Migration confusion is costing Britain dear (UK)

On Thursday, MPs Frank Field and Nicholas Soames will lead a parliamentary debate, prompted by an e-petition sponsored by the pressure group Migration Watch. It expresses deep concern that, despite very strong public opposition to “mass immigration”, the population of the UK is expected to reach 70 million within 20 years, two-thirds of the increase due to migration. Undoubtedly, Thursday’s “No to 70 million” debate will be marked by some clarity but also a great deal of confusion, contradiction and the employment of similar sets of statistics robustly interpreted to serve opposing sides of the argument.

Immigration is an issue steeped in prejudice, traditionally too easily exploited by groups on both the right and left. At times, the toxic results have had a horrible impact on the lives of those who, over the decades, have otherwise successfully made the UK their home.

A discussion is much needed on the many issues that arise from immigration. Its economic and cultural impact; its effect on the rationing of resources such as health and housing; and its impact on population, in particular on the level at which we feel the UK is deemed “overcrowded”, given its requirement for a youthful influx to provide for an ageing society.

However, that discussion is again and again sabotaged because immigration provides politicians with levers that are at times too carelessly pulled, particularly in the pre-party conference season. The result is often highly negative. The events at London Metropolitan University over the past few days are a case in point.

The university’s right to take students from outside the EU has been revoked. In spite of a warning six months ago that its procedures had to be improved – for instance, on students’ attendance, and on policing the requirement to speak adequate English – the UK Border Agency says a recent inspection showed continuing and systematic failures. Now, almost 3,000 students face deportation if they cannot find fresh support to continue their studies. Nigerian Francis Owobiyi is among them, well advanced in his dissertation for a masters degree in international law. “I could have gone to the US, to Canada, but I chose London, I regret that now,” he said on Thursday.

Malcolm Gillies, LMU vice-chancellor, does not impress with his assertions that change was underway. However, this cruel detonation of the academic lives of hundreds of legitimate, hard-working students is quite unjustified. Higher education is one of Britain’s largest and most rapidly growing sources of international revenue. In 2011-12, foreign students accounted for £2.7bn of universities’ £23bn income. Now we have a large “Not Welcome” sign nailed to the UK’s front door.

In July, in a House of Lords debate, the Border Agency was lambasted for its many failings. The peers listed its “disgraceful” short-term holding facilities for children at Heathrow and the detention for years of migrants, including torture victims. However, in the case of London Metropolitan, it’s not the Border Agency that is primarily to blame. The fault lies with the government.

On Thursday, the Office for National Statistics announced that migration had fallen last year by almost 36,000 to 216,000, as the government tightened rules. However, margins of error mean very little change may have happened. This is in spite of the 2010 Conservative manifesto that promised to cut net migration from “hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands” by 2015.

The challenge is that Britain’s doors are legitimately open to 270m working-age citizens from the EU. In 2011, 589,000 people arrived in Britain. At the same time, fewer British were leaving to live abroad. So, the effort to reduce the numbers of workers from outside the EU, migrants claiming a place for family reasons and foreign students has become all the more urgent. But restrictions come at a price.

The Institute for Public Policy Research says cutting foreign students by 50,000 annually could cost the economy £2bn-£3bn a year. Combine the loss from a reduction in foreign students with the cap on highly skilled workers, much needed by British business and industry, and, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the amount lost to the economy could reach £4bn a year. However, there are other than purely economic calculations that need to be made.

In July, Ed Miliband, the son of a refugee, apologised on behalf of his party for allowing net immigration to reach 3.2m under Labour without sufficiently addressing people’s concerns about its impact on housing, schools, jobs and benefit entitlements and the pace of change in some communities. A person does not turn into a bigot for raising such matters, he affirmed. So, as a sense of cultural identity, shared values and a common notion of citizenship must also play a significant part in the equation, how is immigration best controlled and what size of population can Britain carry and prosper?

Any reasonable response requires that we understand better the benefits and true costs of immigration and that means more credible research. A lack of trust in the government’s effectiveness in controlling immigration and manning its borders also needs addressing. A decision on population growth – 70m, 80m, 100m? – demands that priorities are agreed. As Oxford University’s excellent Migration Observatory argues, a population policy designed to benefit the environment, for example, may be very different from one maximising economic growth.

Sweden has opened its doors wide to immigrants but worked with trade unions to ensure that paying a pittance for an hour’s labour is severely restrained: fairness is key. Fairness is needed here, too, for instance in the allocation of social housing, but also in helping integration by restoring access to free English courses, ravaged by cuts.

At the very least, too, the government needs to exempt non-EU students from the visa cap and desist from ramping up the rhetoric. Immigration is a complex and ultimately visceral issue. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Olympics, Sunder Katwala from the thinktank Future Britain reminded us that many of Britain’s medal winners were third-generation immigrants.

“Beneath the sound and the fury is a lot of consensus on immigration policy,” he says. “We are better at integration than we think.” We should remember those words when we resume our frequently anxious debate about immigration.

Source: Guardian Professional http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/02/observer-editorial-immigration-policy