New UK law targets illegal immigrants

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at May 16 2014 10:21 AM | Updated as of May 16 2014 06:21 PM

LONDON - The British government has passed a controversial new law to tackle its immigration issues by enforcing a more stringent system for migrant access to housing and services, targeting those who have no right to remain in the UK.

Under the Immigration Act 2014, illegal immigrants will be denied access to crucial services that would make it impossible for them to live a normal life in the UK. This includes compulsory immigration status checks for access to rental accommodation, driving license, and bank accounts.

The new law will also implement a clampdown on the immigration system itself, from dealing with sham marriages and civil partnerships, to reducing the numbers of visa application appeals, and more power for the Home Office to prevent repeat bail applications and revoke driving licenses of immigration offenders.

Furthermore, in a politically significant move, Parliament has instructed the courts to consider the national interest above and beyond the European Convention of Human Rights Article 8, which states a basic right to family life, a reason commonly used by migrants wishing to join loved ones who are already in the UK.

Crucially, the reforms will affect even legitimate migrants in the UK. The Home Office, for instance, will have the right to take away British citizenship of naturalized immigrants if they are found to be “seriously prejudicial to the interests of the UK,” though these would have to be under exceptional circumstances.

Temporary migrants with time-limited visas will also be subject to fees when accessing the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), which provides free healthcare for the vast majority of the UK population.

Immigration and Security Minister James Brokenshire described the new law as a “landmark” legislation.

“The Immigration Act is a landmark piece of legislation,” he said, “which will build on our existing reforms to ensure that our immigration system works in the national interest. We are already planning its implementation and will ensure these measures are introduced quickly and effectively.”

The Immigration Act 2014 contains 77 clauses that changes key aspects of the immigration system to purposely make it more difficult for migrants to enter and stay in the UK unnecessarily or illegally.

However, significant parts of the legislation have been heavily criticized by migrant rights advocates for its potential to foster discrimination and exploitation towards migrants who are already vulnerable. Others also argue that targeting migrants may also encourage racism and abuse towards ethnic minorities.

A spokesperson from Kanlungan, a migrant support network for Filipinos in the UK, described the new law as “unfair”, adding that “changes to immigration rules have a history of making members of the migrant community vulnerable.”

In a statement, the group also said they believe the new law “will not promote community cohesion” and will instead lead to more poverty and exploitation.

“Giving landlords authority to check the immigration status of migrants will only result to disputes and possible exploitation from the part of landlords,” the statement said.

It added: “It is actually an unfair policy especially amongst migrant workers in health care that are on temporary visas, and need to pay for their health service despite their immense contribution in providing health care services.”

Criticisms on migrant status checks and NHS fees have made news headlines in recent months, but members of the government have said that certain exceptions could be made towards refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable individuals.

Government spokesman Lord Taylor of Holbeach, for instance, assured the House of Lords during a debate that “GP and nurse consultations will remain free to all and that is not limited to the first consultation.”

He added that “The Department of Health has committed to give further thought to strengthening exemptions in the current NHS charging regulations for vulnerable groups.”

The Immigration Act 2014, a collaboration between Home Office and 12 other government departments, was officially introduced on 14 May after it received Royal Ascent following months of debate through the Houses of Parliament.

The government said it is designed to ensure “our immigration system is fairer to British citizens and legitimate migrants, and tougher on those with no right to be here.”

In recent years, the UK has increasingly tightened its immigration policies through a variety of new legislations affecting different sectors of the immigrant community, from overseas students to migrant domestic workers.

The changes are part of a wider strategy to reduce net migration, and to ease the strain on local services and the national budget which have been stretched to its limits since the recent economic crisis.