External Affairs

Theresa May Offers Conditional Visa Restriction Relaxation For Indians

The condition is that India has to speed up the process of taking back those who have violated visa regulations in the UK.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Theresa May shake hands during the joint statement at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Theresa May shake hands during the joint statement at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

New Delhi: On her visit to India, British Prime Minister Theresa May has offered to relax visa restrictions for Indians, but only on condition that India speeds up the process of taking back those who violated their visa rules.

This was an indication that the UK is not yet ready to open its doors completely to Indian skilled workers and students, even as both governments committed to work on a trade deal “for the long haul”.

May arrived last night on a three-day visit to India – her first bilateral foreign trip outside Europe. She had the difficult agenda of increasing trade with India in order to balance out the loss from the removal of privileges with the exit of UK from the EU. But, just as with the EU, she has found herself dealing with immigration issues while trying to reach an understanding on trade with India.

The gap on this was visible right from when May stepped onto the airport tarmac of smoggy Delhi.

According to Reuters, May told the travelling press that UK had issued “more work visas to India than, I think, the US, Australia, Canada and China put together”.

As they shared the dais at the India-UK tech summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointedly brought up the issue of the difficulty of obtaining student visas.

“Education is vital for our students and will define our engagement in a shared future. We must, therefore, encourage greater mobility and participation of young people in education and research opportunities,” he said.

Study visas issued to Indians have dropped from 68,238 in June 2010 to 10,664 in June 2016, as per UK home office figures.

At the business summit, May claimed as home secretary, “I made the visa process for Indians much easier” – which may be disputed by certain quarters.

The gifts that she came bearing was the Registered Traveller Scheme – the first offered to any foreign country.

“This means that for Indian nationals who frequently come to the UK – and who fuel growth in both our countries – the entry process will become significantly easier. Fewer forms to fill out. Access to the EU/EEA passport control. Swifter passage through our airports. In short, more opportunities for Britain and India, and a clear message that Britain is very much open for business,” she said.

Besides, the Indian government was also invited to nominate top business executives to the “Great Club” – UK’s ‘bespoke’ visa and immigration service.

Modi added that India believed that the newly set up joint working group on trade should not just work on trade in goods, but also “on the expansion of services trade, including through greater mobility of skilled professional”.

However, May extended only a conditional proposal. “As part of this (new strategic dialogue on home affairs), the UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if at the same time we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain in the UK,” she said

Later, Ministry of External Affairs joint secretary (Europe west) Randhir Jaiswal told reporters said that it “not a unique situation for UK”.

He noted that on the issue of overstaying Indian citizens, there were challenges to getting them back. “It will all depend on how best we can work together on the verification of their nationalities,” said Jaiswal.

The process of verifying citizenship is a long-drawn process, as most don’t have papers or have destroyed their documents. Indian authorities are often suspicious that the person claiming Indian citizenship belongs to a neighbouring South Asian country. Therefore, it is a painstaking process, which requires grassroots verification by overburdened local police of the antecedents of the arrested over-stayer.

The Indian minister of state for commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman, was more blunt about Indian sentiments in her bilateral talks with British counterpart Liam Fox, who is part of the official delegation.

“I did say that… the UK seems to want access to the Indian market, the UK seems to want Indian investments, but the UK does not seem to want Indian talent… This is not an impression or perception that the UK can afford to have,” she said.

During all her encounters, the British prime minister and her colleagues were at pains to claim that this was just a “perception”, but not the reality.

“And the UK will continue to welcome the brightest and best Indian students, with the latest figures showing that nine out of ten applications are granted,” she said.

During the campaign for Brexit, the ‘leave’ campaign had claimed that pulling out the EU would leave the UK free to have bilateral trade agreements with countries like India.

India is the third largest investor in the UK and the second largest international job creator, with over 110,000 jobs. The Tata group is the highest industrial employer in the UK.

Therefore, May noted that she chose India for her first foreign trip outside Europe “as this relationship matters more than ever”.

“We are both firm supporters of free trade. We both want to be great exporting nations. And so we should work together, for the long haul, to break down the barriers to trade and investment,” she said.

Two agreements were signed on Monday – an MoU on the ease of doing business and an MoU for cooperation in the field of intellectual property.

Here are some of the main political takeaways from the India-UK joint statement  –

Visa hassles

“…To this end, both parties agreed that visa regimes need to be as simple and efficient as possible for students, businesses, professionals, diplomats and officials and other travellers, including facilitating short-term mobility of skilled personnel between the two countries. The two leaders noted that the UK remained a popular destination for Indian students and that these students add to deepening India-UK partnership across all sectors of bilateral engagement. Prime Minister May noted that there remained no cap on overall numbers of international students studying at recognised educational institutions in the UK, that Indian students would continue to be welcome and that the UK Home Secretary had recently announced her intention to consult on changes to the UK student visa regime.

The two Prime Ministers agreed that ensuring simple and effective visa systems depended critically on cooperation to protect the integrity of border and immigration systems. This included ensuring the timely and efficient return of individuals to their country of origin, as required by their respective national laws. Both countries agreed to strengthen co-operation in this area by implementing an expedited process for verifying the nationality and issuing travel documents…”

The insertion of the phrase “as required by their respective national laws” in the sentence about sending back visa violators and illegal migrants was an indirect acknowledgement that despite the pious sentiment, speeding up the process will be an uphill task. With ‘returns’ not likely to become efficient in the near future, relaxation of visa rules for Indians would be difficult to justify by the British Prime Minister to her domestic detractors. It would be a hard-sell especially since the mandate for Brexit stems from a popular desire for tightening immigration guidelines.

