UK speaks with two different voices on migration
The headline “Welcome to the UK” was recently splashed across the front of a national newspaper, accompanied by a close-up photo of young children gazing out from behind metal fencing. This does not make comfortable reading for any country. New arrivals to the UK face a dire situation, in addition to the plan to send migrants to Rwanda, but this does not seem to put off more from trying, by legal or illegal means, to come to the country. Children in these “processing camps” have been chanting “freedom” to bring the attention of the public to their dangerously overcrowded conditions at a disused military airfield, which has been used as a holding station for those who arrive on British shores in small boats.
The center in Kent, in the southeast of England, was designed as a short-term housing facility for 1,600 newcomers, but until recently 4,000 had regularly been staying there, while being subjected to prison-like conditions, poor hygiene and outbreaks of scabies, diphtheria and other diseases.
Despite many Britons having voted to leave the EU six years ago on the premise that it would reduce immigration levels, figures published last week showed that net migration was more than 500,000 in the 12 months to June, up by 331,000 on the previous year. But still the country needs more, according to economists.
Brexit, we were told, would also be a conduit to shutting the door in the face of so-called bogus asylum claimants and unskilled economic migrants, who would make way for highly skilled, highly paid new arrivals worthy of the “Singapore-on-Thames” idea that the British public was sold in the build-up to the 2016 referendum. It is often claimed that asylum seekers and migrants come to the UK to milk the benefits system that is funded by taxpayers.
Two years after the Brexit implementation agreement came into effect, however, a different reality has emerged. The UK is desperate for organized migration, as it seems to be lacking all types of workers, both skilled and unskilled, from doctors, nurses and academic staff to train and truck drivers, hospitality workers and even seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers.
It is not new in the UK that the question of immigration is a political football kicked about by all political parties whenever it suits their interests. It is also not new that the UK is a country made up of immigrants, with the number of migrants ebbing and flowing depending on the economic needs of the day. Or that economic migrants, asylum seekers and those relocating for a better future and a life away from conflicts see the UK as a prime destination simply due to its language.
Sons and daughters of the long-lost British Empire also continue to have an affinity with their historic master and its islands, as they yearn for a more prosperous future than the one afforded them by their native countries. Even if a minority of those seeking to come to the UK are driven by a grudge due to the fact Britain once dominated their native lands and exploited them, they still feel it is their legitimate right to come and claim back some of what they believe they have lost historically. But what is also not new is the knowledge that modern Britain has never been a place where making ends meet is easy for old and new arrivals alike. It is a highly competitive, highly taxed economy with ever-dwindling social support services for its population.
Britain has traditionally been a haven for people fleeing persecution and oppression, but its immigration and asylum system and its processing mechanisms have been under severe strain, especially in the last decade due to the government’s austerity measures.
The country’s treatment of migrants has even attracted criticism from the UN, particularly for its detention centers, its policy to transfer claimants to be processed in Rwanda, and the recent drying-up of charitable and legal aid funds that used to ensure asylum and migration applicants had legal representation.
In addition, the government’s messaging that the country is witnessing an “invasion” of men, women and children in small boats adds to a hostile environment that has been brewing against migrants and asylum seekers for years.
The irony, though, is that the UK today is speaking with two separate voices. The first is that of the right-wing populists, including pro-Brexit members of the Conservative Party, that Britain has had enough and therefore the government has been introducing draconian measures, even if these lack a long-term vision regarding the country’s economic needs and even if they fail to stand up to the test of legal challenges in the courts.
The country is desperate for organized migration, as it seems to be lacking all types of workers, both skilled and unskilled.
Parallel to that, we have been hearing every day from the leaders of industry and trusted economic watchdogs that for “growth Britain” to emerge, we will need more migrants — more bus drivers, more nurses, more of everything, to the point that many who voted to leave the EU are suddenly questioning the validity of leaving, according to recent polls. It is as if the nation and its people, but especially its ruling Conservative Party, have scored an own goal, cutting the country off from its closest market, not just for the free flow of goods, but also the free flow of the workers it needs.
The country needs to overhaul its migration laws so that they, on the one hand, serve as a deterrent for migrants arriving illegally and, on the other hand, simplify the stringent and complex immigration system so that it meets the challenges of the emerging worker shortages across the UK and its various sectors. Maybe the UK also needs to revisit the whole philosophy that led to Brexit, since leaving the EU has denied the country and its economy access to the flexible labor market on its doorstep, which it could tap instead of having to import nurses from the Philippines, Indonesia or beyond.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.