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The case for treating migrants well is about much more than the economy

The government has been hiding evidence that immigration costs jobs. It doesn't, but those who want to defend migrants shouldn't be distracted by such arguments - the case for allowing people to move is about much more than economics.

Alex Randall
7 March 2014
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image, Flickr/Malias

The government has been pushing a lie about the link between migration and unemployment. We've been told that for every 100 new migrants who arrive, 23 Brits end up on the dole. This turns out to be rubbish. The government knew it was rubbish every time they repeated it, but kept repeating it anyway. It was a great mantra for anyone who didn't like immigrants. This "fact" was a stick with which to beat anyone who made the case for freer movement and more humane immigration policy. This "fact" meant accusations of elitism could be easily flung. If you supported migrants, it it was easy to paint you as hating ordinary working Brits.

For a number of months the government has been sitting on a report that shows this 100 migrants = 23 jobseekers myth to be rubbish. The report reaches this conclusion by assessing all the available research from 2003 onwards. The government have been embarrassingly forced into admitting that the report exists, and snuck it out yesterday.

This 23 migrants = 100 jobs seekers "fact" provided cover for thinly disguised racism in British politics. Every political party (except UKIP) has just about got the hang of not being racist in public. This leaves the racists in politics with a problem. Either face the sack, or find away of perpetuating racist policies and attitudes without resorting to racial slurs or overtly racists statements. Economic arguments against immigration where exactly what they needed. And one as stark as '100 migrants = 23 British jobseekers' was a gift. Politicians could make the case for tightening border controls. They could make the case for marginalising and punishing migrants by denying people housing and health care based on their immigration status. Oh, but I'm not a racist. Of course not. I'm just looking out for the jobs of ordinary working Brits.

Meanwhile many intelligent and dedicated campaigners were forced to spent huge amounts of effort trying to take apart these dubious “facts” about immigration and employment. Many people I know went to great lengths debunking these arguments. But all along the people in government who used them knew they were lies. This was a very clever way of wasting the time and resources of people who disagreed with them. Trying to debunk these economic arguments sucked time and energy away from (for example) defending cuts in legal aid, campaigning for fairer access to housing or campaigning against forcing some migrants to pay for NHS services. This lie was also a huge exercise in distraction.

There is no point in arguing about facts with people who don't care about the truth.

Perhaps the answer is not to focus on economic arguments about immigration. It is often possible to find two reputable economists supporting entirely opposing policies. Or even one economist who can produce evidence to support two opposing positions. This lead Winston Churchill to demand that someone find him a “one handed economist”. Several studies have reached different conclusions about the the impact of migration on employment, often using the same data. This combined with the fact that the government seem to happy to act deceptively makes me wonder about the wisdom of engaging in economic arguments about immigration at all.

The problem with economic arguments about migration is that it suggests someone's worth rests solely on their impact on the economy. If we can prove that the impact of migration on the economy is positive then migration is positive. But if we can't make this economic case then suddenly tightening border controls and restricting access to housing and healthcare becomes acceptable. This is a dangerous place to be. It's also a strange way to make the case for immigration. We don't, for example, make the case for humane and respectful care for the elderly because old people might be able to supercharge the economy. We don't make the case for decent services for people with disabilities because it might be good for economic growth.

Making the case for immigration on other non-economic grounds could be far more powerful. We could argue that we would all like to live in world where people can seek a better life by moving. And that when people do this they are treated humanly and fairly where ever they go. Not because they will help boost the economy, but simply because they are humans. Similarly, we should make the case for a world where people fleeing torture, repression and human rights violations can seek refuge in other countries. Not because refugees might help the economy but because this is something we are committed to under international law. And because this is the kind of thing that one group of people should do for another group of people who desperately need it.

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