Boris Johnson’s pledge of an immigration system focused on “people of talent” is divisive too

Confusion over the Prime Minister’s words exposes a problem with his border policy.

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Boris Johnson’s key message on immigration this election is focused on limiting migrants to skilled workers. That’s his crass way of trying to sell the “Australian-style points-based system”, which ranks incomers on certain criteria (qualifications, language skills, work experience, etc) in order to select workers.

This is why he has been using the strange phrase “people of talent” in numerous interviews. This is what he was likely saying in a speech today, which Channel 4 transcribed initially as “I’m in favour of people of colour coming to this country, but I think we should have it democratically controlled”. (The transcript was later deleted with a correction.)

That latter phrasing caused many online to accuse Johnson of racism. But it’s worth looking at how divisive the phrase “people of talent” is in itself.

First, it alienates huge swathes of people who wish to come to the UK for a better or safer life. Asylum seekers, for example, cannot work – and therefore cannot display their “talent”.

So-called economic migrants leaving financial, environmental or political hardship are just as able and willing to contribute, whether they are classed as “unskilled” or “skilled”. That’s why they make the journey to the UK in the first place, after all: to survive.

Both European and non-European migrants contribute more to the economy than they take out in public services and benefits – that’s a net benefit, compared the average UK citizen’s net lifetime contribution, which is zero.

Reducing migration to simply skilled work is a way of sorting migrants into categories of “deserving” (you can come in, if you meet our British view of “talent”) and “undeserving” (you can’t come in at all).

This ultimately shakes down to a racist immigration policy, more likely to filter out migrants from non-English-speaking or less prosperous countries who would meet fewer of the points criteria in the system touted by Johnson than, say, a white doctor from Norway.

As immigration lawyer Joanna Hunt writes, “Traditional points-based systems provide a blunt, subjective and often discriminatory assessment of what merit actually means… They are simplistic – leading to a racial and gender based bias in favour of predominantly male applicants from majority white countries”.

Focus on “skill” or “talent” also betrays a lack of respect for the labour this country relies on, so often done by migrants. Care work, cleaning, hospitality, health care assistance, agricultural labour, gig economy contracts – all areas where workers find themselves in underpaid, precarious jobs that are ignored and poorly regulated by the government.

There is also the degrading, othering pressure on migrants to be somehow “exceptional” to fit in and be accepted. This reminds of an interview I once did with a Syrian refugee called Dima living in the UK, who was fed up with the depiction of migrants-who-made-it in our media.

“There seems to be this pressure on refugees to come and hit the ground running and integrate and do stuff,” she told me, mentioning the award-winning cheese business in Yorkshire set up by Syrian refugees that had attracted a lot of attention at the time.

“I appreciate the positive coverage, people being portrayed as the successful individuals who made it – I understand that this is very much needed to change the perception,” she says. “However, at the same time, it could be, in smaller communities, perceived as the norm, whereas it’s not the norm.”

As his policy makes little economic sense (we will still need “unskilled” migrants after Brexit), it seems Johnson’s focus on “talent” is for the ears of voters who are suspicious of migrants, needing them to be extra special to even countenance their presence.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.