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UK in denial over half million illegal migrants

Jonny Medland Alasdair Murray
24 July 2008

Alasdair Murray and Jonny Medland (London, CentreForum): CentreForum this week published a pamphlet which laments the lack of debate about measures to combat illegal migration in the UK. Authors Demetrios Papademetriou and Will Somerville of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute argue that, in comparison with other developed countries, the UK appears stuck in a state of denial about the scale and intractability of the problem. They propose a carefully crafted earned amnesty programme - which in conjunction with better use of other migration policy tools including enforcement - might just offer a way out of the political impasse.  

As if to prove the authors' point, the reaction to the proposals has been depressingly dismissive. Andrew Green of MigrationWatch described the plan as ‘lunatic' - without showing any sign of having actually read the report. The immigration minister Liam Byrne and Shadow attorney general Dominic Grieve also weighed into the debate, both insisting that an earned amnesty would never happen on their watch. More poignantly, the press coverage also prompted a series of phone calls to CentreForum's offices from illegal immigrants who, misunderstanding the hypothetical nature of the proposals, wanted to know if they could register for the amnesty. 

The report makes clear why this short-sighted politics needs to change. No government will countenance the huge political, social and financial costs of seeking to expel an estimated 500,000 people. The claim from both main parties that they would never offer amnesties is also a fiction. Britain has long undertaken de facto regularisations of illegal immigrants - somewhere in the region 60,000 to 100,000 people have being regularised in the last 11 years alone.  

The authors build a pragmatic case for a transparent earned amnesty for some of the UK's existing illegal immigrant population. An earned amnesty would have major security benefits by substantially reducing the number of ‘unknowns' in the population - an argument that has been particularly important in the US debate (both Presidential candidates have at various points in their careers endorsed an amnesty policy). An earned amnesty would also have fiscal benefits by increasing the size of the legitimate economy. The scheme itself could be self-financing - the report suggests a fee of £5,000 for applicants who complete the process. The actual criteria for earning amnesty could be based upon factors including working, paying taxes, learning the language and making a contribution to the communities in which the illegal immigrants in question lived - and certainly not the payment of the fee as the overhasty critics above have suggested. 

The main stumbling block remains the moral hazard argument - that an amnesty would only encourage more illegals to come to the country in the hope of a further regularisation process in the future. The authors acknowledge that there is some evidence from the US that amnesties can encourage further migration. However, they argue that other factors such as existing family ties and the strength of the economy are much stronger pull factors. Moreover, a well-constructed amnesty policy should run in tandem with better enforcement to help prevent future large flows - such as the much flagged introduction of biometric visas. At the very least, British politics needs to start a serious debate about the costs and benefits of tackling illegal immigration - and we hope that this report can make a contribution to that goal. 

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