005 | Colin Yeo | How being nasty to immigrants became law

How did a concept meant for counterterrorism turn into an immigration policy?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Over the last decade, the UK set out to build a hostile environment that makes daily life a battle for many migrants and pushes even lawful ones into illegality.  Colin Yeo lifts the curtain on the British immigration system in his book "Welcome to Britain." He's my guest this week. We talked about the UK, and a bit about the US, but it's really about all of us and how we behave to one another, badly often, which is quite universal.

Colin Yeo is an immigration lawyer in London and the founder of freemovement.org.uk. He just published “Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System.”

Music by Dyalla.


Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

[00:00:00] Colin Yeo: [00:00:00] One of the mistakes that we see being made here in the UK and perhaps also in the us, um, is the assumption that  if you make it possible for people to come, then they will come. Um, It doesn't necessarily work like that. You actually have to proactively attract people and make your country a welcoming place.

Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:17] How much do you know about the immigration system in your country? Unless you're an immigrant yourself, the odds are, very little.

[00:00:29] Immigrants walk the halls of administrations that you'll never encounter and have learned a vocabulary all their own. J1, F1, 457, pre-settled. All those words mean something to me. And there are a short hand with people like me.

[00:00:47] My guest this week lifts the veil on the British immigration system. But beyond the UK, he's really talking about everywhere and about all of us. We talked about the U S a bit, but beyond [00:01:00] that, it's really about our shared humanity and how we behave to one another, badly often, which is quite universal.

[00:01:09] Colin Yeo is an immigration lawyer in London. He's the founder of freemovement.org.uk, and he just published "Welcome to Britain: Fixing our broken immigration system."  Let's talk to Colin.

[00:01:25] Um, I read the book last night. I don't recommend it as a bedtime read. It really gets your blood pressure up um, , but it was really interesting. What is it like launching a book mid pandemic?

[00:01:40] Colin Yeo: [00:01:40] Yeah, well, that's interesting. We had to have an online launch, bookshops are barely open, people aren't going to the shops, um,   um, It's a slightly strange experience.

[00:01:48] Isabelle Roughol: [00:01:48] Yeah, I bet. As it must be to be an immigration lawyer in a pandemic. How has that gone? Have things sort of ground to a halt or on the [00:02:00] contrary, has it been really busy?

[00:02:02] Colin Yeo: [00:02:02] Well, it's a quite strange time because, um,  in the very short term, there's basically no need for an immigration lawyer, which is kind of great. Um, , uh, A lot of countries -- and the UK is doing this as well -- are uh, basically saying that  um, if you're a migrant and you're in the country, then your permission to stay there will be extended automatically in the meantime. Um,  There aren't that many flights available at the moment. And sometimes flights just aren't available at all. So people can't really move. And also  people are having to face some difficult choices about what country to bunker down in effectively. Should they be in their country of nationality or should they be in the country that they happen to find themselves in, perhaps now with family members or that they're working or something like that? So in the short term, people don't really need the help of an immigration lawyer because things are being handled automatically, but there's also um, a  huge demand for information. And, um, certainly I don't know how it's been handled in other countries, but here in the UK, the information that's been [00:03:00] provided by the government has been pretty sketchy at times and not that easy to access or understand. So there's a  huge demand for information, if not for the actual  business of making applications.

[00:03:13]Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:13] Yeah, I've wondered about that actually. I decided early on in March to go spend the lockdown in my country of nationality, France, and found myself counting the days because with settled status there's a residency requirement where you have to spend at least six months out of any 12 month period in the UK. Which is something that's actually very easy to go over if you travel a bit for work. And I found myself very close to it at one point. So yeah I found myself counting the days and being very unclear as to you know what happens if, because of the pandemic you go over. Um, and I decided to not chance it and come back to the UK. So I imagine there's a lot of these tricky situations.

[00:03:54]Colin Yeo: [00:03:54] Like you say, there are residency requirements for various different types of visas where you've got [00:04:00] to spend a certain amount of time. And again, we don't really have very much clarity at the moment about how these things work out in the long run.

