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Will in-country visa delays have long-term consequences for economic migration?


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Economic migration is a two-way street. The UK might be ready and willing to receive the world’s elite economic migrants, but they may not be so ready and willing for much longer. A recent report from the Institute for Management Development ranked countries according to their attractiveness to people who potentially would like to work abroad each year. It placed the UK 28th out of 63 countries, a fall of seven places from 2021.

Countries as wide-ranging as Estonia, Hong Kong, and Ireland ranked above the UK, which was only just more appealing than Saudi Arabia. Professor Bris, director of the Institute for Management Development World Competitiveness Centre, attributed this decline to “concerns about the quality of life in the country, fed by political fragmentation and economic problems, brought on in part by Brexit”.

Despite this, in the year ending September 2022 there were still 61,240 grants (to main applicants) of Skilled Worker visas and another 61,414 grants (to main applicants) of Skilled Worker – Health and care visas. In general, the number of work visas granted in the year ending September 2022 is roughly 80% more than in 2021 and 2019. Of these, 27,769 (main applicant) work-related visas were granted to EEA and Swiss nationals. This is 11% of all work visas granted in the year ending September 2022.

So the UK isn’t deterring economic migrants just yet. Though it is worth considering whether they are attracting or deterring the specific workers the UK wants and needs. And even if economic migrants decide to come here, is it worth staying, or will we start to see a drop in the number of in-country applications?

If you have friends or family in the UK, or even read the news, you may also be put off coming to the UK because of the multitude of issues you might face with your visa. For example, problems continue to arise over in-country visa delays and long periods of time on section 3C leave.

Section 3C leave is given to those who make an application to extend or vary their leave to remain in the UK while they are still lawfully in the country, with their visa status extended until the Home Office decides on their application. You can read more about section 3C leave here. This is a vital extension, ensuring that people established here are not forced to disrupt their lives. But problems arise when people on section 3C leave need to change employment, travel, or move house.

Even when individuals receive their new visas, some people receiving the new electronic visas (rather than BRP cards) find their visa has not been updated properly. This seems to be a particular issue for those moving from a working visa to indefinite leave to remain, where their visa end date has not been amended online and therefore they cannot prove their right to work or rent in the long term. Apparently the Home Office are aware of these technical issues, though they don’t seem to be a top priority. That may be for another post.

If decisions were made efficiently, there would be no problem. But processing delays mean that people are waiting months for a decision, left in limbo. The Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (RAMFEL) requested data back in 2021 that confirmed the Home Office had placed 372,015 people on section 3C leave during 2019. And this number must have only increased in 2022 (though the Home Office has not provided any updated figures). The analysis by RAMFEL suggests that between 27,000 and 63,000 people a year experience detrimental effects as a result of being on section 3C leave.

Between 10,000 and 24,000 people can’t take up new work because of issues or delays with their visa. Part of this particular issue might also be employers’ lack of knowledge about the immigration system, as they try to navigate its complexities without risking termination or suspension of their sponsor licences. If you are extending your visa to continue in your current job role your employer could continue your employment without fear that they are not complying with their own obligations. And if they were worried, they could conduct use the Employer Checking Service (ECS) to obtain confirmation of your right to work within a week.

Not only does an extended period of time on Section 3C leave expose people living here on extended leave to economic hardship and undue worry about their employment, but it also creates problems for them whenever they interact with another part of the state. Some government departments, like Work and Pensions, do not have access to immigration status. This means that they require proof of residency for people to receive benefits. Between 7,800 and 18,000 people a year are likely to have their benefits stopped or be refused access to benefits whilst on section 3C leave.

Financial instability is not the only problem. People with section 3C leave cannot leave the country, whether for holidays or family emergencies. One person affected by this status was recently interviewed by the New Statesman. She was unable to return home to see her dying mother or to attend her funeral.

Where delays have been extensive, particularly in the summer this year, you could appeal to the Home Office for a quicker decision on your application where there were extenuating circumstances. Proof of compelling or compassionate reasons you needed a decision on your visa to be expedited had to be sent to the Home Office. Documentation could include medical records of unwell relatives, for example. However, even at the height of the delays, the threshold was high and tens of thousands of people were left on tenterhooks in the UK, unsure of whether it was possible to continue their life here whilst also attending to family and friends abroad.

More recently, the Home Office have made it more difficult to escalate delayed decisions and this can often no longer be done over the phone. A new escalations email has been set up in the alternative, and it is currently hard to ascertain how efficient this is. In particular, the email is only for work visas and it seems as if those switching to the new graduate visa are struggling the most to escalate delayed decisions.

It is unclear whether the person interviewed by the New Statesman made any attempt to use the escalation service or whether this was simply ineffective. The standard processing times for escalating a decision is itself 15 working days. Strangely, this is three times the length of time for a decision on priority service for many working visas and one wonders why a decision can be made in 5 working days for a skilled worker visa on priority service (or 24-48 hours on a super priority service) but not in the same timeframe when emergencies arise.

Couple all this uncertainty with the cost-of-living crisis and the risk of unemployment faced today and you have people living in uncertainty, waiting on Home Office bureaucrats to ride to their rescue. Even those that chose to come to the UK to begin with might prefer the prospect of another country overextending their visa and risking ongoing difficulties. Without long-term and sustainable changes to the efficiency of decision-making in the economic visa routes global talent may begin to go elsewhere.

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Nicholas Reed Langen

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer and commentator on the law and human rights. He is a Re:Constitution Fellow (2021/22) and the editor of the LSE Public Policy Review.