Can migration work for Britain? Not like this

Government policy of 'managed migration' has backfired and produced public mistrust related to a vicious circle, of the assurance of control and the reality of failure. With the major parties set to continue this system, Ruth Grove White argues that there is ample scope to challenge the principles behind managed migration. We just need to be brave enough to make the case.
Ruth Grove-White
17 March 2010
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In the run-up to the 2010 general election, supporters of a progressive approach towards immigration have good reason to feel isolated. After ten years of reinventing the UK immigration system, New Labour’s project has misfired, producing rising public suspicion about the arrival of migrants in the UK and driving ever more aggressively control-oriented policies. Parties of all colours are now jostling for position over who can be the ‘toughest’ on those people coming to live and work in the UK.

Arguments for a more progressive government agenda which is honest about the benefits of migration and based on the principles of social justice seem to have dropped to a whisper. And the perspectives and experiences of the migrants who are affected by policy changes – which should be central to this debate – are all too often missing.

But those working for policies which are more firmly rooted in a rights-based approach to migration should avoid despair. Whoever forms the next government after June will be under pressure to develop a longer-term strategy which can ease tensions as well as manage the movement of people with a higher degree of efficiency. In order to find a way forward, we will need to mount a critique of managed migration that can make the case more effectively.

There is plenty to get our teeth into here, if only the arguments can be mobilised. Strong positions have rightly been developed about the human rights issues arising from the UK’s asylum and detention systems. But we have not yet developed an argument rooted in a more fundamental critique of managed migration and its impacts on migrants’ lives. To challenge the wider policy agenda, we will need to pick apart the thinking behind it.

In the course of trying to mend the immigration system, the current government has backed itself into a corner at speed. Development of ‘managed migration’ – the flagship reform of the immigration system – was, from 2002, Labour’s attempt to recast immigration control into more palatable form at a time when public opinions were in disarray. Development of substantial changes to economic migration policy through the roll-out of the Points Based System, tightening up of asylum procedures and reworking the naturalization route all emerged as key changes. The cornerstone of ‘managed migration’ is a top-heavy enforcement system, with high penalties for migrants who fall foul of the rules.

The thinking behind this approach was that public trust in immigration management would be bolstered by Labour’s promise of a ‘tough’ approach towards migrants. But the effect of this seems to have been the opposite. The government’s reliance on its enforcement agenda, and on rhetoric playing into public fears about immigration, has backfired. Although in 2008 net migration was down by 30% from the previous year, the latest Department for Communities and Local Government Citizenship Survey released in late January shows us that the British public is still entrenched in a deep skepticism about immigration management, and hostility towards migrants and asylum seekers.

Public mistrust is related to a vicious circle, of the assurance of control and the reality of failure. Each press release about the ‘success’ of a raid by immigration officials on another workplace found to be employing people without the proper papers reinforces the public’s sense that the government has no grasp on the issue. Suspicions are not limited to the government: counter-arguments that the immigration system has high human costs are often dismissed by the public as legitimate side-effects of an effective system. Ultimately, the collective imagination risks becoming desensitized to the real suffering of destitute asylum seekers or the long-term detention of migrants.

To have a wider impact, our arguments must focus on the core misconceptions which lie behind managed migration. Firstly, the notion that migration can be micro-managed to the extent claimed by government has never been possible, and particularly not for a country which is a member of the European Union. Expansion of EU member states has put paid to that, with around half of all people entering the UK in 2007 enabled by freedom of movement rights or British nationality. The government control afforded by the Points Based System is also limited: from the two million visas issued for entry into the UK during 2008-9, just 17% were for people applying to work or study here. This was primarily made up by people driving the UK’s prized ‘knowledge economy’ such as foreign students, highly skilled migrants and people transferred within international businesses.

A further misconception underlying the system is that the UK needs migrants only for ‘skilled’ occupations. Although the UK has the right to control access to its labour markets for non-EEA migrants, their contributions are needed across the economy. By designating workers in sectors from catering, healthcare, hospitality and cleaning as ‘low-skilled’ and therefore not eligible for entry or extension of their stay in the UK, the government belittles their essential contribution towards providing the cheap goods and services that UK society has become accustomed to. The likely outcome is a growing number of undocumented migrants who find that although status is denied, their work is still required.

Central to managed migration has been an aggressive narrative about the primacy of enforcement. New Labour intends to develop the eyes and ears of immigration control widely, touting its ability to detect and remove those migrants bringing ‘harm’ to the UK. Employers have found themselves co-opted into the business of immigration enforcement, through stringent regulations that even their architect Attorney General Baroness Scotland has fallen foul of. Local authorities, social services and Primary Care Trusts are increasingly finding themselves expected to play a role in policing immigrants in the UK.

Designed to bolster public faith in the government’s capacity to control, and ultimately reduce, immigration to the UK, managed migration rests on a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. The government’s rapid expansion of the UK’s detention estate accommodates the ‘bad migrants’ destined for removal from the UK – many of whom have committed the ‘crime’ of working for low wages to keep the UK’s supermarket shelves stocked and trains cleaned. It is impossible to monitor migrants in the way that the current government envisages without measures with implications for all residents of the UK – migrant or not. State measures affecting the wider population which have come under fire, such as detention without charge, ID cards and data-sharing between enforcement agencies, are all now being rolled out for migrants in the UK, with impacts likely for everyone.

So how can we effectively make the argument for a better way forward? There should be no expectation that any of the political parties will associate themselves with progressive criticisms of the current policy, particularly not in the run-up to the general election. The key parties have already staked out their virtually interchangeable positions, which cluster behind the principles of managed migration.

Instead, progressives should prepare to mobilize critique and opposition from other quarters. The next government will have to contend with rising levels of resentment among migrant communities who find the costs of coming and staying in the UK starting to outweigh the benefits. Systematic cuts to the ways that migrants can address perceived wrongs – such as lodging appeals against immigration decisions, accessing legal aid, and securing financial support for community organizations – risk isolating communities further. The effects are likely to be felt through the mobilization of migrant groups around a common sense of injustice and these critiques should be at the centre of the progressive argument.

We should also look for support from those required to police immigration inside the country – those people providing public services and support who are increasingly finding themselves trapped between pressure from the UK Border Agency and their desire to provide support to those who need it. Challenges to overarching government statements are also likely to come from within the research community, whose work regularly unpacks the nuanced experiences associated with immigration.

In fact, there is ample scope for challenges to be mounted, and the ‘rational debates’ that politicians are fond of calling for, to be developed and aired. We just need to be brave enough to make the case.

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