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14 June 2018

Startup visas, or the ‘pick & mix’ approach to immigration

by Fabien Cante

This week, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced the creation of a new visa category to enable “startup” entrepreneurs easier entry into the UK. The announcement comes in the midst of London Tech Week, and it’s hard not to suspect the government is relaxing its immigration policy to attract big, international investors. The new startup visas would give techies a sense of security, as well as a sense of doing good in the world (for those who still care); and at the end of the day, what’s a few hundred “good migrants” (entrepreneurs) in return for a handful of unicorns? (“Unicorn” is the nickname given to startups valued at more than $1 billion in private investments, even though they are not yet publicly traded.)

The problem with this kind of investor signalling is that it does not quite amount to a thought-through immigration policy. Indeed, everyone seems puzzled by how the scheme will work, and who it will actually affect. Meanwhile, of course, doctors are still routinely denied visas because of caps on the existing visa scheme, perpetuating the NHS’ direly understaffed conditions.

As the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Migration continues to explore  issues of skills and labour in the context of Brexit, it is worth re-stating a few principles in response to the government’s startup fever.

First, the UK doesn’t just need entrepreneurs. It needs nurses, carers, construction workers, bankers, charity workers, artists, drivers… You get the idea. Fetishising entrepreneurs as a special category of “extra-good” migrants, who get the fast-track while public health or agriculture suffocate from lack of available workers, is at best a drop in the ocean, at worst a cynical publicity stunt.  

Second, what about the migrants already here, whose entrepreneurial fibre is crushed by hostile environment policies? Who cannot work, access skills training and starting capital, who cannot secure enough income for stable accommodation, or who are threatened with deportation because of a minor tax error? Why deny them the opportunity to flourish while gesturing to some hypothetical entrepreneurs beyond the horizon?

Sure, tech is part of the UK’s future. But if the government keeps doing things backward, future generations of migrants will continue to be met with laws and practices that limit their rights and access to services. Even the best apps can’t create a fair and humane immigration system.