[00:04:07]Another example of that is that in the UK, and I think in quite a few other countries, we've got various different income requirements for migrants. This goes back a way now: migrants tend to be valued in rather um, basic utilitarian kind of terms in the United Kingdom, you know: what are they worth to us um,  in fiscal terms rather than cultural social terms, which is very unfortunate. Um, And one of the ways that manifests itself in the rules is that migrants have to earn a certain amount, otherwise they have to leave basically. And, you know, during a global pandemic, when incomes have been hit, there's a lockdown that's been imposed by the government and people are being laid off and having their incomes reduced in various different ways. We don't really know how that's going to play out in the longer run. So it's a time of real uncertainty for lots of people.

[00:04:56]Isabelle Roughol: [00:04:56] Um, And we've seen that migrants also overly [00:05:00] represented in these frontline essential jobs that uh, ended up being very exposed to the pandemic. There was a story on  the cleaners at the ministry of justice that made a bit of a scandal this week.

[00:05:13] Colin Yeo: [00:05:13] Yeah. They suddenly find themselves going from low valued, um, supposedly low skilled roles to suddenly being key workers,  which is nice but um, it doesn't really count for anything in the long run if the rules don't change to reflect that. But it's interesting because it feels like it could be a time where people are thinking again about... about the value of migrants and just  priorities in life, perhaps. It's maybe a little optimistic and naive on my part. I don't know, but it feels like it could be a time when people think, well, "hang on a minute. The people who've kept our country running, kept the supply chains functioning and so on, maybe they are actually quite important after all, or maybe it would be a struggle if we had to cope without them."

[00:05:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:05:54] Right. We've been clapping for the NHS, which is staffed by a lot of [00:06:00] migrants, and cashiers and delivery people and all of that. But does this have weight in an application to the home office? I don't know. Not at this point, I guess maybe in the future.

[00:06:13] Colin Yeo: [00:06:13] Well, it's certainly not at the moment.  Um, And what we see at the moment is, is that the home office plans before the pandemic were basically to prevent the entry of what were previously called low-skilled workers. Um, It was never really about low skill. It was always about low salary and there are quite a few skilled roles that don't necessarily earn a lot, um, but that was the kind of language that was being used.

[00:06:36] And in particular, the end of free movement rights for European citizens would have meant that, um, unless some sort of new scheme was introduced,  um, it'd be a lot harder for those kinds of people to come to the UK to pick fruit or work in the NHS or work in supply chains, work in coffee shops. There just  wouldn't be a route for them to come to the UK to do that in future. Um, And um, as far as we know, [00:07:00] that's still home office policy for after June 2021, when we're told there's going to be a new immigration system.

[00:07:08]Isabelle Roughol: [00:07:08] So you mentioned the income requirement, which I think leads to one of the more unjust and  frustrating situation of all the unjust and frustrating situations  that you discuss in the book, which is the separation of family  and the pushing into exile pretty much of even British citizens and British children. Um, Can you tell me a bit  about how that works and how we got to that situation?

[00:07:36] Colin Yeo: [00:07:36] Yeah. So, so back in 2012, um, a new rule was introduced by then home secretary Theresa May. And it requires um, a person in the UK who's sponsoring a spouse or partner to be earning at least 18,600 pounds. Now that's quite a lot of money. Um,  It's a lot more than the minimum wage was at that time. Although the minimum wage has gone [00:08:00] up since then, it's still a bit more. Um, but it's particularly a lot of money for certain people. So if you're living and working outside London,  um, if you're a woman, if you're part time, if you're young,  if you're from an ethnic minority your pay on average ends up being lower. Um, so there are whole groups of people who are affected by that, who find it very difficult to sponsor, um, uh, a spousal partner. And it means that either they have to go and live in another country to be together as a family, um, or they have to live apart. And, um, one of the parents is going to be basically a single parent and you get what was previously being called the Skype family where the children only really know one of their parents  through video calls, which is just tragic.

[00:08:43]Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:43] That's um, a bit ironic because it's coming from a conservative government for whom family values is usually a big part of their platform. And thinking more broadly, not just about the UK. Uh, I think family separation has been a big issue as well in the [00:09:00] U S immigration system and now we're seeing the U S really, uh, really restrict immigration  to a trickle, uh, in the pandemic. Um, This week we heard about international students essentially being asked to leave.

