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Under the UK’s new points-based immigration system, would I only be worth a few points?

By Aisha Taras

Human rights

Mar 12, 2020

On 23 June, 2016, Britain chose to leave the EU. As the news hit Canada, where I was born and raised, I didn’t give it much thought. After all, I had better things to do; I was balancing my summer job in a halfway house for refugees with some volunteering to gain experience before I went back to school to study social work.

However, Brexit meant a lot more to my soon-to-be husband who was sitting in the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. As a British-born citizen, he knew that the country he was returning to would be different than the one he had left. Soon after that, we got engaged and I realised that I actually did have to start thinking—and worrying—about British politics. Brexit was happening and the new points-based immigration system that is now being put into place would have probably stopped me from moving to the UK.

At the time, my immigration visa to the UK was supported by my social work degree, as well as my contracts and payslips for my two jobs working with refugee and low-income youth and mothers, which allowed me to skip the English language testing requirement. I had been accepted into two UK universities and had never gotten into trouble with the law. As my sponsor, my husband had to show his own job contract, payslips and bank statements to prove that he would be able to support me, so I wouldn’t be a drag on the economy.

In February of this year, almost two years after I arrived in the UK, a revised points-based immigration system was unveiled by the newly-elected conservative government. In an effort to attract the “brightest and the best” to the country, potential applicants need to score a total of 70 points, which they can earn through English proficiency, a minimum annual salary of £25,600, PhDs, job offers from British employers, or working in health-based professions.

This new system doesn’t just eliminate people from poorer countries, such as those from Eastern Europe, but it also makes it harder for entrepreneurs—London alone is home to 5,000 active tech startups with a combined valuation of £34 billion. This policy will also restrict people coming to the UK to work as carers or seasonal agricultural workers—two sectors that young British people aren’t exactly raring to join.

The privileges that my husband and I enjoyed as educated, employed and English-speaking individuals made my move to the UK relatively easy. The message was clear: I was a ‘desirable’ immigrant who would benefit the economy and not use up public funds (my residence card literally read ‘work permitted, no public funds’). Months went by, and I realised that my life here wouldn’t be what I had thought it would be.

For one, I couldn’t afford to attend the universities that had accepted me, as I wasn’t allowed to pay home fees. Job searching was also hard because my Canadian qualifications weren’t recognised in the UK. Yet somehow, according to the new system, I am more useful than the Eastern Europeans, Asians, West Indians and other immigrants who have made this country their home.

In a way, I felt transported back to the past. My paternal relatives were refugees from the Ukrainian part of the USSR, ravaged by the Second World War. For years, they lived in a German refugee camp, until the Canadian government sought white settlers, especially those who knew how to farm, to fill the land stolen from the Indigenous tribes. My maternal grandparents left Pakistan, seeking a more economically secure future for their children, their own financial and social security laid to waste by British colonialism. 

People like my grandparents literally built Canada, America and the UK. They built the roads and houses, they cleaned the hospitals and schools, they grew the food, they worked in the factories that allowed the economy to thrive. Yet, on both sides of the ocean, their long years of toil are recompensed by meagre pensions and terrible care by overworked and under-payed carers, as ‘unskilled’ and unrecognised as they were.

I fail to see how the new immigration system will benefit the UK, even from the conservative party’s perspective. British university graduates are already working minimum-wage jobs, or those that they are overqualified for, and an influx of graduates from other countries may just make it harder to find a stable career. Last October, farmers reported seeing their seasonal labour force drop by at least 30 per cent over fears of Brexit, leaving tonnes of food left unpicked in the fields. 

Care UK has warned that elders across the country will suffer if the number of carers rapidly drop due to immigration laws barring low-skilled workers. Next year, when the new system comes into effect, it will be clear whether the British public has won or lost by choosing ‘people like me’. Am I only worth a few points?

