May is all soundbite and no substance on immigration

May is all soundbite and no substance on immigration
Comment: The upcoming UK election and Brexit negotiations are an opportunity to drastically change our broken immigration system, for an approach that is evidence-based, compassionate and optimistic, writes Zoe Gardner.
8 min read
01 Jun, 2017
Our current, bloated system is wasteful both of money and human potential, writes Gardner [AFP]

In the run up to the UK election on 8 June, the Conservative manifesto makes much of the government's pledge to drastically cut net immigration to the UK to under 100,000.

It is, however, strikingly lacking in detail on how this could feasibly be achieved, and crucially at what cost.

Wisely, neither of the other two major parties prioritise a reduction in the rate of immigration, correctly arguing that such an approach would be unfeasible and damaging to the economy. However, while the Liberal Democrats seek, more or less, a continuation of the status quo, maintaining free movement is off the cards for Labour too. They, however, also fail to provide any particularly convincing (or costed) proposals for an alternative system to bring in the migrants our country needs.

Implementing a new visa system, seasonal workers scheme, or sector-specific quotas to replace free movement, all of which have been vaguely floated by the Tories and Labour, would imply massive bureaucratic and administrative costs to a Home Office hardly famed for its efficient handling of its existing workload.

An overhaul of our arcane and convoluted visas and immigration system would be welcome regardless, and obviously necessary with the end of free movement, but neither of the main parties appears willing to commit the research and resources necessary to achieve it.

Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of immigration enforcement does not take place at the UK's borders, but rather in our communities, workplaces and schools. More and more teachers, NHS workers and landlords face requirements to check their pupils', tenants' and patients' immigration status.

Immigration raids divide communities and tear families apart, detention and deportation are costly and inefficient, but all of these would need to be drastically ramped up to substantially reduce immigration.

Immigration raids divide communities and tear families apart

And to what purpose? Reducing immigration in this way will make all of us poorer; that is a fact. I won't rehearse at length the well-known, evidence-backed arguments, but briefly: Relatively younger immigrants make a net contribution in taxes that support our public services and balance our working-age population with pensioners; also, diversity in our workforce stimulates creativity and increases productivity.

Given that on 9 June, we'll almost certainly have either a Conservative or Labour government, it looks likely that free movement will end - the political imperative of "control" outweighing concerns that this is bound to create a less effective system.

While immigrants in general make a net contribution to public finances, studies show EU migrants bring in significantly the most cash. This is not because Europeans are more skilled or more productive workers, it is because of the flexibility of free movement.

The ability to move around between countries while maintaining your rights allows people to go to where they have the best jobs and opportunities. Being able to hire EU migrants without paying the thousands of pounds in fees (that the Tories plan to increase yet further) necessary to employ a non-EU migrant, means businesses can hire who they need to grow without impediment.

By reducing the rights of EU migrants to live and work here free from bureaucracy, we limit the flexibility and productivity of our labour market. 

Diversity in our workforce stimulates creativity and increases productivity

Economics aside, there are fundamental questions of fairness at stake. It is widely accepted that EU migrants (including those in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU) should be allowed to stay. Indeed, this was a commitment put forward by those campaigning to leave the EU, but it is not as simple as it sounds.

The EU's starting point for the Brexit negotiations is that all EU migrants should retain exactly the same rights as they currently enjoy. Crucially, this is not only the right to stay, but the rights, among others, to be free from discrimination, and to claim healthcare and pensions.

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Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the nationalist parties have all agreed to this principle, their leaders endorsing the Home Is Here campaign, for example, while the Conservatives and UKIP prevaricate. If the Conservatives do propose to strip migrants (including, again, Brits across Europe) of some of their acquired rights, they do not seem to be entirely clear on which ones.

Conflicting statements from ministers paint a picture of confusion, another area where the government is all soundbite and no substance. 

The few concrete measures that have been proposed by the Tories take aim at groups of migrants whose presence in the UK is, by-and-large "supported" by the public. A proposal to increase the minimum income threshold beneath which British people who fall in love with a foreigner cannot bring their family to the UK to live with them is shocking, given that a recent legal challenge found that the current rate was already arbitrarily high.

