The foreigner gevaar

Andrew Donaldson on the English and their immigration rules, then and now


WE are fast approaching the fifth anniversary of our arrival in the UK. In what now seems a remarkably short time, we have settled down and made a life of sorts for ourselves as immigrants. In the words of the then prime minister, David Cameron, we have “enriched [British] society by working hard, taking risks and creating jobs and wealth for the whole country”.

This is true. We have jobs, Mrs Donaldson and I. We pay our taxes. What’s more, further wealth was created when we recently applied for indefinite leave to remain here, a process which set us back some £10 000. This in addition to the several thousand pounds we stumped up before flying out in December 2018.*

Apart from the exorbitant application fees for leave to remain, there were two other conditions to satisfy before our appeals would be considered: one, we had to pass the so-called Life in the UK test, and two, we needed to pass a “secure English language test”, or SELT.

In the Life in the UK test, applicants have 45 minutes to answer 24 multiple choice questions about “British traditions and customs” and must get at least 18 correct to pass. The test is a doddle, although some questions about Henry VIII’s wives stump even the natives and, down at the warehouse, no-one could answer this: “Why is Sir Edwin Lutyens famous?” (He was an architect.) 

The sport questions seem skewed towards Andy Murray, the tennis player, and various long-distance runners. Football is the UK’s most popular sport. The test suggests that darts and pool are popular activities in pubs. This may have been the case in the 1950s but a visit to the local nowadays reveals that pub regulars are more likely to be feeding coins into the pokey machines.

The language test was something else, though. There are two types of SELTs, one more vigorous than the other. Initially, we thought we’d be assessed on our abilities to read, write, speak and listen to the natives. This, the more thorough of the tests, requires applicants to give some sort of presentation. Judging by the examples we saw on YouTube, applicants tackle very simple topics. I however toyed with the idea of presenting my examiner with something more robust than a chat about pets and hobbies, and was considering a discussion on the colonial roots of apartheid. Mrs Donaldson advised against this. These people don’t have a sense of humour, she said.

It turned out, though, that we had to take the idiot test, the one that only assessed speaking and listening abilities. This ordeal lasted perhaps ten minutes. The listening was problematic. My assessor, Pasha (not her real name), spoke in a sing-song manner from a call centre somewhere in India. The connection was terrible, and her words filtered through my headphones accompanied by squawks, beeps and weird dial-up sounds. She spoke as if addressing someone with learning difficulties:

“Now, Mr Andrew. We are going to role play. Do you understand role play? We are going to have roles. I am your friend, Mr Andrew, that is my role. And we have made an arrangement for a lunch date. Do you understand, Mr Andrew? We are going to meet for lunch. But I am half an hour late, Mr Andrew. ‘I am so sorry I am late for our lunch appointment, Mr Andrew.’ Over to you, Mr Andrew.”

I briefly considered plunging full tilt into my role as someone who had grown greatly vexed at having to wait for Pasha to rock up. Should I pretend to be angry? Dismiss her excuses? Make a sarcastic comment about lunch hours being only 60 minutes? Instead, I told her to sit down and suggested we call the waiter over pronto to get some drinks in. 

“Very good, Mr Andrew. Very good. Now, Mr Andrew, in this role, I am your friend again. You have loaned me a book, Mr Andrew, but I have lost it. ‘I am so sorry, Mr Andrew, but that book I borrowed, I cannot find it.’ Over to you, Mr Andrew.”

I thought of shouting out that it was a first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, an extremely rare item, and how in God’s name did she think she was ever going to replace it? But that is not me, so I told her to please stop fretting. It’s just a book. If she felt that bad about it, she could replace with something that I haven’t read.

“Very good, Mr Andrew. Very good.”

And it was. Mrs Donaldson, daughter and myself all got 100 per cent. These outstanding results did little to dispel our displeasure at having to do the test in the first place, which we consider a waste of time and money. Mrs Donaldson, for example, has an MA in English literature, but the UK’s home office apparently does not consider the University of Cape Town a proper educational institution. The fact that she now works as an editor at an English university is of little consequence to these people. The same applies with her daughter, who has attended an English-medium high school here and is presently studying at a local college. Not good enough. Ditto me. My years in hackdom and scribbling count for zilch.

We are now in limbo, and await the result of our applications. This may take a while, as the Home Office appears to have a lot on its plate vis-a-vis immigrants — simply because there are lot of immigrants. In the 24 months to June this year, a whopping 1.25 million people settled in the UK. Legally. In the words of one commentator, these are “the most extraordinary set of migration statistics Britain has ever seen”.

