Current migration levels: more than we can manage?

Posted by ap507 at Aug 28, 2015 12:55 PM |
Dr Kelly Staples explores recent data suggesting that UK net migration has hit a record high

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Yesterday, the BBC reported that UK net migration has hit a record high.[1] In a climate in which intuitions about fairness (and unfairness), fear, a longstanding island mentality, substantial Euro-scepticism, and an increasingly hostile media inform public opinion about migration, this headline is likely to set alarm bells ringing. However, the mere fact of ‘a record high’ doesn’t in itself tell us much.

The BBC report cites a 2011 quote by David Cameron, promising to bring migrant numbers to ‘levels our country can manage’. The BBC’s political correspondent claims that today’s figures will give the PM ‘no cheer’. Indeed, the government will no doubt respond by promising tough new measures to control immigration. But it is not self-evident that the 636,000 migrants to the UK in the year ending March 2015 are more than we can manage. Nor is it clear why migration always threatens to be unmanageable, or to overwhelm us.

Arguments against migration are varied. We know that when asked, some people worry about the burden on public services, and the risks to the welfare state posed by its ‘unfair’ use by those who have not contributed. There are also economic arguments critical of mass migration, based on the worry that cheap migrant labour lowers wages and puts pressure on the job market. Another concern is expressed in the fear that migrants threaten social cohesion or national identity, particularly where there are religious differences.

Of course, these are all valid topics for discussion, and a serious and evidence-based public debate about migration is long overdue.

However, the evidence needed for us to openly debate what is ‘manageable’ is not widely known. Starting with the ONS statistics on which the BBC report was based,[2] we can begin to grasp whether migrants access public services and benefits in ways that are unfair.

Almost one third of the migrants reported came to the UK to study. Although visa conditions vary by country, international students (i.e. those from outside of the EU) pay an NHS surcharge for health treatment as part of the immigration process. The majority are not allowed to work or claim benefits. They are also generally required to return home on completion of their course of study. International students provide a huge economic benefit to the towns and cities in which they reside, and reflect the international standing of our universities.

Around half of the recorded migrants in the new figures came to work (290,000 in total), with around 42% of those people arriving with a definite job to go to. The mantra of ‘British jobs for British workers’ may be a good political soundbite, and voices on both sides of the political spectrum have often been concerned about the impact of migration on jobs. There, are, however, complex political and historical reasons for the globalised economy in which we find ourselves, and closing the door on migrant labour is arguably neither feasible nor desirable.

Of those arriving in the UK to look for work, a significant number were EU nationals, eligible to do so without visas. 80% of non-EU immigrants arriving for work-related reasons had a definite – and usually skilled job – to go to, with many of the rest family members accompanying these migrants. Our immigration system already requires non-EU migrants to obtain a work visa, which in turn requires employer sponsorship. Work visas are sometimes also given to accompanying family members in order to encourage them to integrate and pay tax.

This data has been published in a month where harrowing images of desperate people fleeing conflict have been hard to avoid. Some hearing the news about ‘a record high’ will no doubt imagine that significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers explain the upward trend. In fact, a total of 11,600 people were granted asylum or an alternative form of protection in the period reported. This is less than 2% of the total. The EU and our EU partners, the UN and a range of other humanitarian actors have been highly critical of the low number of people granted asylum by the UK in an era in which refugee numbers are unprecedented. Recent data puts the UK in the bottom 50% of EU member states for asylum applications per capita. [3]

In any case, this is, as Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper rightly noted in her response to the latest figures, a debate which should be separated out from the wider immigration debate[4]: first, because so few immigrants to the UK are asylum seekers; and second, because the moral and legal context differs so greatly.

At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen the tabloid reaction to the latest figures. I fear that they will continue with metaphors of the UK being overwhelmed by migration. Migration is as old as humanity. While it is legitimate for citizens to debate how we might respond to it, talk of ‘record highs’ and unmanageability tends to simplify the complex picture of the economic impact of migration. Recent data suggests a very small positive net contribution of 0.46%,[5] although EU migrants contribute far more.[6]

As to whether mass migration poses a threat to British identity and society, this view tends to overlook the facts that cultures and identities are neither unitary nor fixed, and that the vast majority of immigrants come here to integrate: to work, to study, to be with family. Some will become long-term residents, and others will return home or go elsewhere. A net migration figure of 330,000 (the total when emigrants are also considered) cannot by itself give us answers to the deeper questions of how to create fair and vibrant societies in a globalised world.



[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34071492

[2] http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/migration1/migration-statistics-quarterly-report/august-2015/stb-msqr-august-2015.html

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2015/may/11/which-eu-countries-receive-the-most-asylum-seekers

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34071492

[5] http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/fiscal-impact-immigration-uk

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/05/eu-migrants-uk-gains-20bn-ucl-study

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