Forecasting migration has always been a difficult task. But five years ago it seemed possible to make a straightforward prediction: that the combination of a deep recession with rising levels of unemployment, and a more restrictive migration policy environment would bring about a reduction in the numbers of migrants coming to the UK. It didn’t. The net migration figure for the year ending June 2015 was 336,000, a record for the UK.
Freedom of movement in Europe has been part of the explanation, particularly since the euro crisis. For many young people from southern and eastern Europe, the choice has been between no job, and an insecure job in the UK (for which they are most often over-qualified). But this is only part of the story.
Against all the odds, the numbers of non-EU migrants entering the UK in 2015 was larger than it was in 2014. This is despite the fact that the UK’s immigration policy has become one of the most hard-line in the developed world. From student migration to family reunion, restrictionism permeates every aspect of immigration policy.
Record net migration figures are unrelated to the current refugee crisis. Despite the large numbers travelling to Europe, asylum seekers still remain one of the smallest groups of migrants entering the UK from outside the EU (just under 4 per cent). To put this into perspectives, while 200,000 people landed in Greece and 110,000 in Italy during the course of 2015, only 5,000 have reached Calais. Recent net migration figures reveal that, even in the wake of this summer’s events, numbers of refugees reaching the UK remain very low. While the UK has among highest rates of inward migration in Europe (a higher per capita figure than Germany), the per capita numbers of refugees are one-eighth to those in Sweden (closer to rates in Poland).
The fact that non-EU migration remains stubbornly high in the face of government’s concerted efforts to restrict it carries with it an important lesson. It has exposed the limits of government policies in the face of the powerful forces which make people leave their homes behind – from the aspiration which drives growing numbers of international students to further their careers in the UK, to the bonds of love and kin which make families want to be reunited against all odds and the increasingly powerful influences of global communication and social media. One of the most striking images of the boat landings over the past months has been the fact that so many desperate refugees carry with them a mobile phone.
Sheltering the UK from these forces is possible. But restrictionism is becoming a very costly business. The UK’s higher education system has warned repeatedly that it will become unviable without the large number of international students whose fees have filled the void of cuts to government subsidy. Cutting off the supply of health and constructions workers will make it impossible to sustain the NHS and ambitious home building programmes. Most recently, the care sector has raised alarms. Further limits to what is already the strictest family reunion regime in the developed world risks separating indefinitely the growing number of British families who have links elsewhere.
Restrictionism at any price also comes with a heavy cost diplomatically. Nothing illustrates this better than the way in which the current endeavour to limit access to welfare for EU citizens has alienated one of Britain’s staunchest allies in the EU: Poland. Recent state visits by Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping showed that maintaining a positive relationship with India and China will be conditional on treating citizens from these countries fairly via our visa system. Retrictionism at any price would put us at odds with multilateral institutions across the piece, not just the EU and the UNHCR but the World Bank and the WTO.
While ensuring that the existing immigration system functions effectively and that immigration laws are enforced is critical, tightening UK immigration policy indefinitely could become a game of diminishing returns. The evidence suggests that many policies are generating perverse incentives: more people may have moved in order to pre-empt future barriers (not least EU citizens) or decide to settle when previously they would have come and gone. Costs of control will balloon, people smugglers will benefit and integration will suffer.
So what is the alternative?
A strategy which aims to engage with the world as it is – in other words, a world where the movement of people is a fact of life – will need objectives and aspirations to match. Progressives are by definition much better placed to grapple with these questions. But to do this they will need to engage with a range of complex questions.
For example, is preventing migration a desirable goal for international development? This is a legitimate question, not just in light of the public’s desire to see migration reduced (alongside growing scepticism about the feasibility of ring-fenced aid budgets at a time of constrained public finances). But it is important given the complex interplay between migration and development. On the one hand, it seems apparent that draining poorer countries of their most talented people is likely to undermine development and good governance in the future (as argued by critics such as Paul Collier). But the evidence also suggests that migrants carry with them potential for contributing to international development. This can be the case either through direct financial transfers and remittances or through the more indirect effects which living in a developed country can have on attitudes, not least to issues such as gender equality or free speech. Such influences should not be underestimated in the context of growing numbers of international students arriving from countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, for example.
Complex questions also arise domestically. For example, remaining open to a mobile and diverse workforce is desirable on the basis that it can stimulate growth and drive economic vibrancy. But how do we make this compatible with the need to promote cohesiveness in communities and integration? Squaring this would require us to think much more carefully about the purpose of immigration policies, and challenge the notion that policies should be designed solely to maximise economic advantages at the expense of greater integration. Given the current government’s emphasis on ensuring that migrants find it hard to settle in the UK, the left could find fruitful territory in championing settlement and integration. The objective could be to be to move away from a situation whereby we talk hard about migration but tolerate it on the basis that it brings with it an economic dividend, to a focus on the conditions necessary to ensure that migrants make an active contribution not just economically, but also socially and politically. In others words, to ensuring that the policies are in place to enable integration. It should be noted that in October 2015 the Canadian Liberals achieved this seemingly unachievable feat – winning a majority on a pro-migration (pro-integration) platform – on precisely this offer.
In the short-term, restrictionism is no doubt the better strategy electorally. However, the experience of the past five years suggests that it may have reached its limits. Any further tightening is likely to cause substantial damage to our prosperity and Britain’s standing in the world. Furthermore, such effort may not even lead to desired reductions. The time may have come to raise our sights above the business of counting heads, to thinking about powerful forces which drive migration and how we can shape them to ensure that we harness their potential both domestically and in the pursuit of wider goals.