I am a citizen of Portugal. My mother is from Macau and was born there when it was still under Portuguese control. She went through the long and difficult process of claiming her Portuguese citizenship so that I could have it through legacy. This allows me to live and work in the UK without having to apply for visas every few years (my other passport is Australian).
The process of gaining Portuguese citizenship was long, arduous, and expensive. But the Portuguese government treated us ex-colonials with respect and dignity. It was worlds apart from the way I was treated by the UK Border Agency when I tried to apply for visas as an Australian.
The UKBA treats applicants like criminals. It makes it impossible to speak with anyone in the system. The forms warn that any attempts to contact the agency will not be successful but will result in delays to the processing of your application. The agency is fortified within a labyrinth of Kafkaesque runarounds. It charges outrageous fees. The process of bringing in dependents or applying for spousal visas requires submission to humiliating and invasive examinations.
The UKBA also rejects every application it possibly can by creative interpretation of the laws. A friend of mine had his application rejected because his pen mark went too far outside one of the boxes he ticked. One of mine was rejected because I included the wrong page on one of twenty bank statements I had to send with the application. When your application is rejected, you are told that you have 28 days to leave the country. You are not told that you are allowed to appeal the decision and provide the right documentation (or send another form with all the ticks exactly the correct size). I had to ring a lawyer to find this out. The UKBA also warns that the appeal process can take months. You are not informed that you cannot be deported while the appeal is pending – again, I needed a lawyer to tell me this.
When I had sent in the correct page on my bank statement, my application was eventually accepted after appeal. But from that point onwards, I could never cross the UK border without being made to wait while an agent investigated my sordid past of illegal immigration. I must say that every agent apologised to me after finding out the truth but told me that they are obliged to investigate any visa that has a ‘flag’ on it.
Strangely enough, I still have this problem when entering the UK on my Portuguese passport, since the UKBA has linked together my EU passport with my Australian one. I am told this is (was!) in direct contravention of its treaty obligations to the EU, but that is a different story.
My immigration story is incredibly benign compared with others I have heard. I have heard of people being detained, deported, and fined for the most absurd imaginable reasons. I have heard of children being separated from their families. I have heard worse than that.
Immigration was a core issue in the EU Referendum, possibly the deciding issue. Intelligent people have argued that one advantage of leaving the EU is that Britain will be able to pick and choose its immigrants rather than having them forced upon it. My friend Neil Wilson has made this argument eloquently.
Neil claims that “every other advanced civilised nation on earth, outside the EU” runs a points-based system of selective immigration. I respectfully disagree. Face down the Australian Department of Immigration or the US Department of Homeland Security and tell me if you see evidence of civilisation.
I see a process that is deliberately made as expensive and dehumanising as possible. At times I barely managed it, and I am well off and a native speaker of English, with friends in high places. I cannot imagine what it would be like for somebody less privileged.
Do I believe in open borders? No. I believe, as Michael Dummett argued (please read his book), that just as anyone prosecuted for a crime should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, anyone seeking to migrate to a nation should be treated as legitimate until proven otherwise. We should not be treated as criminals trying to prove our innocence.
Now let me explain one reason why I voted for Britain to remain in the EU. The inhumanity of the UKBA and its counterparts in other nations did not emerge out of nothing. Such procedures are brought in on a wave of popular support, among native populations that always will harbour resentment against immigrants – including the ‘good’ (high point-scoring) sort of immigrants: fancypantses like me with higher degrees, often mixed ethnicity, middle-class jobs, and the requisite impressive bank balance. This popular resentment will always be a rich seam from which votes can be mined. The television stations make documentaries about heavily armed border guards chasing foreigners around, and the native populations squeal with delight. When one nation does it to the immigrants of another nation, that nation retaliates in kind. An accelerating arms race of nastiness between the UKBA and the Australian Department of Immigration has got us to where we are today. Immigrants become cannon fodder in a battle of national egos.
There is one and only one way to escape this vicious cycle. It is for nations to give up their sovereignty over immigration and enter into mutually binding international agreements, overseen by transnational bodies not subject to the ugly identity politics from which no national government can escape on its own. Nations must compromise on core principles of immigration to which they can all agree. The EU’s Free Movement of People might not have been the right principle, and I personally disagreed with its approach to non-EU migrants. But that is a matter that should have been argued within the EU Parliament or, in the ideal case, a Parliament of all the stakeholder nations.
Neil argues that: “People want nations for the same reason they want family and not just friends. People like their friends but want to live with their family – behind their own front door. Demonising nations is like demonising family, and needs to stop.”
I strongly repudiate the analogy. We all struggle to get on with our families at times, but if you’re lucky enough to have a good family you know they’ll always be there for you when you need them most. Nations are not like this. The ex-industrial regions of England needed the more affluent regions to support them during the 1980s. Instead they got Thatcher telling them they weren’t getting their grubby hands anywhere near the family jewels, to wild popular acclaim. The resentment builds to boiling point, and the only escape valve for it blows straight through the hearts of immigrants and their families. That is what we have just seen. I’m sorry for being unoriginal, but it is true.