It’s time for ‘Refugee Entrepreneur Visas’ – Britain’s policy with Hong Kongers proves it

The UK is making history by giving three million Hong Kongers and their dependents the right to settle in Britain. There is a notable lack of opposition – both political and popular – to this decision.

It seems that Brits (and perhaps other Western populations) are completely comfortable with asylum seekers, as long as they are cash-plentiful. It is time Britain and others extended this policy of welcoming refugees to stimulate our economies, by welcoming former entrepreneurs – those with the work ethic and personality to start and sustain something, from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, with a new ‘Refugee Entrepreneur Visa’.

Such a programme would appeal to the same asylum seekers who are already pushing at our borders: these people may be destitute now, but who wouldn’t be given the tragedies in their home countries? The problem is often compounded by our own immigration rules which inadvertently send refugees, and their last resources, to smugglers. Why not bring that capital into our economies as start-up funding instead, from foreign entrepreneurs who just so happen to come from war-ravaged countries?

And it’s not as if we would be damaging the prospects of other asylum seekers by prioritising those who can put capital to good use and have a track record as entrepreneurs. As it stands, almost all asylum seekers are stuck outside of our borders – ranging from those who will struggle to contribute, to those who can significantly improve our country. Let’s not forget that half of our fastest-growing big businesses have one or more foreign-born founder. Heck, we wouldn’t have a Marks & Spencer if Michael Marks, a Jewish Russian refugee, had been subject to our current immigration laws.

Today, a single family can expect to pay almost $30,000 to be smuggled from Lebanon to Germany. That is a net worth higher than that of many families in the world’s richest countries. Surely, there is a better use for this cash than enriching and strengthening trafficking networks? In case you’re wondering – that income is not taxed.

Smuggler networks can demand extortionate payments because there are few alternative avenues into developed countries. By making entry close to impossible for most, we are fuelling a dark human trafficking trade: the International Organisation for Migration estimated that the Mediterranean migrant crisis alone raised £31 billion a year for the smuggling industry. And after being skinned, their trafficked clients are left on our shores, completely dependent on the welfare state. To top that, smugglers may start out trafficking people, but often branch into drugs or arms. Why not, after all, diversify the contraband?

The British public is sympathetic to the millions of Hong Kong immigrants… assuming that they will create jobs, rather than live on handouts. In fact, that’s how we feel about similar immigrants from any country. That may sound callous and disingenuous. It’s not necessarily helping others without the expectation of return. The reality nevertheless is that a refugee who brings investment and growth (rather than needs and demands) is viewed differently to, for example, the “tidal wave” of Romanian workers that fuelled Brexit. So let’s deal with those cognitive cards because that’s our reality, for good or bad.

Hong Kongers have benefited from the softening public opinion towards what some call “the right kind of immigrant” – the one who delivers jobs and supports our economic growth. To elucidate, in 1990, only a third of YouGov respondents supported today’s policy of creating a path to British Citizenship for Hong Kong BNOs. Now it’s closer to two thirds who want Hong Kongers to replace some of the resources that might be sucked out with Brexit.

Europe and North America should learn from and scale up schemes like the UNHCR’s Community Sponsorship programme by harnessing refugees’ entrepreneurial potential. Currently, such schemes are largely done on a small-scale voluntary basis (usually by a local non-profit) which provides the living costs for a refugee family for a set period of time, to help secure their re-settlement.

If this route was extended to refugees who meet a threshold, we could see angel investor syndicates, or even larger financing firms, also viewing refugee resettlement as a potential investment, especially if the government offered tax incentives. Even if failure is a short term outcome of the refugee’s business, its backers will have made a dent in delivering on their corporate social responsibilities. If the business thrives, those backers will have secured a favourable economic return too. There are several potential wins on the table with this type of arrangement.

To protect the scheme’s integrity, visas must be limited to those who can demonstrate a viable business plan, and have enough funds, possibly from friends, family and well-wishers, to support themselves and their business costs for two years. This, combined with evidence of having run or owned previous successful businesses, would quell pushback. We would have a handle on who can get something off the ground and sustain it. That would be the threshold which filters out prima facie those who we should bring in.

Such a visa would satisfy both the left and right. The former because we will welcome more refugees than we would otherwise, and we will have taken steps to break the false association between refugee and welfare parasite. The right will be pleased because we will be strengthening the economy, creating jobs and offsetting the ongoing pressure from the left. Neither group would be ecstatic – but we’d have reached a happy medium, one better than what we’re leaving on and off the table right now.

The only losers will be the smugglers, who currently take the lucky ones from the most ravaged countries, extract (without being taxed) what little the refugees might still have, and deliver them to us. The choice is obvious.

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