In two years, Britain has added the equivalent of a city like Birmingham to its population. There are three principal reasons for the surge: the war in Ukraine, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and (let’s not mention this too loudly) Brexit. Ukraine and Hong Kong are considered “one-off” situations, and the numbers of arrivals from these areas of conflict have peaked. But what of Brexit? 

The overwhelming majority of these newcomers are from outside the European Union. Study visas issued to Indians, for example, are almost five times what it was before the Covid pandemic. Ditto health workers. 

There is, as a result, much talk among Tories of drastic action needed to bring these figures down. A crackdown is not without considerable risk, however. Work visas are two and a half times higher, and 40 per cent of these new arrivals, from Africa and Asia, are working in health care. Cutting back on these numbers, could be disastrous for social care and the National Health Service. Still the threats come, and there are ludicrous proposals that the minimum salary for a skilled foreign worker be raised to £40 000 in order to qualify for a work visa.

The interesting thing about tests for eligibility and paying through the nose for visas is that the practice was pioneered in the 1890s in what was then the colony of Natal. And, now that I think of it, this would have been a meaty topic for an SELT presentation. Something like this:

The imperial era of the19th century is regarded as the most intensive migratory period in world history. This was a time of unprecedented freedom of movement and tens of millions of Europeans left their homelands in search of a better life abroad. A 1901 census, for example, recorded that 2 786 650 “natives of the United Kingdom” were now living abroad in “colonies of white settlement”, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, East Africa, Rhodesia and South Africa. At the time, these were territories often thought of as “other Englands”, as the Victorian writer James Anthony Froude put it.

That was one sort of migration within the British empire. Another was the system of indentured labour, which began in earnest after the abolishment of slavery in 1833 left plantation owners turning to India for replacement labour. Put simply, labourers were shipped in great numbers from one part of the empire to sustain economies in other parts. That same 1901 census officially recorded that 1 467 275 people born in British colonies had migrated to other parts of the empire. Many were Chinese, but the majority were Indian.

Although these workers had toiled in the fields and on the infrastructural projects of these “other Englands”, they were not especially welcome there. Across the empire, laws were introduced for the “protection of Anglo-Saxon integrity”, as the academic Ian Sanjay Patel puts it in his book We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire (Verso, 2021). Such legislation was significant, Patel suggests, because it stripped people of their rights as British colonial subjects on the basis of race.

Natal had passed an Indian Immigration Act in 1891, which not only made reference to “Indians”, “Asiatics”, “Arab traders” and “Arabs” in the colony, but also distinguished between “coolies” or indentured labourers, “free Indians” (those who had completed their indenture but remained in Natal) and “passenger Indians” (those, usually with capital, who had migrated independently). Five years later, the colony’s governor complained to London that Natal was in danger of being “flooded by undesirable immigrants from India”. Action was needed here, and so the Natal Act of 1897 was passed — which introduced a literacy test for new immigrants as well as a financial threshold of £25 (about £4 000 in today’s terms). Patel writes:

“In practice, the Natal literary tests would involve an immigration officer sitting down a non-white aspiring immigrant upon arrival in Natal and asking him to trace out at dictation the Latin letters of any west European language; if he managed to do so, he was allowed in.” 

Nowadays, non-white aspiring immigrants in KZN are asked to name the isiZulu term for “elbow”. It may be another form of literacy test, but that is neither here nor there.

As it turned out, the people who handled our visa applications on behalf of the Home Office were of Indian descent and had family in Durban. One of them asked me, “Why do you want to live here, and not in sunny South Africa?” Before I could reply, his colleague said, “They have trouble with the electricity there. The power just cuts out all the time. My cousin says it is load-something … load shitting or whatever .”

This was strangely comforting.

No jury would convict

A Russian scientist stationed at a remote base in the Antarctic has reportedly stabbed a colleague in the chest. The pair, Sergey Savitsky and Oleg Beluguzov, had been stationed on King George Island for four years and would pass the long dreary hours by reading. According to The Scotsman, Savitsky “finally snapped” and attacked Beluguzo with a knife because “he was fed up with the man telling him the endings of books”. There was some approval of this at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”). As one regular commented, “I hope Belugoza bled out.”

* At present, fees for ancestry visa application are £3 757 for adults and £2 987 for children under 18. The bulk of this cost is a national health surcharge. The Conservative government is considering a sharp rise in visa fees in a bid to reduce immigration figures.