Wednesday 5 November 2014

Feigning immigration control

The current attempts by UK politicians to outbid each other in being 'tough' on immigration reminds me of the comment by the well-known migration researcher Douglas Massey and his co-authors that politicians increasingly have turned to symbolic measures to create "an appearance of control"*.

The reality is that most immigration to the UK is basically uncontrollable since the majority of immigrants coming to the UK are EU citizens or family members of residence permit holders. Little can be done about this, and this is also why David Cameron's earlier pledge to bring annual net immigration down under the 100,000 threshold has proven to be unrealistic. The only hope of that happening is a major economic crisis in the UK, since the main driver of much immigration is labour demand.And this also shows the fundamental dilemma politicians face: Wealthy countries and fast growing economies inevitably attract substantial number of immigrants, although this is anything but an invasion suggested by politicians and the media.

Immigration is the most concrete manifestation of rather abstract, difficult-to-grasp processes such as globalisation, economic liberalisation, privatization and increasing flexibility of employment policies. The latter are the result of a series of political decisions which have increased economic inequality, dismantled social security, increased job insecurity, and have opened the doors of European nations not only for free trade but also for the free mobility of workers. These policies have brought many benefits for entrepreneurs and the relatively well-off, while less privileged socio-economic groups have often seen their job insecurity growing and their real incomes falling.

No wonder that politicians are tempted to tap into this discontent by blaming immigrants for problems they have not caused. However, this is turning the causality upside down, as growing feelings of socio-economic insecurity among large sections of the population is the partial result of the neoliberal policies pursued by the same governments that now use migrants as scapegoats to divert the attention away from their own responsibility.

Because EU immigration cannot be controlled, the current UK government has targeted its policies at those types of immigration it can control to a certain extent, particularly non-EU workers and students. Although these policies have made it more difficult for such groups to obtain a visa, it would be an illusion that this can reverse long-term migration trends and that this can undo Britain's position as a global migration destination. Even leaving the EU as propagated by the UKIP (UK Independence Party) and other politicians is an unlikely 'solution'. For instance, Switzerland has record-high immigration despite not being an EU member. A major long-term reduction of immigration can only be achieved by a return to highly protectionist policies and a UK government that is willing to wreck economy for the sake of stopping foreigners from coming.

As long as Britain remains an attractive and open country, it will inevitably continue to attract migrants. It is not a matter of being pro- or anti-immigration, which is the usual way the debate is framed. It is about understanding that you cannot have an open and wealthy society without considerable immigration. The current political muscle flexing around immigration therefore primarily serves to give the public the appearance of control.

Besides potentially damaging for social cohesion, there is also evidence that all the muscle flexing on immigration is rather ineffective. A study by Amber Jane Davis showed that such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

*Source: Massey, D. S., et al. (1998). Worlds in motion: Understanding international migration at the end of the millennium. Oxford, Clarendon Press, p.288