[00:09:17] Colin Yeo: [00:09:17] Yeah,  I saw the announcements on that and  it does seem extraordinary.  I think one of the mistakes that we see being made here in the UK and perhaps also in future in the us, um, is the assumption that people will want to um, come to our country. So if you make it possible for people to come, then they will come. Um, It doesn't necessarily work like that. You actually have to proactively attract people and make your country a welcoming place to get the kind of migrants to come, this sort of internationally mobile. Um, very talented, potentially highly  skilled, highly paid individuals. And if you have policies that um, are generally tough on immigration, if you use um, [00:10:00] anti-immigrant rhetoric, and if you have arbitrary policies which make the future uncertain for people, then they'll think twice about moving to that country. Um, And it's not, you know, the low skilled migrants who get put off, it's the high skilled migrants who get put off because they've got a choice about where they go to. There's lots of countries who are interested in trying to attract them.

[00:10:22]I saw something interesting where a former minister -- Boris Johnson's brother, actually -- has written the introduction to a report on foreign students and he just mentioned in passing that um, Theresa May um, was known as Agent May by Canadian university people, because she was so helpful to their recruitment efforts because she was putting international students off coming to the UK. It was actually a drive to reduce the number of international students coming to the UK. And that was great for other countries, which were then able to attract them instead.

[00:10:52]Politicians on the right are often saying that they want the brightest and best, but at the same time, introducing policies and using language that puts those [00:11:00] people off.

[00:11:00] Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:00] And they're the first ones to leave because they can, because they have options. Yeah. I was struck reading the book uh, by the phrase "hostile environment", which I would have thought was just a way for opponents to describe the system, but is actually the actual policy uh, that willingly, um, the Home Office is putting forward.  So what do they mean by hostile environment? And what's the goal?

[00:11:28] Colin Yeo: [00:11:28] There's a bit of a background  to the words hostile environment. So it's a phrase that was developed in the Home Office in the early years of the millennium  and it was used for terrorists in the first place. The idea was that instead of catching them and prosecuting them, putting them in prison, you'd  try and deter them and keep them away by attacking  their finances, their support base, and things like that. And it was kind of extended to serious organized crime. And then just bizarrely it was extended to immigrants um from back 2010 onwards. And you [00:12:00] actually see that phrase being deployed and used deliberately by ministers like Theresa May, who was home secretary at the time. The  um cabinet committee that was set up to look at various different ways of deterring illegal migrants was actually called the Hostile Environment Working Group. Um It was eventually retitled because I think um  the coalition partners, the liberal Democrats at the time, thought that was a little bit just too sinister Um  There was a clear intent there and that was the deliberate language of ministers. They've renamed it now -- the compliant  environment -- which sounds not that unsinister if you see what I mean frankly, but  less overtly hostile because it doesn't actually have the word hostile in it. But a lot of us still refer to it as the hostile environment because that was the name  the policy was labeled with by the government itself at the time.

[00:12:46] Isabelle Roughol: [00:12:46] Sounds like something out of quite sinister, bureaucratic department of naming things. Um, So, so what is the consequence of the hostile environment? Does it achieve what it's intended to [00:13:00] achieve?

[00:13:01] Colin Yeo: [00:13:01] Well you can use words in different ways. When I use the words 'hostile environment' I'm often referring to a quite specific set of policies,  which is quite wide ranging but it's basically about introducing citizen-on-citizen immigration checks. So that employers have to check your immigration status. Landlords have to check your immigration status. So do banks and building societies ,which are not immigration officers. And then it also extends to other public services, so um civil servants um who are working for different government departments also have to look at your immigration status and people working in local governments check your immigration status. The NHS checks your immigration status. Um

[00:13:41] So you get this kind of culture of checking everybody's immigration status  that's been spread by various different laws. People are fined if they fail to do it properly. Um And  the effect that it has is kind of similar to identity cards, but in my view a lot worse actually because what you're doing [00:14:00] with the hostile environment is you're forcing people to prove their right to be in the UK. And um the fines only kick in if the person turns out not to have a right to be in the UK. And therefore a lot of private individuals -- and civil servants and so on -- take a shortcut and they think, "well if you're white and you've got a local accent, then I don't really need to check your status because I'm pretty sure you've got the right to be here. But if you're black or Asian or you've got a foreign-sounding name or something like that, then I will check your status because I'm not quite so sure about that."

