UK government has no immigration policy but panic attacks
Two of the leading politicians in the current UK government might be expected to be the poster children for the merits of immigration, for the hospitable and welcoming approach to those who choose to tie their destiny to that of the British Isles, and for the extraordinary social mobility of British society. After all, one of them, Rishi Sunak, was born to parents of Indian descent who emigrated to Britain from East Africa, and has become no less than the country’s prime minister; while the other, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has parents of Indian origin who emigrated from Mauritius and Kenya respectively. Sunak’s wife was born in India, and only recently discovered the value of paying UK taxes, and Braverman’s husband, although born in the UK, is Jewish, which make me think that there are also immigrants to be found in his not-too-distant lineage. With these respective backgrounds — and forgive my naivety here — even as Tory politicians they might be expected to be more appreciative of migrants and their contribution to the UK, and show more kindness to those seeking refuge and asylum instead of dispatching them to grim Rwanda after they have struggled to escape war, conflict, natural disasters and destitution. It is not only the anti-migrant policies that Sunak and Braverman are carrying out that baffles me, but their toxic diatribes against people seeking to reach our shores who may one day be as successful as them.
Alas, not only do they refer to immigrants with derision, to say nothing of labelling asylum-seekers as “invaders,” but they have no sensible or realistic approach to the issue. To be sure, the prime minister and his home secretary are not the only ones whose attitude to immigration is driven by a xenophobic gut response rather than a thoughtful one based on facts. Hence, when the Office for National Statistics recently published last year’s net migration figures, which revealed that net migration to the UK has risen from 488,000 in 2021 to 606,000 in 2022, panic spread among the Conservatives. Yet they have no-one but themselves to blame for the dread spread among them by these figures, because they hold the copyright for creating this xenophobic atmosphere that portrays immigration and immigrants as a threat to the country, and for the past 13 years that they have been in power they have repeatedly promised to reduce the figures drastically while repeatedly failing to do so, and by now it is obvious that they have no clue as to how to achieve this goal.
British society is still one of the most tolerant in the world, but the evil spirit of Brexit and the xenophobia it encourages has yet to be expelled
The past 13 years are littered with the broken pledges of successive Conservative administrations, but few of these have caused such an emotive reaction, not even their breaking of the NHS. The issue is not only about the 24 percent increase in net migration since last year, but that levels of migration have doubled since 2018, the year which saw the origins of their 2019 election manifesto pledge to make “overall numbers come down” during the life of this Parliament. This was a modest commitment compared to that of David Cameron’s earlier one, which back in 2010 committed his government to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.”
There is ample evidence of the important contribution by migrants to every walk of life in the UK, but while I do not support Sunak’s and Braverman’s approach this is not to say that there is no need for a sensible and considered approach to immigration, not one that suggests completely open borders, and most definitely not one that hermetically seals the border. Most importantly there is a need for a policy that is based on facts, one that discards anti-migrant sentiment for the sake of advancing political careers or placating certain segments in the media. A good place to start is to break down the figures published by the Office for National Statistics to its component parts. To begin with, migration is a global phenomenon that takes place for an array of reasons, including economic, humanitarian, educational and cultural ones. None of them are recent phenomena in human history and none of them, if handled correctly, need endanger the receiving country. Immigration poses challenges, but the benefits to society and the economy far outweigh the costs. As we might expect, some of the recent increase in newcomers is down to humanitarian reasons, mainly as consequence of the war in Ukraine. This is no different to the situation in other countries, and how long these refugees remain in their host country will depend on how the situation in Ukraine shapes up. Then there are work visas: the increase in numbers of non-EU migrants to the UK is due to Brexit, but much of it is a reflection of structural issues in the British economy, as these are either low-paid jobs that Brits won’t do, or positions for highly skilled professionals, of which there is shortage in the UK, including in health, industry and IT, a situation which requires a long-term rethink of how to close this skill deficit instead of holding the economy back by preventing the necessary workforce from entering the country.
And then there is a highly significant tranche of people arriving on our shores who although classified as migrants come here to study, with a fixed-term permit to stay. This is a population that the UK should be encouraging to come, as they are the bread and butter that sustains a highly rated British academia that is nevertheless deprived of sufficient public funds, and it is estimated that their contribution boosts the UK economy by £41.9 billion annually. In addition, these students, if they stay, contribute to the economy and society, and if they leave they nevertheless remain, through the networks and friendships they forge during their studies, a major source of soft power. Limiting their stay after they finish their studies, or preventing their families from joining them, is unhelpful, bigoted and short-sighted.
British society is still one of the most tolerant in the world and has a tradition of welcoming people from overseas whether for a short or long term; but the evil spirit of Brexit and the xenophobia it encourages has yet to be expelled. Smearing migrants as invaders and exploiters might help to score some cheap points at right-wing gatherings such as the National Conservatism Conference, but survey after survey demonstrates that the UK public harbors very positive attitudes to immigration compared to most countries, and especially in its belief that immigration strengthens cultural diversity. It is for British politicians to listen to the voice of the people and not to what might satisfy some segments in the party or its client media such as the Daily Mail.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg