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Britain lines up leash on visitors

London, Dec. 17: Britain’s immigration minister Liam Byrne is to visit India in February to defend new visa rules which will halve the time an Indian tourist can spend in the UK from six months to three.

Indian families who sponsor the visit by a relative from India will also have to cough up a “bond” of £1,000 which will be forfeited if the visitor does not return home on time.

The government was persuaded not to set the bond at a crippling £3,000.

Gordon Brown, whose popularity rating is plummeting, wants to be seen as tough on the controversial issues of immigration and asylum seekers but has not been able to do much to stem the flow of workers from Poland, Rumania and other countries in the enlarged European Union since they benefit from free movement of labour within the community.

The new restrictions on visas will apply to non-EU nationals but will hit Indians particularly hard since visitors do come for family occasions such as weddings.

Although it would be pointless to deny that some visitors have overstayed and remained behind as illegal migrants, there is now more work to be had in India with its improving economy. Another problem for Britain is that it needs migrant workers for a rapidly ageing population and also for menial jobs which locals are no longer willing to undertake.

Indian tourists have now overtaken the Japanese to become the second biggest spenders in London. It is estimated that half a million Indians visit the UK every year and their numbers are going up year on year. Many spend more money than even the Americans.

The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, recently returned from a trip to India during which he sought to encourage a greater flow of tourist traffic from India to the UK. But the new Prime Minister appears to be acting under political pressure, commentators say.

It is true that public sentiment, never sympathetic to the notion of immigration, has turned against asylum seekers, especially after the disclosure that some Muslims who were given shelter by Britain have gone on to become terrorists.

In some ways, Indians, though law abiding, are becoming victims of the proposed tough new visa regime through no fault of their own. Brown, who is now behind Tory leader David Cameron in the opinion polls, is keen to be seen as responding to public disquiet on immigration and asylum.

Chances are the Labour government will also introduce new measures to discourage Indian brides being imported into the UK.

Home office immigration figures show 12.9 million people came into Britain temporarily last year, up by more than 2.5 million over 10 years. Two of the main methods to gain entry are by using tourist visas, which are needed by anyone from outside the EU, and passes for family visits.

Critics of the £1,000 bond say it would place a financial burden on relatives who may have to find large amounts of money to sponsor a family reunion, while not being much of a deterrent to those who flout the rules.

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