LONDON // A British government plan to charge a refundable deposit for visas is coming under fire even before a date has been set for a trial run of the scheme in six former colonies.
The Home Office has denied that a final decision had been made to push ahead with the bond scheme, under which visitors from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Kenya will reportedly have to pay a deposit £3,000 (Dh16,800) for a visa.
Reports suggest the government will pilot the scheme in November and a home office official on Monday characterised the initiative as the "next step in making sure our immigration system is more selective".
The scheme has drawn criticism from the countries targeted for the pilot phase, as well as from politicians and businessmen in Britain.
The official suggested it was still in the process of being finalised, but could be applied to more countries if it was successful.
"The pilot 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."
The bonds would essentially act as a financial guarantee that visitors abide by the terms of their visa and to recover costs should they use British public resources.
But the amount proposed would seem to limit all but the wealthiest of visitors, and the scheme has been deeply controversial in the countries linked to it.
Nigeria has already made a formal demand that the scheme be scrapped, while protests in India during the visit of the British prime minister, David Cameron, in June elicited a UK government statement that no final decision had been made. Olugbenga Ashiru, the Nigerian foreign affairs minister, summoned the British high commissioner in June to express the "strong displeasure" of the Nigerian government over the "discriminatory" policy.
Nigeria is an increasingly important trading partner to Britain. Bilateral trade grew nearly five-fold from £1.54 billion (Dh8.63bn) in 2010 to £7.62bn last year.
In Britain, retailers have also voiced their disquiet over a plan that might discourage people from visiting the country.
Michael Ward, the managing director of luxury store Harrods, told the Financial Times that the measure was "embarrassing".
"There seems to be a deeply frustrating attitude in Westminster that they should do whatever they can to actively prevent people coming to the UK," he said. The scheme was also criticised from within the governing coalition, with Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, saying it sent out the "wrong message".
Debate about the scheme comes at a time of increasing focus on immigration in Britain.
The success in local elections last year of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and its Eurosceptic, hard-on-immigration platform, helped push the issue to the forefront of the public agenda.
Limiting immigration from non-EU countries was also a key plank of Mr Cameron's Conservative party campaign even during the 2010 general elections.
The British government has since pledged to cut net immigration - the difference between immigration and emigration (which in the year to Junelast year was 162,000) - to less than 100,000 for non-EU countries by 2015 and the country's next general election.
The government's increasingly bullish tone on immigration has led to criticism at home.
Even UKIP protested against a government initiative launched this week targeting immigrants who have overstayed their visas or entered the country illegally, in which two lorries drive around London with billboards proclaiming: "In the country illegally? Go home or face arrest."
The UKIP leader, Nigel Farrage, called it a "nasty, big brother" campaign, while Mr Cable, in his second intervention over immigration policy in as many days, called it "stupid and offensive".
Legislation on financial requirements for applications for immigrant visas from non-EU countries that came into effect last year was also criticised by a cross-parliamentary group in June, which found they caused unnecessary anguish and left families torn apart.
Following the findings of the all-parliamentary group on migration, the British high court last month ruled the effect on family life of the financial requirements was "disproportionate". The home office is appealing the decision.
The ruling means that decisions on any cases falling into the category defined as unreasonable are suspended pending the appeal.