[00:14:36] And it's one thing for you know white middle class, middle-aged male like me to be asked to show my passport, it's not particularly intrusive, it doesn't threaten me in any meaningful way. But  to ask somebody who's black to prove their status in the UK because you're not sure about it, that's a very different experience I think. It's much more challenging and existential frankly and it's much more [00:15:00] offensive. Um But that's what this policy  is all about. The whole point of this policy  is to have people's immigration status checked by other citizens and civil servants

[00:15:10] Isabelle Roughol: [00:15:10] Is the UK's immigration policy racist? Intentionally or accidentally racist?

[00:15:17] Colin Yeo: [00:15:17] It's a really difficult question. I think it is intentional in the end Um and I think ministers would deny that um  they'd say it wasn't intentional. But  in some ways it's also  the wrong question because I don't think it matters whether it's intentional or not. What really matters is the impact. And there's a huge amount of evidence to show that whatever the intention is behind it, it is racist in the way that it operates on the ground. And there was a lot of evidence beforehand and frankly it doesn't take much to think it through to realize that it was going to have racist consequences. Um And ministers --and  I think to an extent civil servants as well -- simply ignored or didn't look at that evidence or weren't bothered by it. [00:16:00] And they went ahead anyway and that's what triggered the  Windrush scandal to bubble to the surface.

[00:16:07]Isabelle Roughol: [00:16:07] Since our audience  is global. Uh, let's just give people a summary of who the Windrush generation are and, and what that scandal was about.

[00:16:16] Colin Yeo: [00:16:16] Yeah. So the Windrush generation, that's a label  that somebody, a particular campaigner, Patrick Vernon, kind of invented really quite recently. And, um, it's a label that sort of broadly includes basically  the postwar generation of people who came to the United Kingdom from the old British empire,  what was then named the Commonwealth. And when they came to the UK, they came as citizens. So they weren't really migrants in that sense, they actually had a citizenship of the United Kingdom and colonies as it was called. And that was the same citizenship as people born in the United Kingdom itself. And they came from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent and from Africa, [00:17:00] in the 1950s and sixties. And then gradually over the 1960s and seventies -- um, I say gradually,  it was fairly sudden actually from, from 1962 onwards -- um, new rules were introduced, which kind of created a two-tier type of citizenship where basically new entrants weren't going to be allowed in very easily, but the people who had already come, um,  would be allowed to stay. There was no talk about turfing them out or anything like that.

[00:17:24] But they weren't issued with status papers at the time. A law was passed basically saying that they were lawfully resident, but they didn't necessarily have documents issued to prove it. And for decades, they didn't need those documents because nobody was checking their immigration status on a day-to-day basis. But from 2010 onwards with  this incoming conservative government, um, immigration checks became an everyday part of life in the United Kingdom. And that meant that people suddenly found themselves losing their jobs, losing their homes and facing deportation to countries that  they'd come from as tiny children, [00:18:00] you know, decades previously.

[00:18:02] Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:02] And many did. Um, uh, And I think  what's probably most  incomprehensible to people looking at the Windrush scandal from the outside is that there seemed that there was no way to prove your good faith. No amount  of having clearly been educated and lived in  the UK for decades and, and having worked, and having um, pay stubs and whatever -- who has pay stubs from the 70s? -- um, It seemed like it didn't matter. Was there a policy of disbelief on principle?

[00:18:37] Colin Yeo: [00:18:37] Yeah. Lawyers and campaigners often talk about there being a culture of disbelief at the home office. And that's a phrase that's been in circulation for quite some time, and it very accurately describes the general approach of officials at the home office, who simply assume that you're lying, unless you can prove otherwise. And that kind of very um, cynical [00:19:00] approach was just astonishingly also applied to Windrush generation migrants who'd been obviously living here for decades and had obviously good proof to show it. And officials were just applying  the normal standards of proof, which are incredibly hard to meet to, to these people in a completely inappropriate way. Um,  It just beggars belief really that those officials couldn't see that what they were doing was wrong. But that was the approach that their kind of policy documents and so on, taught them to adopt.

