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Why is the UK ramping up costs for potential Australian migrants?

The UK government has become increasingly desperate to find any means it can to reduce its number of new migrants. Reuters/Neil Hall

Why is the UK ramping up costs for potential Australian migrants?

Australian citizens make up one of the largest groups entering the UK each year. More than 21,000 Australians received entry visas in 2015 – the fourth-most visas for any nationality after China, India and the United States. But this looks set to change as Australians get swept up in Britain’s efforts to reduce net migration.

In 2015, the UK government introduced a healthcare surcharge for all non-EU arrivals on visas longer than six months. The surcharge is added to most immigration applications and paid up front. It costs £200 (or roughly A$400), or £150 (roughly A$300) for students per year.

A family of four on three-year visas would be required to pay a health surcharge of £2400 ($A4800) on top of other application fees – all of which have risen much faster than inflation. Some are set to rise by 25% this northern spring.

Australians had, so far, been exempt from this charge. This was due to reciprocal agreements between Australia and the UK that allowed citizens of one country to use most healthcare services in the other country for free. Exceptions are made for services with a fee, like dental treatment or prescription medicine.

But, from April 6, Australians will no longer be exempt from paying the health surcharges. This means the higher upfront fees will be required for all UK visa applications. The UK government claims this is being done out of fairness to other nationalities. But important questions as to the government’s motivations remain.

Trends in UK migration are behind it

While Australians coming to the UK must pay the new surcharge, it is unclear how this affects existing agreements for British citizens travelling to Australia.

The health surcharge is meant to offset the expected costs for treating migrants in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). However, the UK government has only recently begun collecting data on how much different nationalities actually use the NHS. This means the government is conjuring up the charge almost out of thin air before reliable data is available.

One former UK home secretary told me the charge was likely being used to plug holes in the NHS budget caused by government cuts – and not by migrants.

The UK’s underlying motivation for this change is its continuing struggle to reduce net migration. This has reached record highs under the Cameron government despite continuing promises to reduce it to under 100,000 a year. It is currently more than three times this at 336,000.

The UK government has become increasingly desperate to find any means it can to reduce numbers. It also plans to increase the required salary for work visas to £35,000 (roughly A$70,000). This has raised fears that Australian citizens could be hit hard and damage the long-standing close relationship between Australia and the UK.

Relations have become increasingly frayed over the last two years as Australians are abandoning the UK “in their thousands”. The number of work visas issued to Australians by the UK Home Office has halved since 2006 and is now fewer than 15,000.

Between 2011 and 2012, the number of Australians resident in Britain dropped by nearly 10,000. A key factor in this decline were new visa restrictions brought in by the UK government in 2011. These measures included a cap on non-EU migrants permitted to acquire sponsored work visas.

It is likely that the health surcharge to be levied on Australians will continue the trend of fewer seeking work in the UK to avoid spiralling costs. Meanwhile, new labour statistics suggest another rise in EU migrant workers, who have free movement to work across Europe and are subject to few restrictions.

Not only are Britain’s increasingly restrictive measures ineffective at achieving short-term political goals, but there is little serious discussion about the longer-term consequences – including the UK’s relationship with Australia. As fewer go to the UK and work, and instead choose to go elsewhere, this once-close bond may become difficult to repair.