ribosomes that won him the prize.

“I had to take a 40 per cent cut to come here — a number of people thought I was crazy — and I was in a very tight race to solve the structure of the ribosome, which ultimately led to the Nobel Prize ... There were two people, both Americans, who moved with me to the LMB who were absolutely key to not losing time on that problem. If I had been unable to hire them, I might have just said: ‘why should I take the risk?' I couldn't afford any kind of delay. I would say that might have tipped the balance even though I love the LMB and the U.K.,'' the Indian-born scientist told The Times.

Eight other British Nobel Laureates warned that an artificial quota system would “isolate” the country from the “increasingly globalised world of research” and it risked losing scientists like Prof. Ramakrishnan who were “enriching and enhancing British science and society for decades.” Britain's cancer institutes say rigid migration barriers would hit research on developing new cancer drugs as they would not be able to recruit and retain talented international scientists.

A high-level parliamentary committee has pointed out that, bizarrely, while international footballers and other sportspersons are exempt from the cap, scientists are not.

In a withering report, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee warned that the planned cap would “hamper businesses, prevent top-class international professionals from coming to the U.K. and damage the U.K.'s ability to recruit the most distinguished scientists into universities and highly talented individuals into U.K. companies and public services.” There is widespread scepticism whether the so-called “exceptional talent” category would go far to meet the needs of scientific institutions.

More important, there is a big question mark on the government's claims that a cap would result in a significant fall in immigration considering that non-EU immigration accounts for only 12 per cent of the total. It is reckoned that there would only be a 20 per cent decline — far short of the government's goal of reducing net migration to “tens of thousands.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has his work cut out as he tries to push through what is widely seen as a half-baked policy made on the hop in the run-up to the general election to appease Tory grass roots. That his own coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are opposed to a cap makes things even more difficult for him. That would, of course, be of little consolation to those affected by the new rules.

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