[00:19:33] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:33] Where does that come from?  I am fascinated by, by organizational culture and sort of how you get a bunch of people who I'm sure are decent people individually  to somehow become  this hostile force. How does that work and how do we change it? Do we burn the home office to the ground? Metaphorically obviously, I'm not advocating violence, but  how do we change or do we just have to start from scratch? [00:20:00]

[00:20:00]Colin Yeo: [00:20:00] I'm not sure that simply abolishing the home office is necessarily the way forward. And you know, there are people out there who say we should just abolish the home office. The reason I think that is that, um, all the functions that the home office currently  is responsible for, um, those would all have to be done by somebody and they'd probably end up being done by home office civil servants. They'd just be  redistributed to other departments or a new department of immigration or something like that. And I don't think that would necessarily achieve cultural change.

[00:20:27] But what we've seen is leadership from the top of the home office that says that immigration is a bad thing and needs to be reduced. And famously  that comes from the net migration targets set by David Cameron as leader of the opposition  in 2010. That policy was announced as a short-term political measure, I think, um, in order to um, position the conservative party, um, with the electorate and also to position David Cameron within the conservative party and  keep certain people happy. Um,

[00:20:57]But it turns out when you get into government, that reducing [00:21:00] immigration isn't as straightforward as you might think. Which migrants do you want to get rid of? Is it  the highly skilled ones who are coming in, in which case the economy suffers and GDP um, falls and employers are unhappy? Is it families, in which case families end up being split? Is it refugees, in which case  you're being very inhumane and your international reputation suffers? Um, Is it international students who are incredibly valuable and heavily subsidize domestic students? Um, So suddenly you've got all these hard choices about what you're going to do. And what they decided is that they were just going to try and reduce immigration across the board, pulling every available lever, trying to make things as difficult as possible for migrants. The policy was never really spelled out. So you have to kind of read between the lines to see what they were hoping to achieve with it. And it seems to me that it was to try and put people off, coming to the UK in the first place, and also to encourage people to leave the UK and to make their lives insufferable.

[00:21:53]But one of the things I've sort of talked about in the book is that there's no evidence that it actually achieves that. What it does [00:22:00] do is it forces people out of legal status once they're in the UK. The  complexity of the rules , their arbitrariness, the cost of the rules, all the income thresholds and so on... sometimes people can't meet the rules and they don't leave. They just become illegally resident. And we've now got this potentially very substantial unauthorized population in the United Kingdom and estimates vary hugely. Guesses range between 600,000 and 1.2 million. And these are people who have no proper status, but they're not also not being forced out of the country. It's really an intolerable situation for them and I think that for us as a society as well.

[00:22:39]Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:39] Is the solution a, an amnesty for a lot of these people? Is it a case by case regularization?

[00:22:47] Colin Yeo: [00:22:47] Well, I don't think you can remove them. That's that's the start. I think people think that there are more removals now than there used to be. So,  the Labour government that was in place before 2010, is now regarded as being [00:23:00] soft on immigration whereas the conservative and coalition governments from 2010 onwards are regarded as being tough on immigration. But actually the number of enforced removals from the UK has fallen since 2010, quite substantially. So less than 10,000 migrants are now subject to an enforced removal every year. And we also know from the statistics that an increasing proportion of them are EU citizens who've committed quite minor crimes. It kind of looks like officials are plumping up even falling numbers with low risk removals that are easy to carry out.

[00:23:33] So I don't think  you can remove them. You'd be inhumane. It would require building detention camps, tearing families and communities apart. It would be horrendous. So that leaves  if they're going to stay here, can you just ignore the problem? And I don't think we really can or should. Um, Or do you want to deal with it?

[00:23:50]So I don't think it's an either or. I think you need an amnesty because there's just such a huge number of people who seem to be here without proper lawful status, which is bad for them. And it's [00:24:00] bad for lawful residents as well. But also you want to look at the rules more widely so that they're not forced into that status in the first place. And there is a route out of it in the longer term as well.

[00:24:12] Isabelle Roughol: [00:24:12] So I want to talk about the EU settlement scheme uh, and Brexit.  You suddenly have millions of people who never really thought of themselves as immigrants who are realizing that they are. um, Where  are we with the scheme, which is entering its last year now? So people are eligible if they're here before December 31 of this year. And they have to apply before the end of June 2021. So there's a little under a year left. Um, Where are we in terms of um, number of people who've applied number of people who have obtained status? And does it look like it's going to be successful?

