A points-based system gives cover to naked prejudice against migrants

British politicians idealise Australia's immigration policy because of what it represents: a country with a majority white population. 

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A few months after Adyan bin Hasan came into the world, his parents realised he was having trouble trying to lift his head. After a series of tests, they were told he had mild cerebral palsy, which was most likely caused by a stroke just before or after his birth. Before he was even three years old, this would decide whether he and his parents would be allowed to stay in Australia, his country of birth.

After finishing a PhD in Geelong, a city southwest of Melbourne, Adyan’s father, Mahedi Hasan Bhuiyan, was nominated by the state government of Victoria for a permanent visa. But Mahedi, his wife and son were rejected under Australia’s “one fails all fail” criteria. One family member didn’t meet the health criteria; everyone was denied a visa. Is this the “Australian-style points based system” so many of our politicians dream of?

Australia's points-based system is revered in the UK immigration debate. It has become a symbol of an alternative system that would still allow the UK to maintain “control” over who crosses its borders. During what would be his final general election campaign in 2005, Tony Blair promised that he would “put in place strict controls that work”, which would “include the type of points system used in Australia”. Ten years later, UKIP’s manifesto proposed introducing “an Australian-style points based system to manage the number and skills of people coming into the country, treating all citizens of the world on a fair and equal basis as a welcoming, outward-looking country”.  Australia's system was also repeatedly referenced during the EU referendum, so much so that during a series of twelve focus groups with Leave supporters, one group of researchers found that participants in eleven groups mentioned Australia as somewhere with a good immigration policy – entirely unprompted. 

If we followed Australia’s example, the implication goes, we’d have a better immigration system. Though Australia is regularly presented as an aspirational ideal, it is only ever discussed in the most general of terms. Neither its immigration system, nor how it compares to our own, are well understood. 

Australia’s “points-based system” is one of the main routes into the country. But how it operates is dehumanising; people are given points according to certain criteria. They are literally turned into numbers on a sheet. 25 points if you’re 18-25, 15 if you have eight years’ work experience, 20 if you have a PhD. You don’t need a job offer, but you do need to hit a certain score to even be considered eligible to move to Australia.

In 2007, as Blair had promised, New Labour attempted, in a way, to replicate this system. Leftover as a relic from this time, a section of UK immigration rules are still called “the points based system”. But the UK’s version of a point-based system has never really worked in the way it does in Australia, and it still doesn’t now.

To enter the UK, many people need to secure the promise of a job and a visa sponsored by their prospective employer. On top of that are certain criteria you have to meet depending on the kind of visa you’re applying for, which can include a certain level of English and earning a particular amount of money.

The UK’s immigration system is cold and calculated; it treats certain people as the “right” kind of migrant and others as the “wrong” kind. From all we’ve seen, the Conservative plans would mean EU citizens were also included in this system. The Tories have suggested different visas depending on levels of “skill”, including short-term visas for people considered “low-skilled”. They aren’t, then, going to model the UK’s immigration system on Australia’s.

Australia’s immigration policy is idealised because of what it represents: control, rationality, and whiteness. Like our so-called island nation, Australia is a go-it-alone country that is able to decide who crosses its borders. A steady drip of news coverage about people kept offshore in detention systems for months on end amplifies this message. But Australia's system has a dark underside. Its seemingly non-discriminatory, objective treatment of individuals gives cover to policies that are exclusionary and punitive. You measure people’s right to come to the country on the basis of this relatively fixed points regime. You either get the right number of points to come into the country, or you don’t.

This logic reflects a belief that the skills, qualifications and the jobs we have exist separately from the world around us. A points-based system invokes notions of meritocracy and individual ability, as if it’s natural genius and talent – or a lack thereof – that lands people where they are. The structural inequalities that shape people’s lives are erased; so too are the effects of race, class, gender, sexuality or disability.

This appeal to supposed objectivity is alluring to UK politicians who wish to claim that ending free movement is at least partly about ending a discriminatory system that treats EU and non-EU migrants differently. They can claim to be remedying this system, while in reality they are stripping away peoples' rights. Conservative politicians can claim they want “the best and the brightest” to come to the UK, even though some of the people the economy relies upon aren’t included in this illustrious category. They can maintain that “too many” immigrations of a certain type are bad for the country, while treating migrants like chess pieces to be moved around at the whims of politicians and policymakers, discarded when they cease to be useful.

The immigrant “other” can be measured by what “they” will contribute to “us”. In this formulation, exactly who is considered a threat and a potential problem is racialised. As well as being about economics,  the immigration debate has also become about nebulous ideas of identity and belonging. Migrants who are seen to posssess certain cultural affinities, or who hail from particular parts of the world, are imagined as compatible with the UK. It is people who are supposedly culturally distinct from Britons that are an issue. In this, whiteness is still considered synonymous with Britishness. 

Here, Australia is relevant again. At the same time as having a system that’s perceived to be objective, it’s a country – at least in the popular imagination – of blue skies, luxurious beaches and a predominantly white population. The promise of an Australian-style points based system is not only a relatively meaningless soundbite: it represents the anti-immigration beliefs that lie at the heart of the UK’s immigration debate. It is these ideas that must be challenged.

Maya Goodfellow is an academic and author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats.