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Statement: Higher visa fees will increase risks of debt and exploitation in the UK

July 19, 2023
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Peter Wieltschnig

Policy and Networks Officer

On Thursday 13 July, the Government announced significant increases to immigration fees and the immigration health surcharge. These fee increases have been framed by Government as to fund public sector pay increases for workers; many of whom are migrants and also subject to these charges.

The announcements  include plans for:

  • The immigration health surcharge to rise by 66% (from £624 a year to £1,035);
  • Work and visit visa fees to rise by 15%;
  • Other visas, extensions, settlement and citizenship to rise by 20%.

These fee increases will cause real economic hardship and paying such high fees will push people into debt, creating a vulnerable and readily exploitable population. As they stand, immigration fees in the UK are considerably higher than comparable European countries and the United States, with many already struggling to meet the cost of their visa fees. Where visas are renewable, workers have to repeatedly pay to renew their visas. 

As such, fees are not  one-off payments and these higher rates mean that workers have the miserable choice of ongoing high payments which may be funded by incurring debt or becoming undocumented with the consequence of potential immigration detention and removal from the UK to a situation where they cannot realistically repay the costs they incurred to migrate in the first place, often borrowed at high rates of interest.

These higher fees will  exacerbate debt incurred by migrant workers and so increase workers’ reliance on their work which is needed to repay this, and the power discrepancy between workers and their employers, who may also be their visa sponsors. This will inevitably result in more people being forced into exploitative work, including by traffickers.

This announcement is taking place in a context where the Government has been drastically scaling back modern slavery protections and support in violation of the UK’s international obligations through legislation including the ‘Illegal Migration Bill. A wide range of actors, including anti-trafficking charities, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), and the former Prime Minister have all warned that current policies will increase the risks of trafficking and will ‘consign more people to modern slavery.’ 

FLEX has previously highlighted the link between debt bondage, visa fees and the risk of labour exploitation. Debt is one of the key drivers of labour exploitation, as workers become dependent on their employer to pay back loans. If workers are effectively tied to their employment relationship due to their debts, they will be unable to leave abusive and exploitative work for fear of being unable to renew their visa and being removed from the UK. 

Where people are unable to meet these growing costs, they will simply be unable to renew their visas and be pushed into irregularity. As a result of the much criticised Illegal Working Offence, which made working without the correct immigration status a criminal offence, many workers will then be pushed into irregularity and will be forced by their circumstances to rely on exploitative work in order to survive and support their families. Given their forced irregularity as a result of the  Government’s plans, they will be unable to report workplace abuse without fear of immigration enforcement action and will therefore be trapped in exploitation. 

Already the Government has been criticised for the risks of exploitation inherent in the visa system, with the USA having made a recommendation at the UK’s recent Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council that the UK takes “steps to ensure migrant workers are not left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers and the UK visa system”. Despite having accepted this recommendation, this recent announcement shows that the Government has opted to backslide further, treating workers as commodities.

We call on the Government to:

  • Immediately scrap these planned increases
  • Ensure that immigration fees should be set no higher than administrative costs
  • Revoke the NHS surcharge.
  • Additionally, the Illegal Working Offence should be repealed
  • Secure reporting channels introduced to enable all workers to report workplace abuse and exit exploitative situations regardless of their immigration status.