Photographer: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Welcome to Britain. Thanks for the Hard Work. Now Get Lost

Rising immigration to the U.K. has led to a tightening on visas for non-EU citizens - and caught one Japanese academic in a bureaucratic trap.

Miwa Hirono has packed her bags and returned to Japan from Britain. Her problem wasn't her job: she worked at Nottingham University from 2008, and her employer wanted her to stay. Her research into China's foreign policy was valuable, and she collaborated with the U.K. Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office. Her problem was a promise made by David Cameron.

The Conservative leader, seeking election as prime minister in 2010, said he'd cut net immigration to the "tens of thousands.'' But because Britain is in the European Union, he had no power to stop anyone coming from the 27 other EU nations. Instead, officials focused on blocking, removing and making life difficult for people they could stop, including highly skilled migrants from outside the EU - scientists, engineers and academics.

As Britons head for the polls again on May 7, the immigration question Cameron is constantly asked is why he hasn't met his goal. He says he wishes he'd done more and repeats a commitment to hit the target if re-elected. What goes largely unasked is whether deterring immigrants is a good idea.

The danger for Britain is that such people are highly mobile and can take their skills away. After a year fighting the Home Office, the ministry that oversees immigration, in the courts, Hirono decided she'd had enough and accepted a job at Kyoto University.

Miwa Hirono.

Miwa Hirono raised her family in the UK but has decided to go back to Japan

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

"I used to say to all my colleagues overseas, 'how lucky am I to be able to work in an English university?''" she said in an interview. "Now I'm saying completely the opposite. This is such a volatile environment to work in. I'm saying: Don't come.''

She's not the only person reaching this conclusion. According to Alison Harvey, legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, the most mobile workers are increasingly looking at taking their skills elsewhere.

"The people you're talking about are generally people with a choice,'' Harvey said. "They could go to the U.K. or Japan or the U.S. That choice is undoubtedly affected by the things they're seeing.''

British employers are also struggling, according to Harvey.

"What business needs is real certainty,'' she said. "It needs confidence that things will not change. If I bring someone here, I've got to be confident that I'm not spinning that person a line. Why not base your headquarters in Paris, Ireland or Berlin?''

Neil Carberry, director for employment and skills at the Confederation of British Industry, praised the government for allowing companies to bring in overseas staff they already employ, but said the problems come "when you're trying to do something a little bit different.''

He cited technology companies and Japanese carmakers wanting to bring specialists to Britain for a few months - "people who've got a global supply chain, and a global customer base'' - as meeting difficulties.

"The system is bureaucratic,'' he said. "There's a risk of creating an image of the U.K. that's detrimental to investment. And there's a risk that you clamp down where the levers are easy to pull.''

U.K. immigration figures
U.K. immigration figures

Policy change

Hirono, 38, came to the U.K. in 2008 on a government-funded fellowship to teach and study at Nottingham in England's East Midlands. She specializes in the way China uses its military to influence developing countries. That involves a lot of foreign travel.

"What I do is go to those places where China sends its peacekeepers, and do interviews,'' she said. The visa she was granted by the U.K. permitted this, and she was overseas for more than 200 days in both 2009 and 2010. She intended to renew her visa and take up a lectureship at Nottingham.

After Cameron's government took office in 2010, the policy changed, and immigrants could no longer renew visas. Instead, Hirono was told she must apply for permanent U.K. residence, which she did in 2014 for herself, her Australian husband Peter Trebilco, and their son Tada, born in 2013. And here she hit a problem: Anyone abroad for more than 180 days in a year is disqualified from applying.

On a Friday evening in July 2014, she heard from the Home Office.

"I received a letter saying that my family and I would have to be removed from the U.K. immediately,'' Hirono said. "I just had to turn the page over, and not look at it for two days. I couldn't even imagine the problems my family was facing, the implications of what the letter was saying. I couldn't believe it was real.''

Hirono was caught in a bureaucratic trap.

"This policy came into effect in 2012, and they're applying it retrospectively,'' she said. "It's outrageous, it's an absolute joke. I'm sitting in between these two different laws.''

Reluctant to give up life in Nottingham, she appealed. On top of the 2,400 pounds ($3,600) she'd already spent applying for residency, the appeal cost almost 4,000 pounds. The Home Office was holding her passport and those of her family, so she couldn't travel for work intended to benefit other government departments, and Peter was unable to return to Australia when his uncle died.

Still, it seemed worth it when, at the start of December last year, Judge Peter Hollingworth ruled in her favor. Hirono, he said, made a "significant and profound'' contribution to British academic life, and it was unreasonable to ask her to leave. "I was so happy,'' she said.

Then, just after Christmas, she learned the Home Office was appealing.

"I thought, I can't live like this any more,'' she said. "I decided I have to get out of this country.''

Harvey said this experience was typical, as the government puts up a series of soft barriers to discourage immigrants, such as more complicated application forms and a tendency to fight cases. "The Home Office generally seems to be appealing the overwhelming majority of cases that it loses, regardless of merit.''

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage wants to cut migration to the U.K. by taking the country out of the EU

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Debates about immigration in British politics used to be about race, rather than overcrowding. In 1964, when handmade posters appeared in one election battle urging voters not to back Labour if they didn't want black people as neighbors, more people were leaving the country than entering it. Even so, according to Rob Ford, who teaches politics at Manchester University, many people thought immigration was too high.

"The net level of immigration - people arriving minus those leaving - doesn't seem to matter,'' he said. 

Cameron and U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage say they want immigration to return to 1980s levels; net inflow peaked at 58,000 in 1985, when the largest numbers were from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

Farage argues that until Britain leaves the EU, the bloc's free-movement rules mean it can't control its borders. In 2013, net immigration from the EU was 123,000. But even if all that stopped, the net inflow from outside the EU was 143,000.

The problem facing those seeking to stop immigration is the march of history. With the collapse of communism and cheap air travel, it's much easier for people to cross borders. And promises of immigration crackdowns are never going to satisfy the voters they're aimed at, according to Ford.

"A lot of political promises are on things people don't care about that much, but the voters who care intensively about immigration link it to everything that's wrong with everything,'' he said. "And when they say they want less immigration, they mean they want the process of cultural change that they don't like reversed.''


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