But control of migration is not only about numbers. We turn here to the story beyond the statistics, to consider how, since Brexit, gaps have widened between the rights offered to different groups of migrants, pushed by different priorities in foreign policy.
Stratification of rights
Since Brexit, control of migration has not only been about curbing the numbers of people arriving in the UK. It has also been aimed at restricting their rights if they succeed in entering the country and distinguishing these rights further from those of British citizens.
The removal of quasi-citizenship rights from over 3m EU citizens who were living in the UK before Brexit lies within a broader context in which the rights of those arriving in the country are being radically reworked. Brexit and related changes to immigration policy and legislation have allowed the government to tighten its grasp on the lives of those variously classified as immigrants.
This process has been in train since Theresa May, as home secretary, introduced of the ‘hostile environment’ in the early 2010s. This institutionalised the direct involvement of ordinary citizens in immigration control – NHS workers, landlords, banks and employers for instance, are required to check people’s immigration status.
Indeed, there has been an overall levelling down of migrants’ rights: access to public funds, employment, housing, social and welfare entitlements were increasingly restricted. But this is uneven.
Take for example the Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme. This accounted for approximately 8% arrivals in the UK in 2021. A bespoke visa route, it was launched by the UK government to expedite the entry and settlement of the UK’s former colonial citizens – at least those who held status as British Nationals (Overseas) – seeking to leave Hong Kong in the wake of increased political oppression in the region.
There was no restriction of how many people could apply and, unlike other visa routes, the requirement for a minimum income was waived. What is more, the government provided funds for housing and childcare support under certain circumstances.
Other schemes rolled out since the start of 2021 do not contain the same generous provisions. There were quotas and stringent eligibility requirements for the resettlement of Afghans and Ukrainians, and the funds dedicated to supporting Hong Kongers on arrival in the UK were not matched for these populations.
Further, there are new, expensive temporary visas for those working in professions that have a shortage of qualified people in the UK. These visas offer no route to settlement.
This patchwork of new provisions and migrant rights seems at odds with the extension of the points-based immigration system that was supposed to simplify the UK’s approach to immigration and provide a coherent and merit-based alternative to the EU freedom of movement.
The foreign policy angle
Politicians often claim the schemes listed above are evidence of what the previous home secretary, Priti Patel, labelled as the UK’s ‘fair and generous’ immigration policies. Whatever the truth of that, they are certainly notable for another reason: each was initiated on the advice of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). As such, they show how foreign policy is shaping migration flows into the UK and their governance.