The UK tech industry reacts to Trump's immigration ban: 'A very dark and worrying time'

Protestors gather against Donald Trump's Muslim travel banZach Gibson / StringerProtestors gather against Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban

LONDON — Speaking in Ankara, Turkey, on Saturday, British Prime Minister Theresa May refused to condemn Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, arguing that “the United States is responsible for the United States’ policy on refugees.”

But huge numbers of Brits aren’t so reticent, with more than a million people signing a petition to block the American president’s upcoming State Visit.

Trump’s decision to block immigration from seven Muslim majority countries and suspend America’s refugee program has caused serious alarm in the US, with emergency protests erupting across the country. The nation’s tech industry has also spoken out, with companies from Google to Airbnb pledging money or aid to those potentially affected.

And some in the UK tech industry aren’t staying quiet either.

‘A very dark and worrying time’

TransferWise, a buzzy London-headquartered money-transfer startup, denounced the executive order in a memo sent to employees over the weekend obtained by Business Insider, and pledged support to any employees who might be affected. It said (emphasis ours):

“We’ve seen some incredible scenes from the US overnight.

“I think everyone knows my views on immigration and how important it is to both a company’s and a national economy’s growth and innovation.

“To be very clear, we do not support this policy from President Trump. If it affects any of our team, we will do anything and everything we can to help.

In a very dark and worrying time, to see the immediate reaction of real people from the lawyers to the protesters in the airports has been incredible. I hope that’s something we can all take inspiration from.”

Taavet hinrikus transferwise ceoJohn Phillips/Getty Images for TechCrunchTransferWise CEO and cofounder Taavet Hinrikus.

The firm operates around the world, including the US, and its Estonian cofounders have previously been outspoken about their support for immigration and their company’s reliance on it.

In an emailed statement, CEO and cofounder Taavet Hinrikus said: “The impact of this decision is deeply worrying. Immigration is key for innovation and for economic growth. Hearing the immediate impact on those caught up personally in it right now is deeply distressing.”

‘Today I feel I don’t belong anywhere’

The executive order — an evolution of Donald Trump’s frequently promised ban on all Muslim immigration — blocks immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

There has been intense confusion about what the ban entails: Legal US residents with green cards were initially denied entry, though this is reportedly no longer the case. And there was also uncertainty as to whether the ban would also affect dual-nationality Brits born in one of the prohibited countries. The UK Foreign Office now says that dual-nationality Brits will be exempted — but it has still caused alarm.

In a blog post on Medium seemingly written before the Foreign Office issued its clarification, Khash Sajadi — the British-Iranian cofounder of Cloud66, a firm now based in San Francisco, wrote: “I was born in Iran, I am British and I work in the US and today I feel I don’t belong anywhere … What makes me feel like this today is how my country, Britain, responded to this decision: with silence.”

‘This ban is indefensible from any angle’

Despite this exemption, there are still concerns that it could have a material impact on some British businesses.

TechUK, a trade industry body for the UK technology ecosystem, provided a fairly cautious comment, writing: “We will continue to follow ongoing developments and companies should monitor advice issued by the Foreign Office. Tech companies will want to prevent a damaging impact on people in their companies, and on the cost of conducting international business more generally.

“The movement of the skilled talent around the world drives the creation of innovative products and services, and in turn has been a key part of both the US and the UK’s tech success of recent years.” (A spokesperson declined to answer a request for clarification as to whether TechUK condemns the executive action.)

One London startup CEO that Business Insider spoke to was more forthright, saying they’re considering scrapping plans to relocate their business to the US as a result.

“I think there was an inevitability in technology that you had to go West. Silicon Valley is the technology equivalent of the Great Attractor. Funding, exit opportunities, ecosystem etc the opportunities there are unmatched. A Trump presidency would have made an impact but my expectation was that it could have been business as usual for the tech industry. The events of the last week challenged this belief,” they said.

“Now about 20% of candidates that we are assessing could fall into a ban (unclear as it changes hourly). Right now I’m being forced to choose between talent and location and frankly Silicon Valley is no longer a priority as a result.”

They added: “I echo the sentiment from the CEO of Box, this ban [is] indefensible from any angle: moral, economical, safety-wise. My concern is about the disruption of independence between executive, judiciary and legislative.”

Joséphine Goube, CEO of Techfugees — an organisation that tries to find tech solution to help refugees — predicted it could see more businesses operate overseas offices. “In terms of UK businesses’ hiring and strategies, it is likely we will see again TLA & other tech leaders expressing their opposition in the press but without real impact in changing May’s agenda,” she wrote in an email.

“What’s likely to concretely happen is that the tech sector, an industry well tuned to having teams working online and abroad, will do more of this (think of TransferWise or Azimo who have offices in Eastern Europe for their tech teams), if not full relocations in European countries as London’s offices costs & salaries are becoming way too high compared to other capitals.”

On Sunday, Eileen Burbidge, a prominent London-based (American) venture capital investor and member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group and chair of Tech City UK, tweeted: “been Stateside since Wednesday and I can’t believe what’s happening here… how much more has to happen b4 impeachment proceedings, please?”

‘Human rights abuses’

Jim Killock, executive director for digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, attacked the British government as being complicit in the ban. “Britain cannot condemn the ban on Muslims entering the US if we are providing the data being used to vet them,” he said in an emailed statement.

“MPs who voted for the Investigatory Powers Act need to ask if themselves if this is what they wanted when they endorsed bulk data collection last year. We urge the UK government to immediately legislate to place safeguards and limit raw data sharing with the US so that it cannot used to commit human rights abuses.”

This story is being updated with more comments as they come in. If you work for a European startup, we want to hear from you. What do you think about the executive order? Might it affect you? Get in touch: [email protected]

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