This heartache is unique to British citizens: Across the rest of the EU, a citizens' right to live with their spouse is a given

Placing an income limit on people living with their families and spouses results in British children forced to grow up apart from their parents. This heartache is unique to British citizens: across the rest of the EU, a citizens' right to live with their spouse is a given, and not subject to the size of their pay packet.

International students also come under the Conservative line of fire, with pledges to reduce their numbers, and enforce stricter rules on their options to remain in the country after graduating. Pursuing graduates seems an absurd measure from a government wishing to retain the highly skilled immigrants we need, but it will be necessary if it's to have a hope of hitting its migration target.

Herein lies the rub when the xenophobic press leads government immigration policy by the nose: We are told that immigrants are benefits scroungers, cheating the system and stealing our jobs, and so numbers must be reduced. But such a tiny proportion of immigrants really do fit that stereotype, that if you're actually serious about reducing their numbers, you have to go after highly qualified, hardworking and honest people. That's who immigrants really are.

If you're actually serious about reducing their numbers, you have to go after highly qualified, hardworking and honest people

Finally, an important element of the migration debate, which has been almost completely ignored since the referendum and in this election campaign, is refugee policy. While their plight has slipped off the front pages, asylum seekers continue to suffer across Europe and in the UK from the government's failure to honour its humanitarian obligations.

Over the past year, the number of asylum seekers waiting longer than six months for an initial decision on their case (the government's target) has risen by 72 percent. While they await a decision, asylum seekers can neither work nor study, and are forced to live in poverty.

While their plight has slipped off the front pages, asylum seekers continue to suffer across Europe and in the UK

This bloated system is wasteful both of money and human potential, as traumatised survivors of war and torture languish in limbo, denied the opportunity to be productive, or to settle into safe new lives.

Not only this, but a large proportion of initial asylum refusals are overturned on appeal, meaning people in genuine need of protection stay longer in the system while the government drags them through the courts at the taxpayer's expense.

Better, more efficient decisions could be achieved by implementing the evidence-based recommendations of asylum legal practitioners' organisations, such as Asylum Aid, but this government has made clear it has little regard for the experts.

This is another area where 'taking back control' from the EU may in fact imply losing a significant amount of influence

Given that most of our asylum legislation comes from the EU, it represents yet another complex area of law that will need to be revisited in its entirety with Brexit. Neither the Conservative nor the Labour manifestos address this seriously, aside from a vague promise from Labour to review current policies. In fact, this is another area where "taking back control" from the EU may in fact imply losing a significant amount of influence.

The UK relies on the EU's Dublin Regulation to return asylum seekers who have transited other European countries on route to us. We also have a bilateral agreement with France that allows us to conduct border controls in Calais, preventing the onward movement of asylum seekers aiming to reach the UK before they cross the Channel.

EU countries will not accept to continue with such arrangements unless we are able to offer them something in return. The likelihood is that in return for being able to continue sending back refugees who make undocumented journeys to the UK, we will have to take on our share of responsibility for people stranded in poorer European countries such as Greece.

The reason the UK has not had to participate in relocation schemes to date is that we have an opt-out from European Home Affairs law. It is no small irony that leaving the EU may be the reason we are forced to participate in such policies (without, of course, the seat at the table to shape them).

In conclusion, there has been a serious lack of scrutiny or detail demanded of broad statements made by the government and the opposition regarding their plans for post-Brexit migration policy. With such a wide range of important issues at stake, this is irresponsible and puts our economic wellbeing, as well as our moral standing at risk.

Our current system fails on its own terms, and on those of any basic metric of humanity, inclusivity and forward-thinking. This election and Brexit are an opportunity to drastically change our current approach for one that is evidence-based, compassionate and optimistic, but for this to happen we need far more rigour, and less rhetoric.

Zoe Gardner is former Communications Officer at Asylum Aid. She is a passionate campaigner for refugee and migrants’ rights with a particular interest in feminism and the needs of women on the move.

Follow her on Twitter: @ZoeJardiniere

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.