It’s the rich wot get the visa, it’s the poor wot get the blame…

What price citizenship? Last Thursday,Damien Green put a figure on it: £31,000 per year for five years. This salary floor should – apparently – ensure that only the ‘brightest and the best’ are able are able to settle in the UK ‘breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration’. Never mind that the current points-based migration system already means that it is virtually impossible for low-skilled workers to enter the UK legally (as the UKBA website tells us ‘This tier is suspended indefinitely’). Nor that the median UK salary last year hovered just under the £27,000 mark, meaning most existing UK citizens wouldn’t actually meet this criteria, were they asked to apply for the privilege of UK residency).
Designing policies in ‘relentless pursuit’ of an arbitrary number – in this case, that promise to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ – hardly leaves much room for justice, given that rational economic self-interest hasn’t persuaded the government to stop pushing for further migration restrictions. But as I’ve written elsewhere, protecting our ‘national interest’ by squeezing migrants does help to make us believe British identity is more than a convenient fiction. It obscures the extent to which everyone’s citizenship is being hollowed out — not by the pernicious demands of itinerant migrants, but the creeping privatisation of the state.
The joke, of course, is that there’s always been an economic market for citizenship, even as nation-states queue up to talk about values and history and belonging. A few states call a spade a spade, and sell you economic citizenship, residency not required. A St Kitts and Nevis passport will cost you around $400,000 in legal fees and investment cash. Dominica offers a $100,000 “family option”. And you have to pay once the application is approved. Thaksin Shinawatra – the former Thai Prime Minister – is a proud economic citizen of Montenegro (the programme has since been suspended due to concerns that Montenegro’s policy of not extraditing its citizens might prove a particular attraction to the wealthy crook.  And there’s also that small matter of 60,000 (poor) stateless residents, including Kosovan Roma, who don’t qualify for citizenship).
It’s not just small states. In the US, $500,000 investment in a rural or high unemployment area will get you an EB-5 visa, and after 5 years the chance to swap your green card for a US passport. As the visa sites make clear ‘EB-5 investors are not required to work; therefore, some investors choose to travel throughout the United States without restriction, or they maintain dual residences in America and their native home’. In the UK, investment over a million can buy you permanent residency and new rules mean that you only have to stay here 185 days a year. Oh, and no English language test.
In other words, being rich allows you to turn citizenship into a monetary transaction. A financial contribution takes the place of participation in a shared community. Green’s new plans simply extends this logic, making citizenship and mobility the privilege of the rich while further ensuring the poor cannot join UK Plc.
But where does that leave the poor and the persecuted? Those for whom mobility isn’t a choice but a necessity? As Oxford research Nick Van Hear has made clear, there’s a (black)market at the bottom end of the migration business too. Profits rise for smugglers as legal pathways are blocked. As long as the costs associated with legal movements remain prohibitively high – from a $150 passport to move from Zimbabwe to South Africa to $500,000 for that investment visa – clandestine movements and purchased passports are rational choices. A good black-market US passport costs only $5000-10,000.
This isn’t a substitute for “real” citizenship: it’s precarious and risky. It comes with a terrible human cost: bodies along the Mediterranean coastline. It excludes many of these individuals from being able to integrate or contribute to the societies they have arrived in. But part of the myopia at the heart of government migration policy is the persistent notion that it’s easy to distinguish a “genuine refugee” from an “voluntary migrant”. Another part is the continued insistence that we can stop people – and above all poor people – moving. We can stop them moving legally, and we can shape their journeys, diverting flows and shifting the migration “burden”. But yet they keep moving. Inequality and crisis are powerful drivers.
And now, restricting legal migration isn’t even enough. The aim appears to be to stop all but middle-class professionals and wealthy businessmen from having the right to belong: even when they’ve lived and worked here legally for half a decade. An important reminder that however many times we may be assured that migration management is about protecting Britain’s national identity, migration and citizenship are ultimately all about money.