The UK announces a new points-based immigration system. Here’s what to expect

The post-Brexit immigration system has been announced and, to say the least, people are not happy.

A new points-based immigration system will apply equally to everyone coming into the country, where, currently, the EU provides freedom of movement and non-EU countries are already subject to an existing points-based system.

The Home Office describes this as “a firm and fair points-based system that will attract the high-skilled workers we need to contribute to our economy, our communities and our public services.” It should be noted that the rules for “family reunion, asylum and border crossing checks are outside of the points-based system,” and will not be changing. The policy statement specifies that the government will “not implement a route for lower-skilled workers.” To put it simply, the Tories want to reduce immigration numbers.

With this new immigration system, higher income jobs are prioritised: a salary of £23,040 to £25,599 counts for 10 points, out of the 70 needed in total, and a salary of above £25,600 counts for twice that. Proficiency in English counts for another 10 points. A PhD relevant to the offered job counts for 10 points, while a STEM PhD counts for 20, in order to encourage academics. Jobs in “shortage occupations” will also count for 20 points; this would include jobs in the health sector, for example, although this list will be flexible, allowing “immediate temporary relief for shortage areas.” It does make sense—or so the Home Office claims.

Who’s going to replace the seasonal labour in the agricultural sector? What about the thousands of EU migrants who work in the “low-skilled” areas of care and sanitation? Tories have pointed out that there are millions of British people who could fill this employment deficit, but, generally, they fail to acknowledge that the vast majority of this group are students, retired, carers or unfit to work. The National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales (NFU) has already warned that food prices may rise under these proposed plans. “Failure to provide an entry route for these [seasonal] jobs will severely impact the farming sector,” warned NFU president Minette Batters in a statement.

The plans were announced by Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who was called out on LBC Radio by presenter Nick Ferrari for the fact that Patel’s own parents, who migrated to Britain from East Africa, would not have qualified under these new proposals. She responded: “This isn’t about my background or my parents,” and added, “This is the point. We are changing our immigration policy to one that’s fit for purpose for our economy, based on skills.”

“Immigrants built Britain. Now their Conservative children are disowning them,” surmised Nesrine Malik in The Guardian. “The new immigration rules will not only hurt the country economically,” she writes, “they give a glimpse into a new world that is taking shape, one where non-elite jobs are stripped of all honour, virtue and value.”

The risk here—which has been pointed out repeatedly, already—is conflating “low-skilled” with “low-waged”, as well as focusing too much on economic, rather than social and cultural contributions. What makes a skill? Those in charge of this country don’t seem to know the answer to that question, and that’s worrying.

Moreover, the government wants the “best” migrants, but what makes a good migrant? Political journalist Marie Le Conte notes that “a points system […] shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the mindset of most immigrants, either by design or by mistake. Many successful people in the UK did not already have a brilliant career elsewhere. They came here first and built their fortunes afterwards.”

In the postwar period, patterns of British immigration have changed dramatically and repeatedly, from colonial and postcolonial immigration to the freedom of movement the EU provided for several decades. I don’t know what data the government has (that the rest of us don’t have access to), which means they know how our economy is going to develop in the next few decades.

My dad’s parents, who were born and raised in Fiji, migrated to London in the early 1960s. My grandfather would have counted as a “high-skilled” worker, though, as a dentist who qualified at Edinburgh University, as part of a Commonwealth scheme. Would such students be able or willing to come over nowadays? My grandparents were both born under the British Empire; there are no such considerations anymore.

I hate to give the Tories any credit, but they are doing a wonderful job at making this country an unattractive place to migrate to. Maybe this is their ultimate plan, to reduce migration by making no one want to migrate here and then blame the lack of migrants on the resultant issues. Either that or they’re waiting for the “illegal”, temporary migrants to be scapegoats for all their failings as a government.

I’m no expert on this issue, but this current plan is doomed to go badly. I hope that the government amends its plan as soon as possible before it starts getting ugly.