[00:24:54]Colin Yeo: [00:24:54] The latest statistics say that there have been, I think 3.7 million applications and I think status has been [00:25:00] granted in something like 3.5 million of those cases. um, Around 40% of people are getting what's called pre settled status. It puts them on a kind of five-year route to being settled in the UK. And then the other 60% are being granted settled status, which is permanent residence in the UK, although you can still be deported if you commit criminal offenses in future. Um,

[00:25:21] so there's a high number of applications being made. We don't know how many EU citizens there are in the  UK though, they've never been counted. The problem is that no matter how many applications there are, we think that there will be many people who don't make applications, who could have, and those people are going to end up basically as unauthorized migrants, once the deadline passes.

[00:25:44]We just have no idea how many that's going to be. It could be tens of thousands, you know. A small percentage of the estimated 3 or 4 million EU citizens is still a very substantial number of people and they will be subject to all of the hostile environment policies we were talking about earlier, where  they're not able to [00:26:00] work properly, their bank accounts get shut down, they have to get turfed out by their landlords and so on.

[00:26:05] Isabelle Roughol: [00:26:05] Yeah. And I get the emails from the home office on the settlement scheme and there was a tiny line at the bottom of the last email that really chilled me. Um, It said, "don't forget to apply for children." And I wonder if, you know, give it another 10 years, we're going to have a situation like the Dreamers in the U S where you have a bunch of children who no one applied for when they couldn't speak for themselves and, and will find themselves without status when they're adults.

[00:26:36] Colin Yeo: [00:26:36] Yeah, I think it's almost inevitable that that's going to happen. Um, So other EU countries are dealing with British citizens in a different way.  Some countries are basically doing what the UK did for the Windrush generation in previous decades and passing a law, saying you are automatically lawfully resident, and then trying to sort out the documents later. Some other countries like the UK are saying, well, those who are resident have to [00:27:00] apply. Otherwise they'll be unlawful. And neither of those is a perfect solution. They're the only two available solutions um, but  neither of them is perfect because if you pass a law saying people are lawfully residents, but don't issue them with documents, then they can have problems later on.

[00:27:15] Although I'd say it's a bit of a different problem. Being lawful, but not being able to prove it easily isn't as bad as being unlawful and having no legal status and just being deported, um, which is what the UK is, is essentially doing to a very large number, we think, of EU citizens. It could be like I say, tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people. We just won't know.

[00:27:36]Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:36] And that's a distinction you make very early on in the book. You choose to use the word unauthorized immigrant rather than undocumented immigrant and that's because many people might have legal status but simply not the documents to prove it. And reading it I realized I think I'm an [00:28:00] undocumented migrant um, because I have pre settled status and all I got is an email that made very clear that this was not legal proof of my status. So the EU settlement scheme does not in fact provide documents.

[00:28:13] Colin Yeo: [00:28:13] Well, yeah, you should be very reassured that you've got a little number on a database, somewhere in the home office, that employers and landlords and banks and building societies and doctors and so on can, uh,  if they can be bothered to,  they have to sort of phone up the home office or get to the home office website, check whether you've got a black mark or a tick against your name, basically, and then they can provide the service to you without fear of being fined if you have.

[00:28:39] And it's one of the big problems with the EU settlement scheme and there's lots of problems with it. But the biggest one is that it forces people to apply and some people won't for various different reasons. But another problem is that no physical documents are being issued. Um, And it means that say, for example, if you're an employer in the UK um, or a landlord, and you've got several people who apply for a job [00:29:00] or for a tenancy or whatever. And some of them have got easy to understand proof of their residency, like a British passport, and they can just show it to you; and others of them don't and as the employer or landlord, you've got to go away and check with the home office, whether somebody has status or hasn't, that is going to lead to discrimination against EU citizens almost inevitably. Um, And that isn't what the government say they want, but that's obviously what's going to happen.

[00:29:25] Isabelle Roughol: [00:29:25] And they charge you for that check too when uh when you're trying to get a place. Um

[00:29:31] I want to talk about the Hong Kong situation, which... I don't know, you'll you'll tell me, but it sounds like it's actually quite different.  We've talked about this very hostile environment and all of a sudden, the prime minister is essentially potentially opening the door to, I don't know, 3 million people. Is that what's happening? What is it that's being offered?