Return of Fugitives

“…The two Prime Ministers affirmed their strong commitment to enhance cooperation under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty. The two leaders agreed that fugitives and criminals should not be allowed to escape the law. They expressed their strong commitment to facilitate outstanding extradition requests from both sides. In this context, they directed that the officials dealing with extradition matters from both sides should meet at the earliest to develop better understanding of each countries’ legal processes and requirements; share best practices, and identify the causes of delays and expedite pending requests. They also agreed that regular interactions between the relevant India-UK authorities would be useful to resolve all outstanding cases expeditiously.”

During talks in Delhi, India handed over a list of 57 fugitives in UK, which included liquor baron Vijay Mallaya and alleged AgustaWestland middleman Christian Michel. UK also handed over a list of 17 fugitives.

In the last 14 years, UK has never extradited any fugitive back to India.

Terrorism

“…Prime Minister May strongly condemned the September terrorist attack on the Indian Army Brigade headquarters in Uri, and offered condolences to the victims and their families.

…They reiterated their strong commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and stressed that there can be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever – agreeing that there should be zero-tolerance on terrorism.

…Both countries agreed to collaborate with each other to reduce the threat from violent extremist use of the internet, including the sharing of best practices to reduce radicalisation and recruitment attempts online.

…The two Prime Ministers affirmed that the fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and bring to justice terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against all those who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists or efforts to make a distinction between good and bad terrorists. They agreed that South Asia should be stable, prosperous and free from terror and called on all countries to work towards that goal.

…The two leaders reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and 2016 Pathankot attack to justice.

The joint statement covered all of India’s favourite catchphrases on terrorism, most of which were a snide criticism of Pakistan – from 26/11 to no distinction between good and bad terrorists. Therefore, the new UK Prime Minister’s visit was certainly successful if measured by the amount of anti-terror rhetoric in the bilateral document.

Over 850 Britons have travelled to join the fighting in Iraq and Syria, many of them recruited through ISIS’s formidable cyber presence. Similarly in India, many of the young, internet-savvy Indian recruits were lured into joining ISIS through the social media contacts. Even as Twitter and Facebook have cracked down on extremist accounts, tracking the online ecosystem which allows for terror groups and individuals to network has become the major pre-occupation of most intelligence agencies to bust ISIS modules and stop prevent wolf attacks.

South China Sea

“…The two sides underlined the importance of maintaining the legal order for the seas and oceans based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They reaffirmed their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation and overflight based on the universally recognised principles of international law, as reflected in the UNCLOS. They stated that all related territorial and jurisdictional disputes should be resolved by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force. They urged States to respect UNCLOS and refrain from activities which prejudice the peace, good order and security of the oceans.

Without naming China or directly referring to dispute in South China Sea, India and UK noted that UNCLOS has to be the basis for resolving any conflicts. There was restraint in not explicitly mentioning the judgment of the Arbitral Tribunal or the need to be bound by the order – which would have been treated by China as a direct provocation.

South Asia

“…In this context, they recognised the constructive contribution of India in building peace and stability in the South Asia region, including through its expansive development cooperation in Afghanistan. In this context, they expressed support for the efforts of Afghan security forces against the continuing threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and strongly endorsed their efforts to ensure Afghanistan’s security. Noting that a secure and stable Afghanistan would contribute to peace and prosperity of the region, they agreed that a political settlement in Afghanistan has to be Afghan-owned and Afghan-led and will succeed only if the Taliban insurgency abandons violence and abides by democratic norms.”

UK has only a few hundred troops left in Afghanistan, but it still plays a large role through its development assistance. Ahead of the Brussels conference last month, UK announced that it will provide aid worth 750 million pounds over next three years. But, the package was dependent “on the security situation as well as achievements of specific development results and reform progress by the Afghan Government”. Both conditions will be a difficult challenge for Kabul, with the factions within the National Unity Government yet to be reconciled and Afghan security forces barely managing to keep the Taliban at bay.

In contrast, India has been stepping up its aid profile in Afghanistan, but with hardly any strings attached. Supply of four helicopters also demonstrated the willingness of New Delhi to disregard Pakistan’s sensitivity over Indian presence in its northern neighbour.

“Both nations agreed to continue their engagement with Maldives to strengthen its democratic institutions.”

India and UK have not seen eye-to-eye on how to deal with the political crisis in the Indian ocean archipelago. New Delhi has been unhappy at the strong interventionist position taken by UK, especially through The Commonwealth. India has preferred to take a gentler, less confrontationist line with the Abdulla Yameen administration, which would allow space for more behind-the-scenes straight-talking.

“The Prime Ministers noted the progress made by Sri Lanka in line with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and agreed that more needed to be done. They committed to continue working closely with the Sri Lankan Government to achieve this.”

UK is home to not just opposition political leaders from Maldives, but has played host to a large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora for decades. This has led to UK taking a strong interest in the reconciliation process. A key mechanism for transition justice – an independent court for war crimes, with foreign participation – is unlikely to be established by March 2017 when the UNHRC chief has to give his report on resolution. While Sri Lanka has taken certain steps like setting up an office for missing persons, the path towards implementing the UNHRC resolution, which Colombo co-sponsored, has been rather slow. This is probably the first time recently that India has also acknowledged this explicitly.

(with PTI inputs)