Beware the numbers game on Romanian and Bulgarian workers

Romanians not going to UK. EPA/Marc Tirl

It is tempting to try and use the recent release of figures from the labour force survey as a (metaphorical) stick with which to hit the likes of UKIP and Migration Watch who predicted that huge numbers would arrive.

Many on the other side of the debate have grasped upon the news enthusiastically as proof that the storm of panic played out in the media in 2013 was fuelled by shameless “scare-mongering”. However, this would fall into the trap of entering the immigration “numbers game” – precisely the territory that favours those seeking to use the issue to stoke popular fears.

On the face of it the figures from the labour force survey for the first quarter of 2014 do show a small decrease in the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK labour market: down around 4,000 compared to the last quarter of 2013. This would indeed seem to provide early evidence that there has not been a significant surge in migration from these two countries following the lifting of restrictions on 1st January 2014.

Statistics are pliable

However, headline statistics on numbers of foreign born either working in the UK or entering and leaving the country are notoriously inaccurate and also dangerously reductive. Ignoring the complexities behind them and simply focusing on the aggregate figures plays right into the hands of UKIP and Migration Watch. Those organisations will have little difficulty in twisting and contorting those and other figures (either now or later) to extrapolate or predict whichever number they need to make their arguments.

But numbers mean nothing without interpretation. The UKIP/Migration Watch argument is that the net increase in population due to migration over time poses an existential threat to the UK. Pointing to a reduction in the rise in migration in order to challenge this argument is self-defeating and will be music to their ears. Effectively it implies a concession of the central point that more immigration must be a bad thing. It also means that any subsequent rise in the figures can be fired straight back as counter-evidence.

It is the ideas that give meaning to these numbers which should receive greater scrutiny. There have been some good attempts – see, for example, the excellent guide to myths on immigration developed by Class and Red Pepper but these risk falling into another trap: mirroring the simplicity of the UKIP/MigrationWatch claim – immigration threatens the UK – with another – immigration is economically beneficial to the UK.

If we reduce the migration argument to costs and benefits this justifies stricter controls on migration if the numbers “dictate”. Immigration is about jobs and economics, but it is also about families, friends and communities. A simple response to a complex issue is the natural instinct of both the authoritarian and the partisan, but it rarely makes for good policy. Increases in the use of detention for non-criminals and many elements of the new Immigration Bill (particularly on removal of citizenship) show where this is leading. The war of statistics over migration has real, human, casualties.