James Skinner is founder & Executive Director of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation.
“The UK just voted to leave the European Union; why on earth should we support Commonwealth free movement?” This is a question I am frequently asked from individuals all over the world, especially those living in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada who are familiar with my organisation and its campaign.
The Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation (CFMO), which I had the privilege of founding, has campaigned for freedom of movement between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada since last year, and since we became internationally recognized, our support has continued to grow rapidly each and every day.
Over 160,000 people have signed our petition calling for free movement between these Commonwealth countries, and an independent poll of 206,000 people (conducted by CBC News in Canada) found that over 92 per cent supported our proposals. We have also received the support of politicians and diplomats across the world and, since the Brexit referendum, our website has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each month, all eager to learn about what the future holds for free movement between the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
But why the fervour? Why should we, as citizens of four sovereign, independent nations, advocate such major reform within our immigration systems and introduce the most politically progressive project the world has ever seen? Because it is the common sense thing to do, and let me explain why.
In 2011, I moved to Melbourne in Australia under the Working Holiday Visa (subclass 417) with the intention of beginning a new life, thousands of miles away from my home in South Wales. Within six months of arriving, I was employed by the largest law firm in Australia with a great circle of friends and a general sense of belonging in my new home.
Within 12 months of arriving in Melbourne, I was boarding a flight back to London. My visa was due to expire, and arduous immigration protocols in Australia made it virtually impossible for me to stay. I was taken away from everything I worked for simply because of my citizenship.
I wish I could say this only happened to me, but throughout those 12 months, I saw too many Brits and Canadians say goodbye to a place they grew to love. They all spoke the national language, worked, paid taxes, and even volunteered with charities and non-profits, but none of that mattered. We were all born somewhere outside of Australia (through no fault of our own) and that was enough to send us packing.
Over a year later, I landed at Vancouver International Airport in Canada with the same intention of beginning a new life as I had two years earlier. As if history is repeating itself, I am now employed by a large law firm, have a great circle of friends and a tremendous sense of belonging – but the options for staying here have been incredibly difficult. I began my application for permanent residency in October 2014, and to this date, I am still no closer to knowing whether I can stay permanently in Canada.
Since founding the CFMO, I have discovered that there are (unfortunately) thousands upon thousands of people in a similar situation to myself, many of whom are living under much more stressful circumstances.
I have spoken to countless people who are Canadian citizens, but cannot emigrate to Australia to be with their husbands, wives and children because the application fees for spousal sponsorship are in excess of $6,000. Likewise, spouses are unable to emigrate to Canada for their loved ones because processing times for sponsorship applications are the longest in the world (currently 10 months for Australian applicants and 14 months for British applicants).
I have also spoken to New Zealanders unable to stay in the United Kingdom because they don’t meet the new government requirements of earning over £35,000 per year, and likewise, I have personally met UK citizens who could not stay in New Zealand because their skills and qualifications were not applicable under the country’s laborious “Expression of Interest” immigration protocols.
But why should these restrictions exist between our countries? The European Union is made up of 28 member states, 508 million people, over 60 different languages and numerous cultures/backgrounds, yet each EU citizen has the right to live and work anywhere within this political region. And yet, citizens of our four independent nations who share the same head of state, the same common-law legal system, the same western culture, the same respect for democracy and human rights, and even the same language are denied the countless political, social and economic opportunities that would occur from embracing free movement with each other.
I don’t know about you, but I feel the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are better than this. By forming a free movement agreement between our nations, we woulod effectively create a single labour market servicing the world’s third largest combined economy, with an accumulative GDP of $5.7 trillion.
Throughout this region of “CANZUK” nations, each of our citizens would be able to work and study freely while our businesses recruit the best talent, all without the cost, risk and often lengthy delays currently experienced through our arduous immigration controls. Business recruitment costs would tumble, employment opportunities will rise, and economic growth will be unprecedented.
And, most importantly, parents, spouses and children will be reunited, free from the stress of separation, immigration fees and employment requirements that cause so many families to live thousands of miles apart. No longer will relationships be subject to challenging immigration policies based on each party’s nationality or citizenship. Instead, families will be unified because of their shared Commonwealth ancestry and heritage, not because of what nation is printed on their passports.
The opportunities ahead of us are limitless. We have the chance to generate greater prosperity and greater relations between our four nations, and all it takes is the diplomatic cooperation of our governments to strive for a greater future for us and generations to come.
Now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, we can advance the ever-growing cultural, historical, economical and political connections that we already share through our Commonwealth ties, and embrace the countless economic and social benefits that free movement between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada would bring.
If you ask me, it has always been the common sense thing to do, and with our support base growing rapidly every day, we are closer than ever before to achieving this great initiative.