[00:29:55] Colin Yeo: [00:29:55] Yeah, I'd be cautious about saying opening the door to 3 million people. It's like we talked about [00:30:00] earlier,  it's not just about allowing people, it's also about whether they, whether they want to, or not. Now, Hong Kong is a bit different because there are  what a sociologist or an academic might call push factors. That's a very neutral way of putting it. There's some, some pretty awful things going on in Hong Kong at the moment. And that may well drive people to want to leave. Um,

[00:30:19]The group of people that the UK is saying can move now to the UK are called British Nationals Overseas. British nationality law is a real mess basically. It's an after effect of um, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from its empire. And there are several different types of nationality status, which have the word British in them. One of them is British citizen and that allows you to live and work in the United Kingdom itself, but there are several others, one of which is British National Overseas.

[00:30:52] And it's really, basically just a piece of paper. It was just a piece of paper. It didn't allow you to live in the United Kingdom. It gave you [00:31:00] a few minor advantages over other categories of migrants, but it didn't give you a right to live in the United Kingdom. And what the UK is saying is that they're not changing that basic requirement. So they're not giving what's called the right of abode, which would allow people freely to move to the United Kingdom if they wanted to. But they are going to say that you can get a visa. The UK will charge you a lot for that visa, but there will be a visa available and you can come to the UK if you want to. You'll be allowed to work and you'll be allowed to settle after five years.

[00:31:29] Isabelle Roughol: [00:31:29] Right. That's something we didn't talk about a lot, but the fees are incredibly high. So not only do you have an income requirement to get to the UK but it can cost you a small fortune um, to get to the point of legal settlement.

[00:31:49] Colin Yeo: [00:31:49] Yeah. Yeah, it's very expensive. The home office is trying to make the whole border system essentially self-financing so that migrants have to pay [00:32:00] um, enough money that it basically funds all of the Home Office immigration functions. And it ends up operating as a kind of double taxation because migrants who come to the UK , most of them are working here and they pay their taxes, but they also pay these really substantial fees, which are  as a standard usually  at least a thousand pounds for any kind of application you have to make. And depending on the route that you're on you might have to make a number of different applications and it can be a lot more expensive for some routes as well.

[00:32:29] And the one that really just gets me, particularly counter intuitive, is one right at the end of the process, which is the fee for citizenship. Because it costs, I think over 1,300 pounds to apply for British citizenship. Some people might think, "Oh, well, it's a privilege to be a British citizen. And therefore you should have to pay a lot for it". But don't we want people who are longterm residents in the United Kingdom to become citizens?  Wouldn't we encourage them to do that?

[00:32:53] And charging them a small fortune to do that just seems like a really insane policy to me, [00:33:00] particularly where they're children and, and even children have to pay a substantial amount to be registered. And we come across families where the parents simply can't afford it. So the children never become British citizens, even though they are entitled to it. Or  the parents have to pick one of their children to be British and the others don't become British because the parents just can't afford it. It's just ridiculous.

[00:33:22] Isabelle Roughol: [00:33:22] Yeah, but do we want people to become British? If it's a system that is, as you write, um, set up to maintain the -- uh, I forget how you phrased it -- maintain the um, ethnic composition or integrity of what the UK used to be  in a certain uh, nostalgic vision of what the UK used to be.

[00:33:42] Colin Yeo: [00:33:42] Well, I think if you have closed citizenship laws where you've got high costs and it's difficult to become a citizen, particularly for migrants, then the effect of that is that it tends to preserve the existing, ethnic composition of the [00:34:00] population. I'm putting that as neutrally as I can. Yeah. It's racist basically. It's about stopping migrants who are generally speaking not white from becoming citizens. And whether that's the overt intention or not, that's certainly the effect.

[00:34:15] Isabelle Roughol: [00:34:15] I wonder what it is that makes us hold onto a system that seems more interested in punishing um, people  who are trying  to make it in this country, as opposed to a system that actually works. And you mentioned in the book trying to see migrants as citizens in waiting. And, um,  I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and what it does to someone who will eventually be a British citizen to have been abused by their own society and their own government for however many years before they get there?

[00:34:52] Colin Yeo: [00:34:52] Yeah. So  that phrase, "citizens in waiting", it's one that I borrowed  um, from the U S essentially, where there was a formal [00:35:00] status of American in waiting. It was quite a really interesting bit of  us citizenship law and history. It's a different way of seeing migrants.

[00:35:07] So at the moment in the United Kingdom, we've got all these policies that I've collectively called deterrent policies. And the idea is that it stops people from coming and it encourages them to leave essentially. And that's the cost, the complexity, or these income thresholds and so on... It doesn't actually deter people from coming quite often; um, but it does make their lives very difficult once they're in the United Kingdom.

[00:35:31] And  things like double taxation, well, the effect of that in real life is that a migrant family has a lot less disposable income than a comparable family that's already resident. They can't take holidays, they can't afford new clothes and nice things in the same way that other families can. And in extreme cases, they can't afford the fees that they're being charged and they end up becoming unauthorized migrants. But even when they don't, even when they can afford the fees, it's [00:36:00] financially punishing for them. And it hampers their life chances.

[00:36:04] And yet we also say that they should be integrating into our society and they should be grateful to be here and so on. I say, well, that doesn't match with those deterrent policies. How is it encouraging people or facilitating  their integration if you make their lives here so deliberately difficult in the first place? And if it did have the effect of deterring people or forcing them out, then you could see that there's a certain logic to it. I don't like it, but at least I can say there's a certain logic to it, but it doesn't do that. There's no evidence at all that it actually does force people out. So they end up living here anyway um,  and what's the point of that? It just doesn't make any sense on a public policy level.

[00:36:47]Most who come here for work or for family, or for refuge, for asylum, they will be allowed to stay in the longterm either as a sort of unlawful unauthorized, but strangely [00:37:00] tolerated group, or as lawful residents. Wouldn't it be better to be helping them to become active parts of society and ultimately citizens rather than hampering them in this way, which has racist effects? A lot of migrants are from um,   black and ethnic minority groups and  to be hampering their life chances and creating this almost sort of an underclass or servant class of migrants in a society is just a really unhealthy unhelpful thing to be doing.

[00:37:35] Isabelle Roughol: [00:37:35] And you're talking about a change of policy that doesn't have to mean bigger numbers. It's just about how you treat the numbers that we do have.

[00:37:44] Colin Yeo: [00:37:44] Yeah. I like to think of myself as being liberty-minded. I don't really mind how many migrants come to the UK. I welcome immigration. I'm an immigration lawyer apart from anything, but, um,  I'm not that bothered about the numbers when it comes down to it. If rules are introduced that stop people from coming in the [00:38:00] first place,  that's kind of economically self-harming, but I haven't got a particular problem with it.  What I've got a real problem with, which I just think is just unconscionable, is treating people who do come without respect and as these kinds of beasts of burden almost, with this really starkly, utilitarian fiscal approach to their worth as human beings. It's really wrong and it's counterproductive and it does not lead to a healthy society in my view.

[00:38:30] Isabelle Roughol: [00:38:30] Well, I think that's an important point that we can end on. We could talk forever about how broken the system is. I wonder if you have parting thoughts on how we get people, British citizens who do not have a personal or family experience of immigration, um, to care about this and about what their government is doing in their name.

[00:38:51] Colin Yeo: [00:38:51] I can't help on that last thing, how to make people care is, is very difficult. And I think the evidence suggests that the more contact people [00:39:00] have with migrants, the more sympathetic they are. That's something that happens over time, essentially.

[00:39:05]Isabelle Roughol: [00:39:05] Well, thank you so much, Colin. Thank you for carrying that message. I really recommend the book, I think especially to people who do not have a personal experience of immigration and want to know what it's like in this country. Um, Thank you.

[00:39:20] Colin Yeo: [00:39:20] No. Thanks for having me .

[00:39:21] Isabelle Roughol: [00:39:21] "Welcome to Britain: Fixing our broken immigration system" by Colin Yeo is out with Biteback Publishing. Remember, you can subscribe to the newsletter and to the podcast. All the links that you need are at borderlinepod.com. You can also leave a voicemail. And I'd really love to hear from you in the community, hear your stories for future episodes, your ideas, anything that's on your mind that you want to share with the Borderline community, which is growing. Thank you everyone so much for listening.

[00:39:54] Oh, and there's an Instagram account too. So you can look for Borderline pod. I'll talk to you [00:40:00] next week.

Podcast episodesBorderlineImmigrationGeopolitics

Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.