Migrant rights groups say the government’s plans to give skilled workers preferential treatment after Brexit won’t work if the government’s “hostile environment” policy continues.
Prime minister Theresa May announced on Tuesday that highly skilled staff who want to live and work in Britain will be given priority. The message was reiterated in a speech later in the day by home secretary Sajid Javid at the Conservative party’s conference, where he said that the EU referendum created a “unique opportunity” to create “a skills-based, single system that is opened up to talent from across the world”.
But the announcement was greeted with scepticism from groups representing immigrants in Britain, who said it was undermined by recent revelations about skilled workers told to leave Britain as part of the hostile environment.
Shortly before the policy was announced, BuzzFeed News revealed that a heart expert urgently needed in the hospital he worked at was facing deportation along with his nurse wife because of a minor child benefit error.
Paul Ermitano, a highly respected cardiac physiologist at Poole Hospital in Dorset, who was recruited from the Philippines because of NHS staff shortages, was told that he and his pregnant wife, Jamila, had to leave the country.
Aditi Bhardwaj, coordinator of the Highly Skilled Migrants group, which advocates for skilled migrants in Britain, told BuzzFeed News: “On one side, May is saying that high-skilled migrants would have preferential treatment. Then we see cases like this, where Britain is short of a skills set, the NHS is suffering, and a cardiac physiologist and his nurse wife are facing deportation.
“I can only say that either the country which is now my home is a hypocrite or there is no coordination at all within any departments and the government. The Home Office said that their application will be reconsidered. Why make them go through this in the first place?”
Bhardwaj said the government needs to assure people that small mistakes will not jeopardise people’s future in the country. “It’s shocking and and unbelievable that one mistake can lead to this. Why can’t we have a human approach to immigration? Do British people not make small common mistakes? Just because of the colour of their skin, or to meet a net migration target, it can cost someone this?”
The story of the Ermitano family, who came to Britain to plug urgent gaps in the NHS, prompted criticism from shadow home secretary Diane Abbott. She said in a statement to BuzzFeed News: “It is disgraceful that this Government would deprive the NHS of the much needed workers to support it.
“The Tories are wrongfully continuing to create an artificial panic about migrants, despite the positive contribution they make to our society and public finances.”
Paul Ermitano's experience is one of several recent stories of the government’s “hostile environment” policy that undermine its pledge to be open to skilled migrants. The Guardian reported last week that the family of a man who trained Ministry of Defence engineers was being made homeless after the Home Office removed Owais Raja’s right to work because of minor tax errors.
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told BuzzFeed News: “Global Britain will depend just as much on the message that it’s sending out to the world in order to attract talent — and right now the message to people around the world, skilled or otherwise, is that Britain is not welcoming. That this is a difficult country to enter and that when you’re here you’re at risk of being subjected to some of the most cruel and harsh treatment meted out by any immigration system in the developed world.”
He added: “After Windrush and all of the various scandals that have come out of the Home Office over the last 12 months, I fail to see how the government can consider such sweeping changes to the immigration system without overhauling the way the system works and ensuring that it is efficient, fair, and transparent.”
The Home Office said it could not comment because it was a party political announcement. Sajid Javid's office referred BuzzFeed News back to the Home Office for a response.