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Indian weddings – another Brexit red herring

by Yojana Sharma | 24.05.2016

Opportunistic Brexiteers are trying to tap into ethnic minority grievances to persuade them to vote leave, and what can be more emotive than not being able to get to a wedding on time?

“Is it fair that my Birmingham constituents who are the grandchildren of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent find it so hard to get their relations here for family weddings when someone from Romania or Latvia can come and go at will?” asked German-born Gisela Stuart, chair of the official Vote Leave campaign.

Priti Patel, Britain’s employment minister and David Cameron’s UK-India diaspora champion, has made a similar argument, no doubt aware that at the height of the wedding season it’s not easy to bring in a Hindu or Sikh priest to conduct the nuptials.

“We need to Vote Leave to get rid of this unfair and unbiased immigration, which has a Europe-first outlook, and stand up for our communities,” she told India’s Economic Times newspaper. “Temples and gurdwaras (Sikh temples) have difficulties bringing priests in.”

The Indian community is made up of many different groups, but the Sikh Council UK, like other religious bodies, has said it is neutral. Its members are split. Aspirational young professionals strongly favour staying in. “Those who are less supportive see that EU migration cannot be stopped, but it gets harder to bring a spouse into the country or to get permission for relatives to attend a wedding,” a spokesman said.

In targeting the latter, Patel, like others in the Leave campaign, is blurring the lines between Commonwealth immigration, student visas and non-EU visitor visas. In doing so, she is scapegoating Europe for the government’s own restrictive visa policies.

Visas to attend weddings are short-term visitor documents unrelated to immigration. They have nothing to do with the freedom of movement enjoyed by EU workers. Divorce from Europe will make no difference.

“Even before EU enlargement some people were unable to come for family weddings,” said Labour MP Virendra Sharma, co-chair of the cross-party pro-EU group British-Indians for IN. “The difficulties were driven by the government’s anti-immigration policies,” Sharma added.

He’s right. When my sister married in the early 1990s – before Eastern European countries had even applied to join the EU – not one of our relatives in India could obtain a visa.

British-Indians for IN, launched on 26 April, counts every ethnic Indian MP apart from Priti Patel as a member.  Sharma’s namesake co-chair, Conservative MP Alok Sharma, said Brexiteers were being opportunistic in highlighting wedding visas because they knew they had lost the economic case for Brexit.

“It’s a complete red herring to try and link the granting of short-term visit visas with the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU. When it comes to work visas for those coming from outside the EU there are a set of rules and people are able to come if they qualify,” Alok Sharma said.

Visa policies remain discriminatory and inconsistent, based on profiling and an often subjective view by consular officials of who might or might not want to stay on. Any change will be a matter of expediency and political will, rather than down to Brexit.

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“Frankly, no one I talk to in the British Asian communities believes that those on the side of Brexit, like Nigel Farage, are going to champion more immigration from the Indian sub-continent after the EU referendum,” Alok Sharma added.

George Osborne showed how easily such restrictions can be set aside if there is a will to do so. Fresh from a visit to China to drum up inward investment, the chancellor pledged to simplify the visa process for shopaholic Chinese visitors.

This shift did not go unnoticed in the Indian subcontinent. Chinese shoppers may spend hundreds of millions each year in the UK, but Indian weddings are good business too – visas permitting. Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal spent the equivalent of £30 million on his daughter’s wedding in France in 2004, including an engagement party at the Palace of Versailles. Visas for France were obtained for more than 1,000 guests, staff and entertainers.

When the marriage of Mittal’s niece was celebrated in 2013 in his city, Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias said it would provide a boost to the economy. Reports said some guests spent more than £20,000 on shopping and in top hotels.

So, yes, visitor visa rules are unfair and need to be reformed, but it is a battle that will continue whatever the outcome of the referendum.

 

 

Edited by Jane Macartney

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