ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 52

Lankans among top groups granted UK citizenship

EUROPEAN NOTEBOOK by Neville de Silva

Some one million persons, mainly from Asia and Africa, have been granted British citizenship since the Labour Party came to power 10 years ago, government statistics released last week reveal. Among nationalities that benefited from this are Sri Lankans, 5720 of whom became British citizens last year alone.

Sri Lanka is one of the top seven countries which provided new citizens last year. The others were India (15,125), Pakistan (10,260), Somalia (9,050), the Philippines (8840), South Africa (7,670) and Nigeria (5870). Though over 60,000 new citizens were added to UK's population last year, it was the first time since Labour assumed power in 1997 under Tony Blair's premiership that the number of persons granted British citizenship fell by 5 per cent.

One reason for this drop, according to Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister, was the introduction of tests for English and on life in Britain before an applicant is granted a passport. Last year the Labour government introduced tests to ascertain the English language skills of would-be citizens and also questioned them on matters relevant to their life in Britain. For instance, applicants were asked questions with regard to contacting various authorities in case of emergencies, where they would go for advice on some everyday problems or how to ask for directions.

Such tests were considered necessary for new citizens to adapt to and settle in their new country without feeling totally alienated by a lack of knowledge of English or their surroundings. There are still large numbers of persons, particularly elderly persons and mainly from the Indian subcontinent, who are unable to communicate in English, while there are many others who could barely make themselves understood or understand others.

Despite Britain's emphasis on multiculturism, it is strongly felt in political and institutional circles that unless new citizens are able to communicate in the English language they would not fit snugly into their new society. Several Sri Lankans, particularly of Tamil ethnicity, fall into this category. Though some of them have a smattering of English they are reluctant to face the language test though they have been here for several years and qualify in terms of length of stay.

Many of those applying for citizenship have lived at least seven years in Britain. But even so their lack of knowledge of English often make them unemployable in many vocations that require communication. One of the problems is the arrival in the UK of new brides or would-be brides from countries in Asia and Africa for British citizens or residents who originally came from those two continents.

Often young girls come here from Asian or African societies who have never travelled outside their immediate environment and so are unable to fit into their new home except to associate with a close circle. Just last week the Conservatives unveiled new plans that would make it very tough for the spouses of persons here to live in Britain if they cannot speak English.

Though under the new Conservative leader David Cameron the Tories have played down immigration, it seems they want to tighten up on immigration. The Tories have been accused of "reverting to type" and were trying to reintroduce the controversial "primary purpose" rule first brought in by them when they were last in power.

The Conservatives, however, argue that they are trying to close loopholes in the existing laws that permit abuse and are only trying to ensure that wives and husbands joining spouses in the UK integrate fully into this society. Moreover, any new Tory government is set to raise the age limit of potential spouses and sponsors from 18 to 21 years and ensure that entry clearance officers interview the spouses and sponsors separately and introduce an "English test" for spouses.

This would require spouses to listen and respond to spoken language, engage in discussions, read and obtain information from everyday sources and write to communicate information and opinions. The Conservatives are planning to consult on further steps that could include a "life in the UK" citizenship test for spouses with a time limit of up to 10 years before those who have been married earlier to a spouse from abroad could bring another into Britain.

The Conservatives argue that the current system is being exploited by men who abandon their British spouses after they acquire the right to remain in Britain and then bring into the country a new wife. Statistics show that 41,500 spouses or fiancés were admitted to Britain in 2005, of which 62 per cent came from Asia and 39 per cent from the Indian subcontinent.

The Conservative Party spokesman on immigration Damien Green has said that "Too many young women are brought to England to marry when they cannot possibly integrate with our society. They need better protection. It is not fair on them and it is not good for their integration into this country. Families where English is not spoken are much more likely to have children who struggle at school, and adults who cannot engage in work."

Saying that Labour had done little to prevent the abuse of current rules, Green said "We are proposing practical measures which will mean only adults can come to this country to be married and only those whose command of English allows them to play a full part in British life will be able to come."

The toughening up of the rules is likely to cost the Tories votes among the ethnic minorities especially from the Indian subcontinent. But it is likely to gain votes among sections of the local British population who are not only concerned about the "ghetto mentality" of some ethnic minorities but increasingly worried about the influx of European immigrants, particularly from parts of the former Soviet Union, now members of the European Union. They are perceived as taking away jobs from local people and eating into the limited housing stock and other social amenities.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.