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?