The American poet Robert Frost said it about walls and the way the forces of nature do their best to pull them down. After the dismal report of the Home Affairs Committee on the underperformance of the UKBA earlier this week, it seems like we could say pretty much the same thing about borders...
When something breaks down and all your efforts to fix it only seem to make it worse, sooner or later you’ve got to admit it’s junk and it’s time to dump it.
The news that the UKBA has accumulated 275,000 refused applications for which they don’t have a clue whether the person concerned is still here or has left the country surely ought to be the point at which we begin to ask some fundamental questions as to whether the business of managing movement across borders is really worth a candle after all.
Assuming that all these of people are still in the country, and let’s say they added to the possible 5 - 700,000 which was cited in a report the LSE compiled for the Mayor of London in 2009 as the size of the UK's irregular migrant population in 2007 - then you are left with some very big figures indeed and evidence of a lot of failure on the part of immigration control systems.
Given the lack of clear evidence on the claimed harm done by people in this group then we have to presume that possession of a legal residence status is not the be-all and end-all of the practical business of integrating into life in the UK.
It is probably a cramped and constrained sort of existence, mainly in low-paid jobs and avoiding as much as possible contact with social welfare and any other sort of authority, but it is also a long way from being the shadowy, crime-ridden world of the ‘illegal’ as well.
In the usual language of such reports, the Home Affairs Committee wants the UKBA to 'do more to enforce controls and ensure that people are deported when their legal residence comes to an end'.
Hold back the grey
However, there are some cures that are worse than the disease the patient is alleged to be suffering from. Another report from the Office of National Statistics, based on the findings of the 2011 census, finds that the surge in immigration numbers over the decade since 2001 has helped the UK address some of the problems associated with populations with ageing demographic profiles.
The migration of mainly young people to the UK, together with the greater propensity of new migrants to have more children in their families, is helping to slow the growth in the median age of the UK population and allow it to be kept at its current age of 39 years. Compare this to more rapidly greying Germany, where the median age is an alarming 45 and with Italy only slightly less so at 43.5 years.
These are important statistics, because ageing populations require higher GDP growth rates simply to maintain living standards at a steady level, with older people tending to consume a larger share of public services. This can be compensated for by an increase in the population of economically active young people which, across Europe, has come mainly in the form of migration.
So, over time, we see inexorable tendencies: for immigration systems to operate with less efficiency; for even irregular migrants to be absorbed into productive activity in the economy; innovation coming from the cross-border networks which are built up by people on the move; and finally, the sheer strength of the growing range of interests - such as employers, consumers, people providing services to migrants, migrants themselves - which work to sustain the movement of people flowing across borders.
An example of the latter was reported in the news yesterday, when the Intercontinental Hotels Group and the Tourism Alliance called on the government to cut back on the red tape of visitor visas, or continue to see further slumps in trade, particularly involving groups like the Chinese, whose volume of travel to the UK has fallen by 60% in the last decade.
Perfect storm ahead
This amounts to an almost perfect storm brewing against the way heavy-handed immigration controls are imposed in the UK, with very little regard for the rights of the people concerned. The killer fact is that, as the Home Affairs Committee review of the failings shows, the system is not even working by any of the criteria it sets for itself.
there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Substitute ‘border’ for the final word in the first line, and you get a sense of all the things out there in the real world which conspire to “spill the upper boulders” of immigration control, and allow us all more freedom to pass two, or even more, abreast.
This piece was originally published here, and has been re-posted with the kind permission of the author.