Please, not again!

Tom Bentley
11 February 2005

“Finally Blair acts. No skills. No English. NO ENTRY.”

This is how the front page of Britain’s leading tabloid newspaper, the Sun, greeted the Blair government’s latest proposals for controlling immigration and asylum. Barely a week before, the Conservative opposition, led by Michael Howard, had launched a policy demanding strict quotas on newcomers. According to opinion polls, immigration is perhaps the only issue on which Howard’s stand is clearly more popular than Blair’s.

Here we go again. It’s not just in the United Kingdom. “Tough” approaches that mean greater “control” of the flow of migrants, with all the racist overtones, is proving popular across Europe. Now, in pre-election Britain, both main parties are colluding in a myth which exploits the fears of many voters, but which will do little in the end to allay them.

What is especially pathetic, not to say disappointing, about this, is that we saw it coming, we laid out the argument about what to do, and it seems to have had less impact than blowing in the wind.

So there are two issues: one is a true question of what is best done with respect to migration; the second is what needs to be done to increase the level of public debate and understanding and secure the nerve of politicians and press.

People Flow: managing migration in a new European Commonwealth (2003) is published by Demos.

openDemocracy’s debate (April 2003-March 2004) – with contributions from Italy, Hungary, Greece, Bosnia, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands – is here

In 2003 Demos and openDemocracy jointly published People Flow. Its research was based on two years of careful work, guided by the thinking and practical experience of Theo Veenkamp, the head of strategy in Holland’s Ministry of Justice, who earlier had been in charge of his country’s asylum programme and found himself forced to think through the issues from first principles.

Our pamphlet argued that only a fundamental redesign of the approach to managing migration could succeed in meeting Europe’s future needs. Our starting point was simple, even obvious. First, higher levels of migration are here to stay. They are a fact of life in the modern world. Second, it is therefore essential to shift the whole perception of it from being one of “crisis” management to being part of what is normal.

This, we argued, must be the starting point for breaking criminal exploitation – illegal labour, people smuggling, and false asylum claims. It sparked a wide-ranging international dialogue, both through openDemocracy’s online exchange and through policy debate in several countries. But its basic insight – that a balanced approach to the issue will have to recognise that traditional forms of control are no longer viable as a solution – is still being ignored.

Tony Blair has highlighted the need to prevent the “abuse” of the system as being a priority. He has done so in the face of populist electoral pressure. Of course, abuse is a key problem. Not least, it undermines people’s acceptance of the legitimacy of legal migration. The paradox is that in terms of significant policy details, the British government has learnt from the arguments and change of thinking which our pamphlet was part of and contributed to. The United Kingdom does indeed now seek to “manage” migration as something that is permanent and ongoing.

In terms of public opinion, however, it has not confronted the core issue or attempted to shift the ground. That’s why we called for renaming migration as “people flow” – as the sort of thing which all of us are involved with, as we move between city, suburb and countryside, as well as across international borders.

Now, however, on the brink of a British general-election campaign where both Labour government and Conservative opposition are seeking to use the issue for political advantage, any such long-term thinking is sacrificed to short-term calculation.

The Conservatives, desperate to dent Labour’s dominance, are exploiting negative perceptions of Labour’s record on immigration, and have promised to fix the number of admissions and even renegotiate the 1951 Geneva Convention, which sets out international rules for the treatment of refugees.

Labour used the occasion of the publication of a five-year departmental strategy to unveil a new line. This declares that the government is “toughening” its stance on who is allowed to enter the United Kingdom, and on what happens to failed asylum-seekers and others who outstay their permission to remain. Despite the strategic context, this “tough” message was designed to have an immediate impact on public perceptions.

Tony Blair argues that people’s concerns about immigration, legal and illegal, have grown markedly in recent years. This is true, and the pattern can be found across Europe. He argues that this growing anxiety demands a response from any government that wants to command the centre-ground of politics.

But this does not justify a response that promises to “overhaul”, “tighten up”, and “get tough” – phrases now routinely used in relation to the immigration system. The truth is that Britain’s approach to immigration (and indeed much of Europe’s) needs a deeper rethink, and that the form of control over which the parties are now competing is not attainable. Meanwhile, public and media debate is organised in ways that directly and indirectly stoke fears and misperceptions, but do not take us towards a solution.

The rethink is needed for three reasons:

  1. Because we live in an open world, in which the movement of money, goods, information and – yes – people, is growing as connections between different parts of the world continue to deepen through globalisation
  2. Because the flow of people, the vast majority of it temporary, meaning people come and go if they can, is growing, and as transport and communication costs fall, such people flows will increase
  3. Because the price of sealing European economies off from this exposure to the wider world would be a double loss – of prosperity, and of the democracy and freedom we urge on other societies.

The experience of Britain’s European partners indicates the dangers both of ignoring and of over-simplifying the issue. The Netherlands is struggling with an ugly upsurge of racial tension, reflected in two recent political murders: of the charismatic former professor Pim Fortuyn, who launched his own party on an anti-immigrant platform during the 2002 election campaign, and of the provocative filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Both had singled out Islam for special criticism. The centre-right government there is imposing a range of measures, including language tests for new immigrants and restrictions on Muslim imams entering the country.

In Denmark, centre-right prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen just won re-election partly on the grounds of his advocacy of curbs on immigration and restrictions on those allowed to settle. He seems to have used this focus on migrants as a proxy for more difficult social and economic issues that Scandinavians will find hard to confront, including the long-term sustainability of their welfare systems.

Also by Tom Bentley in openDemocracy:

“Coming or going? NGOs in the new political landscape” (August 2001)

“The immigration problem” (May 2003)

“Governance as learning: the challenge of democracy” (June 2003)

“Tall tales and home truths” (February 2004)

If you find these articles valuable, please subscribe to openDemocracy for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy-to-read PDFs of all our material.

Such short-term, nation-based solutions often make worse the problems they are designed to solve. For example, the closure of legal routes of migration guarantees a rise in asylum applications and makes it harder to protect refugees; attempts to restrict the movements and freedoms of temporary and seasonal workers create incentives for them to join the illegal economy, which is less visible to the state.

The fact that individual policies can interfere with each other may seem to support the British Labour government’s argument that immigration is a “complex” issue. But the emphasis on complexity can also be an evasion of a core truth: that attempts to establish more detailed control over the movement of individuals are counterproductive if they reduce the incentive to use legitimate and transparent forms of entry.

People Flow argued that modern states need to create simpler categories of entry, and then massively increase the incentives to use them legitimately, while also reducing the benefits to which people would be automatically entitled on arrival in the country. We argued for a graduated programme of becoming a member of society as being in the best interests of immigrants and existing citizens alike.

There are small signs that our long-term, practical project has planted some fragile seeds in Europe’s political soil – including in Labour’s own policy thinking. Now it seems crude electoral calculations have undermined public discourse and the chances of a debate on the long-term needs of Europe’s democracies has been diminished.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData