LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Defying protests, the British government said Monday it will go ahead with a pilot plan to curb illegal immigration by demanding visitors from six of its ex-colonies post a cash bond to obtain visas.
An email from the Home Office to The Associated Press confirmed that the plan would focus on countries with a high proportion of visa overstayers and examine ways of using the proceeds of forfeited bonds to ease the burden illegal immigrants put on public services.
The department confirmed reports that began circulating last month that the bonds could amount to 3,000 pounds ($4,600) per visitor, but said the sum hadn't been fixed nor a date set for implementation.
The six countries targeted are Ghana, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as Nigeria, whose population of 160 million is Africa's biggest, and whose protests have been strongest.
When reports of the plan emerged, Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Olugbenga Ashiru called in the British ambassador last month to express "strong displeasure" over the "discriminatory" policy.
He suggested it could harm trade between the two countries that grew nearly five-fold from $2.35 billion in 2010 to $11.57 billion last year, with the value of Nigerian imports doubling.
The British have sought to calm the outcry, with the British ambassador to Nigeria, Andrew Pocock, saying "the vast majority would not be required to pay a bond." He said about 70 percent of the 180,000 Nigerians applying annually to visit Britain get visas.
India protested last month as British Prime Minister David Cameron was visiting, causing him to declare that a final decision had not been taken.
Immigration, legal and illegal, is a sensitive political issue in Britain, especially with the unemployment and austerity measures brought on by the economic crisis. It was a big issue in his election campaign and he has pledged to cut net immigration from 252,000 a year in 2010 to below 100,000 a year by 2015.
The Home Office statement said the visa bond "is the next step in making sure our immigration system is more selective, bringing down net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands while still welcoming the brightest and the best to Britain."
But a panel of senior British lawmakers, in a report issued Sunday, said official migration statistics are little more than a "best guess."
Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee said no attempt is made to count people entering or leaving Britain, and that the government instead estimates the number coming in based on "random interviews" at ports of entry.
The Home Office's emailed statement said the pilot plan "will apply to visitor visas, but if the scheme is successful we'd like to be able to apply it on an intelligence-led basis on any visa route and any country."
Khaled Mahmud, owner of a travel agency in Dhaka, Bangladesh told The Associated Press Monday he believes the measure "smacks of a deep-rooted racial attitude."
In the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, computer businessman Syed Shahid Ali, who visits Britain frequently, called it "painful and unbearable."
"How can someone who wants to visit the U.K. for a couple of days for business meetings or something else afford to set aside 3,000 pounds," he said. "He will simply prefer to go and do business elsewhere in Europe instead of getting into this problem of giving a bond and getting reimbursed."
Haider Abbas Rizvi, a Pakistani former lawmaker, said the British government should reconsider because the measure would hurt a lot of Pakistanis who have family members living in Britain and cannot afford the bond.
"There are just a few people who deviate from the system or break the law, so instead of bringing common travelers and law-abiding people under the possible financial burden, there should be strict surveillance on the violators of law in the U.K. or elsewhere," Rizvi told the AP.
Another recent move aimed at overstayers that drew criticism was the deployment of two vans emblazoned with the message "In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest." The vans circulated in six London boroughs for a week. Leaflets with the same message will be distributed for a month.
Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds and Cassandra Vinograd in London, Farid Hossain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.