Integration, integration, integration – the fundamental missing from Britain’s immigration policy

Britain will be a land of high immigration for years to come. We need to start making the best of it.

Phoebe Griffith
2 November 2015

Yarl's Wood protest. Flickr/iDJ Photography

, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For the past five years, immigration policy has been dictated by a blind faith in government’s ability to bring down net migration. Record net migration figures have proved this to be short sighted and have exposed a fundamental gap in the government’s strategy: integration. 

Despite Theresa May’s stated concerns about social cohesion, for the past 5 years the prevalent view at the Home Office has been that government has no role to play in aiding the integration of migrants because a tighter and more selective system will ensure that only those likely to integrate enter the UK in the first place.

...for the past 5 years the prevalent view at the Home Office has been that government has no role to play in aiding the integration of migrants...Built into the current system is the principle that ‘coming to the UK should not mean staying in the UK’. International students are no longer allowed to work after they complete their degrees. Life has been made increasingly difficult for non-EU migrants who want to be reunited with their families. Those applying for citizenship are viewed with suspicion, have to pass increasingly demanding tests and fork out almost £1000 (the highest fees in the developed world).

These reforms have had a significant impact. In 2014 the number of UK naturalisations fell by a staggering 40%. Family reunion has also decreased markedly, and the average length of visas has also contracted. In the context of record migration it is easy to conclude that more people are coming but for shorter periods (or potentially overstaying, although this is hard to ascertain). In other words, immigration is becoming less settled and more transient.

There are advantages to transient migration. Transience suits many migrants, not least the young workers from southern Europe who account for much of the recent increases in migration. Since the euro crisis they have been attracted by easy access jobs in the UK’s booming and highly deregulated service economy. Cheap air travel and technology means that they have been able to take this decision relatively lightly. Their status as EU citizens means that they can come and go as they please.

This form of migration has also proved an important lifeline for many UK employers. It has greased the wheels of the agribusiness sector in the east of England which is heavily reliant on seasonal workers. In light of a recruitment crisis, the NHS has also become increasingly reliant on agency staff from southern Europe. In addition, many working families have become increasingly reliant on the growing army of au pairs who arrive to the UK.

But transience also has costs. It brings considerable costs for public services. For example, schools where there is a high turnover of people will have to make investments for children to catch up, often only to see them leave once these efforts have started to pay dividends. It also feeds exploitative practices among employers and landlords.

Our research in four cities in the UK shows that transience is also deeply unsettling for communities. The people we spoke to shared many similar concerns: migrants were “removed”, “came and went”, didn’t “take part”. Their views echoed findings of opinion polls that suggest that there is a deeply entrenched public antipathy towards temporary migration (as well as greater openness towards migrants who opt for citizenship).

The UK’s current approach stands in marked contrast to that of other countries. For instance, the Swedish government recently decreased fees for family reunification on the basis that separating families deterred integration. Following years of debate, Germany is also grappling with the anachronisms of its citizenship system in order to encourage people to integrate (since last year all German-born people can retain dual nationality). Many cities – from Stuttgart in Germany to Dayton in Ohio – are launching ambitious programmes aimed not just at attracting migrants but also at encouraging them to settle (from naturalisation drives run out of public libraries to incentives programmes aimed at getting international students to lay down roots once they have completed their degrees).

Most notable is Canada, a high migration country and also one of the most cohesive societies in the developed world. Canada has historically favoured long-term settlement over temporary migration and placed considerable value in the naturalisation process. Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has pledged a number of reforms aimed at further encouraging citizenship acquisition and settlement: new citizens will be offered, among other things, free access to Canada’s vast network of national parks. International students will also be awarded credits to encourage them to stay and naturalise.

Our research in four cities in the UK shows that transience is also deeply unsettling for communities.Integration is a complex process. There is no single policy which can guarantee it. However, in the pursuit of a narrow net migration target the government is both placing obstacles in the way of migrants and putting additional pressures on communities. In our report, Trajectory and Transience, we call for immigration policy to be ‘integration-proofed’. This means assessing reforms not just on the basis of their likely impact on the net migration target, but also based on how they will affect the behaviours of migrants and impact on communities.

For example, naturalisation should be treated as a meaningful process that is encouraged. We argue that migrants (EU and non-EU) who have been in the UK for over 5 years should be put on an automatic path to citizenship (with the option to opt out). Once they are on this path, migrants should be encouraged to take active steps to become involved in their community (something which the current Life in the UK test fails to do). Citizenship ceremonies should be treated as celebrations of local life which take place at the heart of the community and are open to all.

Our rules which forbid international students to work after graduation also need to be revisited. Universities have argued that these reforms have harmed their competitiveness in the international market for the best students. However, the repercussions of this policy go further. Residents of university towns now have little to gain from having a highly transient population of students. And international students are also less likely to want to integrate given that their days in the UK are numbered.

Conversely, leaving scope for students to remain for a few years presents many opportunities for local areas to really tap into that resource. In view of the fact that universities would be the main beneficiaries of such reforms, they should be required to take active steps to encourage international students to take part in local community life, and to ensure that local communities benefit tangibly from the considerable investments that universities are making to cater for fee-paying students from abroad.

One of the lessons from the past five years is that – whether you like it or not – the UK is likely to see historically high rates of migration. Rather than living in denial of this reality, a far greater policy effort should be made to ensure that we reap the benefits and minimise the downsides of migration. Ensuring that people who come settle and integrate should be the priority.


Phoebe Griffith is an associate director at the IPPR and research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

The report 'Trajectory and transience: Understanding and addressing the pressures of migration on communities' was produced by IPPR in association with the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

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