In 2012, 56.5 million people travelled abroad from the UK for the purposes of tourism. Suppose each of them were asked to pay a cash bond of £3,000 by their host countries, where do you think that number would stand? Actually, make that £30,000, given the average wages across the country. Would you pay a £30,000 deposit to visit Ibiza for five days? Suppose further that only British citizens had to pay this cash bond -- to be returned at the end of their stay, of course -- how would you feel then? Would you remain silent? Would not the politicians and the tabloids both scream outrage?
Yet, would you know, this is precisely what Britain wants of visitors from six of its former colonies, colonies without which it would neither have the wealth nor the power it takes for granted today. Yes, if you're a citizen of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Ghana or Nigeria, you're required to cough up £3,000, three times the per-capita income of the richest among them, before you'll be issued a visa for Britain. At first, it seemed like this would be limited to short-term visitors such as tourists, but, in an e-mail to the Associated Press, the Home Office has announced its intention to expand the scheme to all types of visas from these countries and more.
This is political posturing of the most abhorrent kind, and at worst, is a blatantly racist measure. There. I've said it. Let the online abuse begin.
That the gesture makes no sense whatsoever should be obvious. It is surely detrimental to both tourism and business, especially with those countries David Cameron claims to desire a deeper connection. Vince Cable, to his credit, has opposed the measure in measly terms. But then, when has the coalition ever listened to him?
Speaking for India, I can confidently predict that all but the richest would stop considering UK as a tourist destination. Budding entrepreneurs and short-term business visitors will take their business elsewhere, as the cumulative sum would prove prohibitive in the long-term. Besides, if the ostensible purpose of the bond is to prevent abuse of visa or illegal immigration, it is quite hard to see how this arbitrary sum is going to stop those determined to enter the UK by whatever means possible.
Of course, few would deny the need to curb abuse of visa, and to prevent large-scale illegal immigration. (Although, I confess, I find the very notion of a visa to any country morally repugnant.) But, why such draconian measures? It is the fault of the Home Office and the UKBA for not having policed the borders properly, and let half the system be run by private companies whose sole interest is in profit, and not human or national welfare. Why, once again, are those most vulnerable expected to pay for the failures of the rich and the privileged? Besides, study after study shows that only a tiny minority of those who enter the country legally overstay or abuse their visas, and the vast majority of immigrants, quite apart from the contributions they make, take very little from the welfare state. Any sensible person can see that measures such as these are intended as a gesture to court the UKIP/BNP vote and to trade on people's worst fears. The immigration numbers would go down in the short-term, and that, the Tories seem to think, would be a vote winner. The cynicism here is not mine, but of the politicians.
On the other hand, despite my general reluctance to use the term 'racism' in all but its strictest sense, and my disinclination to deploy Britain's colonial past as a catch-all argument against its foreign policy, it is hard to deny that this punitive measure is discriminatory in every sense of the word. In being applied to six of its former colonies, confined to Africa and South Asia, it is at once undeniably racist and reeks of neo-imperialism. The epithet 'high-risk' is a thinly-veiled euphemism designed to disguise this fact. Viewed in the light of other, equally problematic policies, such as the so-called 'racist van,' the £200-500 a year NHS fee, and the visa regulations which tear families apart, no Briton with a moral compass can take comfort in the truism that not all anti-immigration measures are tantamount to racism. In all these instances, they clearly are. Lest we forget, the Tories, not 50 years ago, distributed a leaflet which read: 'If you are already burdened with [a coloured neighbour], vote Tory.'
Those most affected by these measures are in fact the skilled workers and the bright students that Britain claims to desperately need and want. I, for one, have not taken a single penny from the state, and have paid £25k a year in tuition fees alone, which covered both the NHS and NI contributions over the past seven years. However, I, like many others, am here on a scholarship. My parents in India earn less than £1000 a year. They couldn't come for my graduation from Cambridge, nor for my graduation from St Andrews. The visa fees alone made it impossible. I had hoped to bring them for my graduation from Oxford in two years' time, but that too seems like a lost cause. I wanted to show them why I still loved Britain so much, why I made it my home, why I want to contribute to its culture and economy, and why, despite all the measures constantly directed against people like me, I still want to stay here. I wanted to show them King's College Chapel, the Radcliffe Camera, the National Galleries in London and Edinburgh, and the British Museum -- the likes of which they will never see in their life. I wanted them to hear for the first time a Beethoven Symphony performed live at the Royal Albert Hall. But, thanks to this measure, I won't be able to do any of that.
I still hold that the vast majority of Britons are kind-hearted people, neither racist nor otherwise intolerant. I have never been able to say the same of any other country, including India. But, given the recent spate of attacks on British mosques, the rise of UKIP and EDL, the thoughtless restrictions and de facto penalties on immigrants, the deportation of any foreigner who dares to speak out against status quo, and the incendiary rhetoric from politicians and the media left, right, and centre, I sometimes wonder if, at least politically, I have by mistake wandered into the early years of a right-wing dictatorship. It seems unlikely that I am the only one.